Judy Waters: Berkshire summers' legacy of art and nature

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FITCHBURG — Despite the chill of May and early June, another golden Berkshire summer is near. Whether it's watching fireworks at Wahconah Park, canoeing the surface of Pontoosuc Lake, sitting beneath a canopy of stars at Tanglewood, or exploring pristine forests, summer in the Berkshires creates lasting memories.

Shaped by mountains and valleys, jeweled with lakes and ponds, there is no mistaking the serene quality of the gentle Berkshire hills. It was this tranquil landscape that historically drew artists and writers to the area, especially in summer. Today, the Berkshires remain a summer and year-round destination for artists as well as those who seek a connection to nature and the outdoors.

Inspired, Pittsfield historian Joseph (Edward Adams) Smith published in 1852, his "Taghconic: Letters and legends of our summer home." From Lenox to Wahconah Falls, complete with anecdote and opinion, the often poetically written work cited exquisite scenery and wildlife, effectively an early piece of travel literature for the Berkshires. ("History of Pittsfield 1915-1955, Willison.)

'Stout-hearted' local

Under the pseudonym Godfrey Greylock, Smith captured Pittsfield's favorite summer refuges. "Berry Pond! The name falls sweetly on the ear," he wrote, and "fills the mind with images of cool and crystal waters," adding that the Pittsfield State Forest pond took its name not from surrounding wild blueberries, but after a "stout-hearted" local who had resided nearby.

Smith revered the "winding Housatonic," and especially Onota Lake, or West Pond as formerly called, with its "image of the mountains, sharply reflected in the clear waters, in the green leafiness of June," and where, "Perhaps, as you look, a broad winged eagle will appear above you."

But Smith also looked north, describing a lively hike with friends up Mt. Greylock in the summer of 1851. After the group reached the peak, they picnicked and slept over night in a "rickety" tower (an early tower had been built in the 1830s), awakening to find the mountain enveloped by mist. Smith invited a friend to contribute the story.

"Like a dissolving view, the vapory veil began to be withdrawn, and the sunshine to illuminate and animate Nature." Uplifted, in the pristine air, the hikers experienced awe and joy at the panorama below. Today, as then, it seems nature is good for our brains and our moods, especially when we are free from electronic devices.

In the 20th century, as now, Berkshire summers brought a flurry of cultural events. Pittsfield's arts community grew while hotels and restaurants bustled. Film, stock theater companies, choruses, and community concerts were popular. Pittsfield's longstanding Town Players directed summer drama programs at the Girls' Club, and the Little Cinema was formed. Pittsfield's lakes were favorite destinations, while community arts improved quality of life. To cover expanding events in the region, The Berkshire Eagle originated its Berkshires Week supplement. It was a different economy, a different era.

Today Pittsfield continues to proudly celebrate its arts heritage with initiatives that are helping to revitalize North Street. In a time of the city's growing diversity, increased access to cultural events can help to build inclusiveness.

Idyllic landscape cannot obscure economic struggles or a complex, ongoing statewide opioid crisis. But the Berkshires' tranquil, unique surroundings give us pause in our busy lives. In the Berkshires, through both art and the presence of nature, we connect, share, and break down barriers.

Last year's Berkshire summer memories are still fresh for me, among them, a shy owl in Richmond, a favorite river scene in West Pittsfield, and the company of good friends. Our country has changed historically since then, amidst division and chaos.

Create new memories

Importantly, for the Berkshires, this summer, the Rest of River PCB clean-up of the Housatonic River faces new vulnerability (Eagle, June 1). Summer 2017 will prove to be one of vigilance, and gratitude for the dedication of Berkshire residents to the environment. Berkshire forests, lakes, and rivers are precious natural resources that need protection; they contribute to the quality of life for all who share the distinct Berkshire landscape.

Our memories are often the most precious fruits of summer. When finished with their inspiring hike up Mt. Greylock, historian Joseph Smith and friends returned to their "normal" life below. Smith summed the journey "as a pleasant pause of life, a shrine for memory to return and refresh itself at, when cares and trials make us weary. Again I would say, go to Greylock, commune with your own heart and be still."

Whether atop Mt. Greylock, aside a Berkshire lake, or uplifted through music or art, we welcome the opportunity to celebrate, to find tranquility, and to create summer memories once again.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former resident of Richmond.


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