“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.

“Towns,” writes the poet Anne Carson, “are the illusion that things hang together somehow.” Today on Collicello Street, the illusion is particularly strong: everything hangs together in an unbroken atmosphere of warm, steady wind and muted light. The magnolias make dark green plumes against a unified background of grayish-white houses, tin roofs, and a misty sky that seems to have absorbed the color of the tin into its deep, plush folds. Walking downtown is like plunging into a lukewarm bath, swimming south toward the melted, blue-gray watercolor wash of the clouds, against which darker clouds with stronger edges stand out, plumes and smoky columns drifting in slow motion. Turning east, I can count at least a dozen different layers of cloud. Are they behind one another or on top of each other? It’s hard to tell. The panorama of the sky keeps shifting, backlit by a silver light. Its soft grayness infuses everything, even the green of the trees.

For more than ten years, I lived in deserts. I remember hard, stinging winds, gritty with sand and salt. There were slapping breezes chilled by the ocean, hot gusts whipping over barren hills, choking winds laden with dust, charred highway winds like the blast of hairdryer. Here, there’s no hardness in the air. The flag on the tower of the poultry plant moves lazily in a balmy draft, looking pink in the distance, a small blot of taffy-like color between the purplish gray of the sky and the metallic, brownish, rabbit’s-pelt gray of the tower. There’s the greenish gray of a bronze statue in a yard, a small boy and girl cuddling together. The thick gray of peeling porch steps, split to reveal a yellowish, rotting interior. The clear flawless gray of a newly painted house. The dark, pebbly gray of the asphalt, capturing the heat, sending waves of warmth back into the grayness of the day.

Even the wind feels gray: it has the softness of a cat’s back. It seems to come directly from the clouds—those feline clouds, white or black or dark gray with a hint of rainy blue, like the Russian blue cat I had years ago, or charcoal gray like paw prints tracked across pale linoleum. In the cemetery, the wind pushes up against me just like a cat. It’s big, forceful in its affection, but too soft to do any harm, this animal of heated air, eighty degrees at least, that has taken up residence among the gravestones, in the streets, in the yards, all over town.

For the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant, a certain kind of thinking was gray. He wrote about what he calls, in the translation of Betsy Wing, “the dove gray of thought.” This image remains mysterious and attractive to me. How can thinking be gray, with the softness of a dove’s throat? Glissant used this kind of thought to consider his landscape, tracing the sand and vegetation, lingering on a horizon “interwoven in variations of gray tinged blue with black, where space increases.” It’s as if his gentle, slowly probing thought found space to expand in the warm, overcast, tropical atmosphere. The word Betsy Wing translates as “dove gray” is grège, which can mean raw silk or its delicate, uncertain color. Does soft, silken air, stirred by only the lightest, most caressing breeze, extend an invitation to contemplation?

I’m tempted to say yes, circling among the quiet little gardens of my city, passing the castle-like house on the corner, its silvery-gray turret shading to white against a sky that promises rain. I think of William Carlos Williams, who, in Paterson, his love letter to his own town, wrote of “the green and dovegray countries of the mind.” I’m fascinated by this coincidence—the way these two lyrical thinkers, Williams and Glissant, separated by time, space, and language, came up with such similar descriptions of a state of mind: an image of dim softness, intimately linked to an idea of space, to the act of writing about a landscape.

A humid stillness fills the valley with steam, swelling the wood of the houses, the juicy veins of the leaves. Is there a particular kind of thinking stimulated by such an atmosphere, an open, tentative philosophical attitude, like Glissant’s? Perhaps this is going too far. After all, the deserts where I used to live are strongly associated with contemplation and the inner life. Since ancient times, prophets have retired to the desert to receive their visions. That stern, ascetic climate is the haunt of monks and mystics.

I wouldn’t want to draw too strong a connection between an environment and the kinds of ideas produced there or the ways people live their lives. Yet I feel certain we are marked indelibly by landscapes. A town, it seems to me, is not only the illusion that things hang together but a genuine collaboration of things. Assembled and entangled, these things become more than the sum of their parts. They take on a collective energy. This might be what we mean when we say a city has a vibe, a personality, or even a heart.

Am I a different person now than I was when I lived in the desert? There’s something strange and a little disturbing about the idea of being shaped, independently of one’s will, by a landscape. Yet how enticing it is, this feathered weather. In the incredibly long summer evening, when the sun seems to be gradually disintegrating rather than setting, dropping its petals with infinite slowness like a rose, streaks of pink enter the cloud-hung sky. Fuzzy gray lamb’s ear grows densely near the curb, celadon-colored, gray as jade. I could happily melt into this lovely air, surrender to its influence, let it carry my thoughts where it will, cradled by its fragrance of mown grass and the hint, even before it arrives, of the fresh scent of petrichor, the odor of the earth after rain.

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