In Deep Time

“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.

On this warm, cloud-flecked day, the city wears its summer palette: green and gray with occasional pops of brighter color. Walking uphill from Chicago Avenue, I pass heaps of gravel from construction projects, mouse-colored brick buildings, trees in full leaf, light-green grassy lawns. In the general tints of gray and green, flashes of stronger pigment stand out: a yellow bulldozer motionless in its Sunday sleep, orange cones around the construction sites, a lava-pink plastic bag, a yard aflame with peonies and roses.

Wind in the trees. I’m walking up toward the water tower at the Mennonite university, through a sleepy, squeaky-clean neighborhood, the houses spruce and well-maintained, their gardens kaleidoscopes of pansies, marigolds, geraniums, and long purple spines of catmint. There’s a yard full of tumbling moss, another dusted with pinkish-gray clover. It’s one of those days when you can really breathe. The breeze sweeps away the odor of the poultry plants, a fresh stream of air that seems to come directly from the mountains, delicate and balmy, flowing through a mellow atmosphere just touched with a little golden light.

In the Friendly City, there are days that are too hot and days that are too cold, but also an extraordinary number of perfect days: hours of light so inviting, tranquil, and refreshing, it’s almost startling how well they fit the human form. As I walk up behind the brick buildings of the small university on the slope, bathed in delicious coolness by the trees, a strange awareness of deep time tingles on my skin. We have grown together for thousands of years: the hills, the trees, the air, and me. In the variegated swirl of light and shade beneath the leaves, I feel it in my marrow: I was made for this planet.

I think of this as a fairytale feeling, after the scholar Max Lüthi, who points out that the protagonists of fairy tales—often small, poor, and weak—find aid and comfort in the natural world. Birds fly down from the trees to warn them of danger. Fish spring from the fountains to offer advice. A river lowers its waters to let the lost child cross. Fairy tales, writes Lüthi, represent the human being as vulnerable and isolated, but with “the capacity for universal relationships.” A child in these stories can make friends with anything in the world: a dramatization of the fundamental link between human and nonhuman life.

I tramp uphill on a path of close-set pebbles whose ochre and cream-colored patterns remind me of the bread little Hansel drops on the forest path in the tale of Hansel and Gretel, thinking of the German-speaking settlers in this valley, like the Mennonites who founded the university where I’m walking. When they came to this place, did they feel a resonance in the landscape? I remember once, on a trip to Nevada, learning about the large Basque community there, who were drawn to the echo of their native Pyrenees in that rugged, elevated region. I wonder if the German speakers who came here felt a similar pull, a sense of rapport with these green hills and cloud-hung skies. As I stand on the peak, the keen, exhilarating breeze rushes into my face, and the water tower looms over me, adding another neutral tint to the atmosphere, gray with a hint of robin’s-egg blue. From here I can see hills in both directions: toward town, across a sea of leaves interspersed with rooftops and the towers of the plant, Massanutten unfurls its steel-blue crest; on the other side, dark banks of trees roll into the distance, rippling like water, the forested mountains growing hazy in the distance, a line of silver running along the top of the ridge before draining upward into the blue bowl of the sky.

I have read that many early settlers in this valley were Germans from the Palatinate—an area of southern Germany which, according to an online image search, looks remarkably like the view from the top of this hill. I imagine they felt their stories would suit this place: ancient tales of buried treasure, of diminutive men digging in the hills, of the lost child searching for the glass mountain who sees the kindly stars around her, each one sitting on its own little chair.

Stories like these are the oldest tales we know, reaching back as far as human history, laced with myth, philosophy, and the earliest science. According to some scholars, the seven dwarfs in the tale of Snow White are related to the seven planets of medieval astronomy and the seven noble metals of the alchemists. They are spirits of the hills, their daily round taking them into the depths of the earth in a reflection of the celestial circle. We can read, in these friendly little men, a vision of the whole cosmos coming to the aid of a single lonely child.

Fairy tales express the feeling of having evolved with and for a landscape. They are stories of deep time. If German settlers found a place for their stories in these hills, and if the Scots-Irish who came with them also felt an interior chord at the sight of an undulant country under a misty sky, how strong the bond must be that links the Monacan Nation to this valley after millennia of coevolution. Walking back downhill, I think of the story told by a young Monacan dancer, a tale that took shape in the dance she performed in a dress decorated with 365 jingling metal cones. A dance of days, of time, of the turning of the year. A man’s daughter was ill, the dancer said, and no one could heal her. One night he had a dream, and in the dream he saw a dress covered with shimmering cones. “The cones jingled against one another, making beautiful music as the dress swayed upon an ethereal form.” The man asked his wife to make such a dress and dance beside their sick child. And when the daughter heard the jingling, she was cured.

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