|A Brief Review of
Learning the Valley:
Reviewed by Mary Bowling.
It is refreshing to read the writings of someone who cares about where he is. John Leland who, as it happens, is not a native of the Shenandoah Valley, clearly does. In Learning the Valley, he reflects on where he has come from and where he is now — Lexington, Virginia. The book is a collection of short essays — most are around five pages — that muse on various aspects of the Shenandoah landscape. Subjects include Mosquitoes, The Natural Bridge, Cedars, Stone Walls, Hay Bales, Running the River, and the like. Most of the essays are written in a leisurely, meandering style that complements the subject material and has both the function and the feel of a walk through the woods. Leland’s use of evocative language and sensual detail bring the mountains, forests, and rivers close to the reader and make the essays the next-best-thing to actually being there.
The essays, some of which may seem to have been written while in a euphoric state of intimacy with the Valley itself, have been well researched and include much of the political and natural history of the region. Leland finds strong relationships between the landscape and those who inhabit it. For instance, the essay entitled “Massanutten” details Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s military campaign through the valley, his success owing largely to a useful knowledge of the terrain. He also finds more subtle relationships, as in “Sugar Creek”, wherein he likens a creek that suddenly leaves it bed for hidden underground paths to a wandering spouse. Connections are drawn between people and the landscape on large and small scales, the mutual influence being a source of inspiration for Leland. We see the influence of the Shenandoah Valley on several historical figures as well as on Leland himself, and his son, Edward. The geological roots and foundations of the valley are pondered in several of the pieces, where it becomes clear that for Leland history and science have a lot to say about this place, but God seems absent at best in his view.
Leland is clearly taken with this place, as many others have been before him. That comes through in his writing. And the tone and feel of his essays convey an appreciation for his surroundings that is generally hard to find. It is quite a treat then, to read all of the forms that appreciation for place can take and why it is due.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com