We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Learning the Valley

Excursions into the Shenandoah Valley

John Leland

Publication Year: 2012

In Learning the Valley, award-winning nature writer John Leland guides readers through the natural and human history of the Shenandoah Valley in twenty-five short essays on topics ranging from poison ivy and maple syrup to Stonewall Jackson and spelunking. Undergirding this dynamic narrative of place and time is a tale of selfdiscovery and relationship building as Leland's excursions into the valley lead him to a new awareness of himself and strengthen his bond with his young son, Edward. Spanning some two hundred miles through the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains in western Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley is the prehistoric home of mastodons and giants sloths, the site of a storied Civil War campaign, and now a popular destination for outdoor adventures to be had beneath the oaks, chestnuts, hickories, maples, and centuries-old cedars. Leland offers informed perspectives on the valley's rich heritage, drawing from geology, biology, paleontology, climatology, and military and social history to present a compelling appreciation for the region's importance from prehistory to the present and to map the impact of humanity and nature on one another within this landscape. Leland's essays are grounded in recognizable landmarks including House Mountain, Massanutten Mountain, Maury River, Whistle Creek, Harpers Ferry, and Student Rock. Whether he is chronicling the European origins of the valley's so-called American boxwoods, commenting on the nineteenth-century fascination with sassafras, or recalling his son's first reactions to the Natural Bridge of Virginia and its ncompassing tourist developments, Leland uses keen insights, adroit research, and thoughtful literary and historical allusions to bring the "Big Valley" vibrantly to life. An amiable and accomplished tour guide, Leland readily shares all he has learned in his years among the woods, waters, and wildlife of the Shenandoah. But the heart of his narrative transcends the valley and invites readers to find their own sites of adventure and reflection, to revisit the wonders and mysteries to be found in their own backyards as a chance to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "live like a traveler at home."

Published by: University of South Carolina Press


pdf iconDownload PDF (115.5 KB)
pp. 1-5


pdf iconDownload PDF (24.3 KB)
pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

pdf iconDownload PDF (42.8 KB)
pp. vii-viii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (35.8 KB)
pp. ix-x

I have spent twenty-five years living in Rockbridge County, Virginia, the natural wonders of which are so manifold and marvelous that a lifetime would not suffice to know them all. For the past thirteen years, my son, Edward, and I have tramped and hiked and biked and canoed the rivers, caves, mountains, woods, and fields of this place he calls home ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (35.4 KB)
pp. xi-xii

I wish to thank Alice Ireland and Cheves Leland for reading an early version of the manuscript and making excellent suggestions; the patient and helpful staff at Preston Library of the Virginia Military Institute for their assistance, especially Diane Jacob and Mary Kludy of the archives, ...

read more

Sugar Creek

pdf iconDownload PDF (25.4 KB)
pp. 1-3

All maps—the county, topo, geological—agree that here, right here, in this leaf-strewn, dry-as-dust rock rut runs Sugar Creek. But here there is only rock without water, a stone bed lumpier and dustier than mine at home. The Balls, who pretend to live alongside Sugar Creek, remember when the creek rose and ran here and they feared for their basement. ...

read more

Rock Crystals

pdf iconDownload PDF (30.7 KB)
pp. 4-6

Although it is tempting to look at the forest around us as we hike House Mountain, Edward and I have eyes only for the ground, seeking the glint of sun against stone. We are hunting crystals. ...

read more

The Shenandoah Sea

pdf iconDownload PDF (37.9 KB)
pp. 7-11

When temperature inversions trap warm air in the valley, fog forms, islanding House, Jump, and Hogback Mountains, until noon, when the sun burns off the clouds, and the valley returns to being a valley. But while the fog lasts and I’m perched on a hill lapping House Mountain’s flanks and I look over the southwesttrending archipelago of Short Hills, ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (160.7 KB)
pp. 12-15

Many a valley resident has reason enough to lament that we live in karst country. Unlike our usual two-dimensional perception of topography, karst topography, named after Kras, a region in Slovenia, exists in three dimensions, often reaching invisibly hundreds of feet underground. So in Rockbridge County what you see may not be what you get. ...

read more

Rock Castles

pdf iconDownload PDF (27.7 KB)
pp. 16-20

Little House Mountain, the closer ridge to Lexington, hides a castle on its summit. Where it rises highest, the sandstone bedrock has eroded into a warren of room-sized mini mesas, each rising twenty feet above the ground, separated from its neighbors by narrow, winding corridors perfect for getting lost in, playing hide and seek, ...

read more

The Natural Bridge

pdf iconDownload PDF (115.7 KB)
pp. 21-24

The Natural Bridge of Virginia so awed Thomas Jefferson that he wrote, “Few men have resolution to walk to [it] and look over into the abyss. You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ach [sic].” ...

read more

Stone Walls

pdf iconDownload PDF (35.9 KB)
pp. 25-29

The walls of House Mountain sink slowly back into the earth from which they were raised with few to mourn their collapse. Two hundred years ago the hardscrabble House Mountain men raised these monuments to muscle by clearing their fields. Today those who climb House Mountain and its county kin, North Mountain and the Blue Ridge, ...

read more

Geological Segregation

pdf iconDownload PDF (36.3 KB)
pp. 30-34

Exasperated at his refusal to obey, I warned Edward, “If you don’t behave, I’m gonna put you in the back of the bus,” a threat which, happily, he didn’t understand. Segregation’s been gone for half a century, and if southerners my age remember when buses and nearly everything else were divided along racial lines, our children don’t. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (287.4 KB)
pp. 35-41

Satellite photos reveal the Valley of Virginia to be but a part of the long curve of the Appalachians snaking up the east coast of North America and, from celestial heights, no more the Valley of Virginia than it is the Valley of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, or any other state ...

read more

Forest Communities

pdf iconDownload PDF (35.6 KB)
pp. 42-46

At certain seasons House Mountain looks as if its forests were arranged by color. In summer, the mountain is draped in green, but, come fall, this blanket shreds into arthritic fingers of green reaching valleyward against a yellow backdrop. Guidebooks confirm such color schemes, dividing the forest into distinct plant communities: ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (34.3 KB)
pp. 47-50

When we first got our sweaters out of mother’s cedar chest fifty years ago in the fall, they smelled of cedar as we put them on. To me the scent of cedar is a Norman Rockwell memory of fall and mother and childhood. Happily for me cedars are weeds in Virginia, so many growing along fence rows and in abandoned fields ...

read more

Maple Syrup

pdf iconDownload PDF (30.6 KB)
pp. 51-56

Upstream from its buried life, Sugar Creek behaves like a good mountain creek should, splashing along on a limestone creek bed from pool to riffle to pool, none deep enough for you to do much more than wade around in, chase minnows and water striders, and keep an eye out for snakes and turtles. ...

read more

Poison Ivy

pdf iconDownload PDF (36.8 KB)
pp. 57-61

We all learned from our parents or older siblings to beware leaflets three, although it takes a bout of itching to properly appreciate such cautions. And what is summer without a bout or two of poison ivy? It and its cousin poison oak are everywhere, even more plentiful today than before the arrival of Europeans, since neither does well in the thick shade of old-growth forests. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (32.7 KB)
pp. 62-65

Springtime is tea time, when I travel back fifty years and across two states to walk behind my father into the woods in search of sassafras. Then I needed no greater proof of his omniscience than his unfailing ability to lead me and my siblings to a sassafras thicket. ...

read more

Briar Patch

pdf iconDownload PDF (31.2 KB)
pp. 66-68

Midsummer, and I’m cursing the thorns that Celia’s blackberries have sprouted to keep me from their fruit. Ouch, ouch, and double ouch. They snag and tear at me as if malevolently alive—which I suppose they are, since they’re part of a plant, after all. Not that I’m supposed to think that intention governs the actions of blackberry thorns. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (35.8 KB)
pp. 69-73

Stone walls grow only where stone was so plentiful as to require moving. But almost all settlers needed something to wall out intrusive people and animals. The cheaper and less troublesome something, the better. So many turned to hedges as leafy barriers to trespass. ...

read more

Vegetable Armature

pdf iconDownload PDF (39.1 KB)
pp. 74-79

Vegetable armature, they call it, the thorns and spines and prickles that plants bear to our annoyance. While blackberries might explain the fundamentals of such armatures, there are trees in our woods so over-armed that scientists can only speculate as to what drove them to such distraction. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (36.7 KB)
pp. 80-84

Where I grew up, mosquitoes are a year-round thing, and even Santa Claus wears bug spray when he visits South Carolina. So I was delighted to discover that mosquitoes are a sometime thing in the Valley of Virginia. Not that they don’t live here. Down by the James River, where the land gets flat and boggy, they’re nasty. ...

read more

Spring Ephemerals

pdf iconDownload PDF (34.4 KB)
pp. 85-88

Dispirited by months of glum, gray, gloomy Virginia winter, I seek signs of light and life in bogs harboring skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which I first learned of as a child reading about exotic northern forests where these plants grew, generating their own inner heat to melt through the snow. ...

read more

Flying Frass

pdf iconDownload PDF (30.6 KB)
pp. 89-91

Slow summer days could once find me in the scruffy woods below the house, shaded by white pines (Pinus strobus) planted some twenty years ago, counting the yearly whorls of branches. Among them black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) had quickly grown up, many dead, killed by insects and fungi, the latter sprouting woody shelves along the trunks. ...

read more

My Civil War

pdf iconDownload PDF (148.2 KB)
pp. 92-95

Lexington is the Valhalla of the Confederacy, with both Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee buried here, and, nursery of more than eight hundred Confederate officers, the Virginia Military Institute one of the town’s two colleges. Twenty years of residence have accustomed me to much about Virginia, ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (25.4 KB)
pp. 96-99

In fall, when cold fronts blow south from Canada, blueing the skies and leaving the air fresh and clear with a crisp hint of cold to come, the monarchs appear, jibbing, tacking, and running before the wind like miniature galleons. Then I walk McElwee Road, following the creek up its gentle, as yet unmcmansioned valley, with cattle still grazing on either side. ...

read more

Running the River

pdf iconDownload PDF (98.0 KB)
pp. 100-105

Edward and I are lazying down the Maury River in a canoe I bought from the Livery after it started leaking too much to rent it out anymore. When the Maury swirling around our tennis-shoe clad feet reaches shoelace depth, it’s time to start bailing, but, until then, we let the river hitch a ride with us. ...

read more

Hay Bales

pdf iconDownload PDF (78.1 KB)
pp. 106-110

I have been in love with hay bales, square and round, ever since that long-gone summer when I paid the rent baling hay, the clattering baler spitting square bales out in ragged rows up and down and up and down the field, and me heaving bale upon bale on the wagon that tailed behind, and my roommate stacking, ...

read more

Sexual Swarms

pdf iconDownload PDF (38.6 KB)
pp. 111-116

The fraternities two blocks away are at their mating rituals again, mind-numbingly loud music syncopating with choruses of drunken screams of delight as groups of khaki-panted, polo-shirted look-alikes seduce giggling sorority girls with their puking antics. Birds do it, bees do it, we do it: sexual swarming, groups of males strutting their stuff before females, ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (114.9 KB)
pp. 117-128


pdf iconDownload PDF (334.3 KB)
pp. 129-134

E-ISBN-13: 9781611172249
Print-ISBN-13: 9781570039133

Page Count: 152
Publication Year: 2012