Kate Abbott: Celebrating five years on the Berkshires Week beat

Thursday January 3, 2013

'Fifteen years ago, Kate Marquis and a dozen other Williams College students gathered to sing harmonies from Shakespeare's time -- for the sheer pleasure of it.

It was her freshman winter in college, she said, and she missed her high school madrigal group, so she created one; January at Williams College is a month to experiment and revel."

These are the first words I wrote for Berkshires Week. The Elizabethans, the group Marquis formed, are coming up on their 20th reunion now -- students and alums will sing together on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m. in Thompson Chapel, and

And I have been at the Eagle for five years, almost to the day.

Five years. What a run, people. What a run.

As I look forward to five more, and as the new year begins, I look back over the way I've come so far, and I marvel.


I look for high points to share with you, and they crowd together.

On a clear morning in mid-August, I wind up a mountain road with a stack of books and notes on the passenger seat. I can't believe I get to do this, and I have been reading and writing questions for days.

Richard Wilbur lives in Cummington accross from a pasture of heifers and a cornfield. He has been National Poet Laureate. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award twice. And he's willing to talk to me.

He invites me into his studio, a weathered outbuilding lined floor-to-ceiling with books, family photographs and his father's paintings. his typewriter sits in the sun by a tall window.

I have loved Wilbur's poetry for 20 years, because he writes in rhyme as natural as a warm rain -- because he knows the names of meadow flowers and the smell of the earth -- and because he has the grit to write about making more than breaking. "There's a certain scope to that long love which constant spirits are the keepers of, and which, though taken to be tame and staid, is a wild sostenuto of the heart ..."

We talk for nearly two hours about patience and the strength of daily things and the kind of comedy that pierces.


On a later September afternoon, novelist Roxana Robinson looks out from her porch and over the lake, and we sip ice water. I am tired as I can only be in September, after months of sprinting full-tilt, and we are looking forward together to the literary festival at the Mount. She tells me that in any story, it's the struggle that matters, and characters matter most to her when they are struggling toward the light.

Li Ju writes me generously from China about his contemporary photography at the Clark Art Institute. From my desk at night, I reach Terrance Houle, Blackfoot performance artist, photographer and film-maker from Calgary, who tells me about the strengths his people have lost and kept, and about the day a curator from Mass MoCA followed an instinct to his studio.

Near Easter week, the farm manager at Hancock Shaker Village puts a newborn lamb into my arms.

Maria Soria from Ambato in Ecuador, Lucia Quizhpi from Deleg in Ecuador, and Gabriela Cruz from Oaxaca in Mexico, who now live in Lee, Great Barrington and Sheffield, gather in Housatonic to talk with me about Easter as they remember it from their childhoods, and they offer me a bowl of bean soup with bacalao.

Mari Andrejco rehearses Emily Dickenson poetry in a barn in Otis and performs it by candlelight. Barry Lopez, home from an arctic exploration, picks up his phone in Oregon to talk with me about polar bears and about how to get to know a place as closely as a person, a living place bitten and buzzing.

Thom Smith takes me kayaking around floating peat islands to see rose pagonias and pitcher plants, bladderwort and tiny, sticky sundew with the orange edge to the clinging leaves.

Ed Mann, who played percussion for Frank Zappa, sets up a pattering rhythm on five gongs, like a resonant rainstorm.


I can't fit them all. They come thick and fast, and it's rare that I take the time to tell them over and feel the weight of them. Here's one.

Mid-way through my first August here -- as I learn by experience how to balance the size and time of the busy season -- I sit in my back yard with mud on my knees, catching my breath.

"The summer is mellowing. The Pleiades have almost blazed out. Looking back in a daze at my first sprint through this magazine, I sat on the grass, weeding out the jill-over-the-ground. It still amazes me that this place has handed me a printing press and let me play with it.

I went looking for snapdragons at Whitney's Farm Stand. The greenhouses smelled like honey. I found sage and golden columbine instead, and a tub of yellow pansies.

Catching the drips from a chocolate, orange and coconut ice cream cone, while a man in a Mr. T haircut and earring quietly bought grain for his son and daughter to feed the goats, I wanted to thank people -- everyone who gets up at 5 a.m. to pick butter-and-sugar corn and sell it off the barrow, everyone who plays music on the sidewalks, everyone who has taken an extra five minutes to send me photos, everyone who has pulled out a story for me on short notice.

Everyone who ever has the guts to walk up to a stranger and say tell me about yourself."


I work with a roomful of these people.

At the height of my first summer, I watch my first intern walk out the door on her last day.

"When you professionally juggle a few dozen eggs, torches, lollipops and gold turnip watches at a time, it's good odds you'll drop one eventually and have to catch it on the rebound or ask someone from the crowd to throw you a balloon instead.

She has thrown me a lot of balloons. She may not know how rare it is to have an intern who begins knowing the job and picks up new details in an afternoon. Who is always looking for more to do. Who steps into any new situation with competence, curiosity and humor. But I do.

And if on top of all that you can make each other laugh -- then you're just plain lucky."


I've had a lot of luck -- a lot of mentors -- and a lot of connections. So I look back now to that first story, and I'm thankful beyond words.

Madrigals "prove how much you can use your voice to praise life in a group," Marquis said. "This music is so much more than the sum of its parts."

Newspaper stories are like that too.

Praise life in a group -- that's what we do. We tell you what the Berkshire community feels like and sounds like and tastes like, what it works for and what it makes.

We talk to people. That's the soul of the job.

"That's what I missed, that January," Marquis told me on the phone five years ago. "You can't do this alone."

To reach Kate Abbott:
or (413) 496-6244
On Twitter: @berkshiresweek


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