University Walks

“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. 

There are two walks I often take on the campus of the large public university in the Friendly City: the Lake Way and the Hillside Way.

The Lake Way circles Newman Lake in the shadow of the stadium. On this golden, breezy April day, the clouds drift like celestial boats, their white sails reflected in the greenish water. In the warm sun, the air itself feels like water, a glorious cool stream. The lake appears as calm as a jade carving; the fountain that usually sends up a dramatic jet of spray from the center is still this morning. Only the Canada geese ripple the surface, turning from side to side their dashing black robber masks and calling out with harsh yelps like a pack of dogs. The Lake Way is brief; in minutes I’ve reached the road and have to turn back. I extend my excursion by ambling to and fro over the footbridge, greeting some acquaintances out with their dog (we know each other’s faces but not names, as is common in the Friendly City), and slipping past a row of brick dormitories adorned with Greek letters to explore a pedestrian tunnel beside the stream that runs into the lake. Strange signs have been spraypainted in this passageway: an eye, a sun, an abstract human figure. Crouching to keep from knocking my head on the low roof, I feel like an archaeologist who’s discovered evidence of a neolithic ritual. When I glance back over my shoulder, I see the lake through the cave mouth, which cuts off the view of the surrounding buildings, creating a scene of somber loneliness, the water lapping placidly at a rocky, ghostly, deserted shore.

To take the Hillside Way, it’s necessary to cross the railroad track, the creek, and the highway, those three great arteries that cut through the Friendly City. At the foot of a hill, near the university bookstore, I pass easily over the first two, hardly thinking about it, the creek trickling discreetly under the sidewalk, the railroad track almost blending into the landscape with its russet tones of dried pine needles and mulch. The interstate, though, is another matter. To cross it, I walk on a long bare overpass, devoid of shade, exposed to sun and wind, where there’s no bold color to catch the eye, only dull gray asphalt, pale gray cement, and the tinny gray of the chain-link fence meant to keep me from tumbling down onto the highway. The roar of the traffic below is immense, amplified by the hard surfaces. It’s a shock after coming through the west side of campus, where in the fine weather students loll on the quad, ringed by buildings made of the famous local bluestone, shaded by splendid Norway spruce, willow oaks, and Chinese elms, and the cherry trees decked out in their seasonal pink crepe. On this overpass, seeing, hearing, and feeling are all equally unpleasant. I hunch my shoulders and lower my head against the wind. The whole structure feels wrong, unplanned; surely the first architects of the school did not envision students trudging this concrete noise corridor on their way to and from class.

But grit your teeth and barge across, and walking will become a pleasure again. A hedge of spindle trees, their leaves freshly green and shiny as grapes, welcomes me to the East Campus Hillside, a project of the university’s environmental stewardship initiative. When I take the Hillside Way, following the path down to the creek, I feel time flowing strongly in two directions: toward the future, reflected in the ranks of black solar panels that occupy the hilltop, and toward the past, which flickers fitfully in the restored creek bed and the branches of native white oak, black gum, and hickory trees. More than four thousand years ago, I read on the project website, the ancestors of the Monacan Nation camped here by the stream. This place has been a forest, a farm, a pasture, and a lawn, and now it’s being coaxed back toward forest again. But time doesn’t flow backward, so maybe it’s better to think of time here as a spiral, much like the curving paths I walk on the side of the hill, the little trees, some of them still marked with plastic tags, representing a projection rather than a return of the old woodland. They are thin yet, delicate, barely screening the dark, pagoda-like rooftops of the recreation center from view, and providing almost no protection from the ceaseless din of the highway traffic. Shaking in the wind, as if still breathless from being transplanted, these child trees look about them in wonder, the red maple bashful in its pink dress edged with green, the serviceberry’s white ribbons trembling all over.

If, like me, you are not particularly knowledgeable about trees, I recommend taking your university walk with a copy of the tree guide, making use of the campus tree map, or following one of the university’s suggested seasonal walks. With these tools, you can give yourself a good rough course in tree identification. You can begin to greet these serene, rustling strangers by name—the purple-leaved plum in severe brown silk, the cucumber magnolia extending its branching array of enameled champagne flutes. Walking uphill toward the campus buildings, passing the twin ponds, peering down to see the family of turtles sunning themselves on a pipe, I breathe the spicy scent of the pines. I linger under a willow tree that tosses its heavy tresses as if bleaching them in the light. I think of the writer Marcel Proust, who wrote, “Soaring and erect, amid the vast offering of their branches, and yet rested and calm, the trees, through their strange and natural posture, invite us with grateful murmurs to feel kinship with a life so ancient and so young, so different from ours and yet appearing as its dark and inexhaustible reservoir.”

An outdoor amphitheater has been built into the side of the hill, its small stage encircled by white stone benches. I imagine performances are held here sometimes, but today it’s empty, providing a perfect spot for a passerby to stop and declaim, like an impromptu poem, the beautiful names of the trees down below: sweetgum, hornbeam, frosted hawthorn, honey locust, Kentucky yellowwood, black tupelo, loblolly pine.

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