Learning the Valley: Excursions into the Shenandoah Valley
By John Leland

University of South Carolina Press, 2010

Reviewed by Rachel Furey

In the preface to John Leland’s collection of essays Learning the Valley, the author states the book is “intended primarily” for his thirteen-year-old son, Edward, a dedication to the adventures the two have shared together exploring the natural wonders in Rockbridge County, Virginia, and a means through which, in coming years, his son can discover Leland’s own memories and insights to their escapades. Leland also hopes that other readers benefit from the collection, particularly that they “learn the land they live in” and come to recognize the nature that exists in their very own yards.

Given the preface, readers may expect several father and son moments to appear throughout these twenty-five short essays. However, Edward makes only rare appearances in the text and often for not more than a few lines at a time. But while those readers expecting a memoir recounting family moments may be disappointed, nearly every reader is likely to find at least one essay of interest. Leland’s book covers a wide range of topics, including natural wonders such as rock castles, man-made reminders of earlier times like rock walls, and frustrating outdoor pests, including mosquitoes. In “Flying Frass”—frass means insect poop—he urges readers to connect with the natural world in a unique manner. He suggests they try “aphid poop,” writing, “Pop it in your mouth and lick—you’re eating star spit, the sweat of gods.” Readers wouldn’t be the only ones to eat these secretions; ants feast on it as well.

None of the essays are longer than six pages, making the book a manageable read. Each essay is a tightly packed section of prose offering readers the lyrics of a memoir combined with the facts and insights of a nature or travel guide, as well as a hint of history that weighs more heavily in some essays than others. In “Poison Ivy,” readers learn how scientists have tested the plant on lab animals, that Thomas Jefferson grew poison ivy in his garden, and why some patients consumed poison ivy, making for a story that will shed new light on a plant familiar to the majority of readers.

Leland proves a patient writer, taking the same care with each sentence as he does with his son when cutting a Christmas tree: the end result has to be just right. Combining a careful eye for detail and an ear for sound, he’s able to construct vivid lines such as the one he uses to describe cedar apple rust fungus in “Cedars”: the fungus “looks like a purplish brown misshapen golf ball glued to a branch for the two years it takes to mature.”  Leland also shows adeptness for incorporating metaphor. In “Forest Communities,” he writes, “ten thousand generations of foraging squirrels, burying and forgetting their harvest, can move, if not mountains, then trees up mountains, and it is they who are thought to have wrought this slow miracle of reclothing the Appalachian Mountains.”

Although beautiful and lyrical sentences frequent the book, Leland doesn’t entirely shy away from humor. In “Sassafras,” he writes about sassafras tea and states, “What I teach my son might just poison him in ways undreamt of by the FDA.” Moments of humor include Leland’s son, such as in “Vegetable Armature”: “When he was younger, Edward and I picked the thorns off the younger locusts and licked and applied them to our foreheads, becoming rhinoceri.” And in “Flying Frass,” he writes, “while most caterpillars are content to let their loads drop where they will, one heaves its frass into the air…They call it scatapulting.” Leland captures the beauty of the valley. He also doesn’t hesitate to capture the less-than-beautiful attributes of some of the creatures that inhabit that valley.

As evidenced by his lengthy notes section, Leland’s research is thorough, serving as a sort of ballast around which to weave his sentences. Essays such as “The Natural Bridge,” in which quotes frequently appear, including the last line of the essay, may rely too heavily on research at the sacrifice of Leland’s lyrical voice; and sometimes, as a result of the amount of material packed into an essay, the ending feels strained as he tries to tie too much together at once. What often keeps the book from turning into a science lesson laced with history are Leland’s brief, and yet strategically placed, references to his son, as well as his willingness to humbly incorporate some very human moments of his own. In “Massanutten,” he mentions that he plays war games with his son, then adds, “I keep them from my cadets and colleagues, who think such daydreams inappropriate for English teachers.” In “Caves,” Leland shows a similar self-awareness combined with enthusiasm when he writes, “Every now and then I have to crawl through passages narrow enough to fool me into thinking I’m trapped, but which release me with a scrape and a twist.” His enthusiasm for the material shines particularly bright in moments such as these, moments in which the author admits to scraping through mud in order to investigate a cave, moments many readers may like to see more of.  

Ultimately, Leland’s title does begin with Learning, a clue to the layering of history and facts that he works into each of his essays, and while his own experiences with the valley are sometimes overshadowed by the rich history incorporated into the essays, he does allow readers to experience vivid moments with him, such as when he finds himself among migrating Monarchs, writing, “Looking left and right, I count one, two…and on and on and on, until I tire of being cerebral and run with the wind and the waves of butterflies and flap my arms and would fly south with them.” While readers may not so eagerly fly with each of Leland’s essays, given the wide range of topics and slight shifts in tone, most readers are bound to find at least a few essays in the collection that make them feel something like being surrounded by migrating monarchs and wanting to take flight, riding the lyrics of the prose to essay’s end.

~~~

Rachel Furey is currently a Ph.D. student at Texas Tech. She is a winner of Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize for Fiction and Crab Orchard Review’s Charles Johnson Student Fiction Award. Her work has also appeared in Women’s Basketball Magazine, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Waccamaw Journal, Hunger Mountain, The Prose Poem Project, Sweet, and elsewhere.

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