Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. . .a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.
Inspired by this quote from Joan Didion sent to me by a friend, I’ve set out to write more intentionally about Madison as a scenic place. Scenic not in the sense of the most beautiful places or views, as last week my topic was the power plant stacks, a view that not everyone would consider particularly scenic. But to write some about what Madison looks like, which is of course, connected to the kind of place Madison is. I’ve covered the streets, the windows and the stacks so far. This week, the valley.
Madison, in case you had not noticed, is in a valley. I say this as someone who has at times taken the beauty of a valley for granted. When I had been in Madison only a short while, a friend came to visit and declared, “It’s like being in the fjords in Norway,” having had direct experience of such things. Perhaps he compared Madison to Norway because he felt the need to put a good face on the fact that I was living in a small town in rural Indiana. Many people who don’t live in small towns in rural Indiana, and even some of us who do, sometimes feel a good face is necessary to cover for all the things we’re missing.
But maybe my friend was just truly struck by the beauty of our valley. This is the explanation I choose to believe. I lean towards this latter explanation because I know that it is often difficult to perceive the beauty of familiar landscapes. I’ve never been to Norway or seen a fjord, but I bet the people there live their whole lives think nothing of it, and wonder why people travel across the world just to see the view they take for granted.
What is beautiful about a valley? For me, it’s the way the valley makes things both visible and invisible. The valley is what gives us the view of Madison snuggled in against the river and the hill as you’re driving down the road across the river in Milton. The valley makes all of Madison visible, laid out before you like a town in miniature. But it also makes Madison invisible, as you have no idea that Madison is there, waiting for you, until you turn the bend and head down the steep hill. Because Madison is in a valley, it doesn’t march towards you at a distance on the horizon. It appears magically out of nowhere.
The valley plays with distances, making things that are far seem close. When I first began to spend time in my husband’s house in downtown Madison, I fell in love with the view in his bathroom mirror. At a certain angle, you could see the northern side of the valley reflected there–a bright green from the trees in summer or sometimes the white face of snow in winter. It was as if the landscape extended inside the house.
From the bathroom mirror in our house now, I can see the hills on the southern side of the valley. I can see Kentucky, which is a great comfort to a person who spent the first eighteen years of her life in that state and still considers it a home. As I brush my teeth in the morning, the view from the mirror reminds me that I have not really traveled that far from where I was born, and for me, that’s a good thing to know.
The valley turns the river into our very own lake. The river bends here at Madison, and you know it’s come from somewhere up river and that it’s headed somewhere down river. But you can’t see where those places are, cut off as they are by the hills. You can convince yourself that right here, the river is just ours. It is not just passing by. It belongs to us.
Looking down on the valley from above seems to suggest infinity, as if the whole world is made of nothing more than these kind of rolling hills and rivers. Tucked down inside the valley, you can believe that the world ends at the top of the hill, that this little space is all there is. That nothing from the outside world can truly matter that much to us.
Living in this river valley, you might start to feel that here, the earth has folded in upon itself in mysterious and magical ways. Or perhaps that we are all being carefully held in a gently cupped hand. Perhaps we are.