Walk beneath the whale at Arrowhead

Thursday September 20, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- We left the parking lot behind Arrowhead, the Pittsfield home of author Herman Melville, to enter a wide, nicely mowed path beginning at a Nature Trail sign, through a field of late-summer flowers. The goldenrod, some taller than this writer, was ablaze in the low morning September sun.

Before I began my jaunt with Norma Purdy, we visited Melville's home. I know Norma through our mutual birding interests, and her daughters attended classes I taught many years earlier at the Berkshire Museum.

Waiting for us was Arrow head's director, Betsy Sherman. Following a private tour of the house and introduction to the trails, Norma, who volunteers at Arrowhead with its collections, and I returned to the parking area and began our walk. Mount Greylock to the north was easily visible beyond the just-mowed field where a pair of coyotes ambush field mice.

Greylock inspired Melville all his life, it is said, and in 1852 he dedicated his novel, "Pierre," to the looming mountain.

On our right, as we strolled through the tall golden flowers, a patch of mint drew our attention. Blue-violet flowers called loudly to butterflies, most notably the painted lady, cabbage and the monarch, now commencing its fall migration. Other smaller butterflies and bees joined the congregation of insects in a late summer frenzy.

This former pasture, now meadow, is home to more than 100 species of wildflowers, grasses, sedges and rushes. Among the mix dwarfed by goldenrod are milkweed, Queen Anne's lace, and black-eyed Susan. Above the tall blanket of wildflowers, Nor ma pointed out dragonflies, some called green darners, feasting on tiny flying insects, and remarked, "Fortunately for us, they like mosquitoes!"

It was a short walk up the moderate hill to a bench, where we learned Betsy's introduction was on the mark.

"At the top of the hill you'll have a view of our property below," she'd said, "and beyond, October Mountain and Wash ington Mountain, and directly north, Mount Greylock."

As we gazed off to the east across the valley to October Mountain, Norma commented, "This is a magnificent view, and when the leaves have changed it is just so beautiful."

Melville is credited with naming this mountain, because he could sit in his south parlor or on the piazza and the whole mountain was clearly visible in the distance. Enjoying its spectacular autumn splendor, he anointed it "October Mountain." There were no trees in the 1850s to block his view.

In autumn, these fields are a haven for migrating sparrows, as they were during the spring and summer family-rearing season, when field, chipping and song sparrows called them home, and bluebirds and tree swallows raised families in nest boxes erected by the Hoffman Bird Club.

Upon entering the woods, the trail we found was well marked with orange blazes. Norma pointed out the various birds she heard calling. Gone were the musical songs of spring, yet each bird we noticed offered up some note to help us name it.

Here in the cooler woods, shaded from the bright sunlight, ferns and mosses thrived, and in this season, mushrooms pop up overnight to delight the explorer. Plants that excited springtime visitors with much-welcomed flowers, like the Jack-in-the-pulpit, white baneberry and blue cohosh, now offer colorful berries, free for the viewing -- not eating.

These woods, not as extensive in Melville's day, provided him with firewood and other necessities. Part of this walk retraces an old carriage road Melville took while visiting relatives on property later transformed into the Country Club of Pittsfield, a route his children would frequent to play with their cousins.

The Nature Trail began as the Eagle Scout project of Jarrod A. Hanson of Scout Troop 8 -- Mount Carmel Church, Pitts field. And the self-guiding grounds tour guide available at the Barn gift shop offers lists of trees, wildflowers, birds and mammals a visitor may encounter.

The trail that we walked is free.


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