“The Friendly City” is a weekly column about walking in Harrisonburg that will run during 2024. Each week, your friendly correspondent, writer and teacher Sofia Samatar, will reflect on a walk in our city. 

“You have to be very happy to live in a small city,” the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector once remarked, “because it enlarges happiness just like it enlarges unhappiness.”

The wall of a stone house crisscrossed by branches resembles a leopard’s pelt in the late afternoon light: an asymmetrical grid of gray and brown and gold, with a dusty, almost fuzzy look where the sun touches it. The old house seems muscled like an animal; I would not be surprised to see it flex its shoulder, to watch this streaked fur ripple into life.

I am looping, walking a curved street on the hill above Woodbine Cemetery.

On my left a wide lawn sweeps down to the elegant old bed-and-breakfast tiered like a wedding cake with porches, balconies, and decks, its gravel drive spilling from its doorstep to trace a broad circle like an ancient moat on the green.

Looping, walking a path I’ve walked before, how many times? In my same jacket, the denim fraying at the cuffs.

The street bends gradually and then more forcefully to the left, striped with alternating bands of lemon-yellow and dark gray, the walnut trees and cedars casting their shadows across the crescent, their trunks standing tall, their branches weighted with needles or flecked with powdery spring green. The slim, straight trunks rise against the sloping arc of the street, while high in the air the black wires of power lines cut their way across the trees, inking an irregular pattern of rectangles on a flat blue sky flocked with downy tufts of cloud.

This first impression of the street is abstract, geometrical, the chance meetings of lines and curves oddly suggestive of design, like a chart by a medieval stargazer. The light turns the trunks and utility poles an identical shade of olive, as if the astronomer has sketched them with the same pencil.

As I walk the loop, I enter more fully into the space, my focus narrowing, seeing the man mowing his lawn, the tangled collection of children’s bikes, the house with its yellow door wide open so I can peep straight through to the green at the back, the people trimming trees in their yards or raking out old garden beds, the children in candy-colored bicycle helmets.

Bold contrast of the cobalt-blue house with pale pink shutters.

A statue of a horse in a backyard, a handsome bay almost the size of a live colt, waiting behind the white railing for some romantic escapee to leap from a window, land on its back, and ride into the light.

What’s the point of walking a path that goes nowhere, that only brings you back to where you were before?

A row of apartments, peach-brown brick with periwinkle shutters. A woman seated on a stoop who calls out, “Hi hon, how you doing?” A fantastic garden, the plants growing over the wall beneath the mullioned windows of an old stone cottage, built low as a hobbit house, surrounded by grasses and vines, the dark red licorice of peony stems, the taut spears of unopened tulips. Baskets, pails, and statues jostle in the greenery as if washed up against the house by a swelling tide—genial frogs with chipped white elbows, the rusty arch of a rose trellis, a bronze child stretching her hand over a pool.

The fact that this street goes nowhere is the reason I like to walk here, to tread the loop, to allow walking to become noticing, passing now the deep ravine that plunges between the backyards, a crack in the land so dark and rough it seems to come from the age of glaciers. Whiteness glints down there where someone has hung clothes on a line, there are plant pots scattered about, piles of bracken and broken barrels, and then the overgrown green hole in the earth, perhaps going down to the creek or even farther, to the planet’s core.

Recently, a friend of mine, a resident of the Friendly City for many years, expressed her surprise at how often people move back to this place. They attend one of the universities, go away, then return. They work here for a few years, stray, then retrace their steps. I said, “There must be a magnet in this valley.” Maybe it’s here, buried in the ragged gorge in the middle of this circular neighborhood, pulling all things toward it, lending an undertone of iron to the tart, nutritious, vegetable scent of the grass.

The valley itself is a loop, a circle. As I complete my own, smaller loop, returning to the lawn of the inn, I wonder if it’s true, as Clarice Lispector suggested, that small places enlarge what we bring to them. Maybe it’s what we build in such places—the grooves of habit, the deep familiarity with objects in a restricted space—that creates a kind of magnetism, filling things with significance so they exert a pull on the mind. This weathered old barn on the grass of the inn yard—how often I’ve stood near it, seeing it covered with snow, masked by twilight so that the silhouette of a man on horseback printed on its side fades to smoke, or, as now, lit up by the sun so that the torn flag in the window releases a ghost of its former red.

As I walk downhill through the cemetery, it feels as if I’m being drawn gently into a dim, luminous bowl along with the tints of all the flowers—the reddish-purple henbit, the violets scattered like fragments of lapis lazuli, the soft silver clusters of star-of-Bethlehem. When attention moves in a loop, circling around the same small space, it generates force. Walking home down Mason Street, I’m startled by the new mural on the Urban Exchange building: a chess player with pieces floating above his palm.

Stars surround him. A crescent moon. His board drifts in the cosmos. A game of chess, played on a strict grid, allowing a wealth of outcomes—what an image of the power of limited space!

Suddenly I remember looking out the window early this morning: how a single ivory daffodil in the neighbor’s yard seemed to make contact, through a long loop of alabaster light, with the Milky Way.

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