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Learning the Valley

Excursions into the Shenandoah Valley

John Leland



Published: Jul 6 2010


Published: Sep 7 2012

OA Ebook
Published: Sep 7 2012


The inclusion of this book in the Open Carolina collection is made possible by the generous funding of

Meanderings through a storied Virginia region with a look at its significance from prehistory to the present.

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 self-discovery 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 encompassing tourist developments, Leland uses keen insights, adroit research, and thoughtful literary and historical allusions to bring the "Big Valley" vibrantly to life. Like 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."

John Leland is the author of Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America, ForeWord Magazine's 2005 Book of the Year for Popular Culture, and Porcher's Creek: Lives Between the Tides, Second Place Winner in the 2003 Phillip D. Reed Memorial Award of the Southern Environmental Law Center. Leland is a professor of English at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.

"Eudora Welty once said that 'one place understood helps us understand all other places better.' John Leland shows his readers the Shenandoah Valley with such clarity and appreciation that we see not only his place in the world but our place in a new, deeper way. What a wonderful book"—Ron Rash, author of Serena, Burning Bright, and others

"John Leland has an eye for arresting details in the landscapes of Rockbridge County and other parts of the Shenandoah Valley. He reminds us, whether we are his neighbors or simply visitors, how complex and beautiful this place can be, if only we open our senses to it. The brief essays in this book are charming because they often seem written especially for Edward, Leland's young son and companion. With grace and humor, Leland guides the reader to learn the landscapes of the Shenandoah Valley"—James P. Warren, S. Blount Mason, Jr. Professor of English, Washington and Lee University

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