Lauren R. Stevens: Art, trails, a good mix


WILLIAMSTOWN — Berkshire County is abuzz about trails: Highland Foot Path, High Road, ring trails. . . a proposal may make more audible the buzz, and maybe cheeps, chirps, tinkles and psithurism the sawing sound of wind in the trees as well.

Charles Tracy, landscape architect and long distance trail planner at the National Park Service, believes in incorporating art into trail projects. These installations call attention to the natural attributes of their sites, luring people who might not otherwise attempt a walk in the woods. Art can also add a dimension to the experience of regular trail users.

Tracy reported that so far vandalism has not been a problem with these installations, in part because they are temporary and located where they get maximum exposure — such as near trailheads.

Paul Jahnige, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation`s Director of Greenways and Trails, responded by suggesting a sound trail, in which artists call attention to natural sounds or create complementary ones along a path. Both men were attending the annual meeting of the Mahican-Mohawk Trail Partnership in Shelburne Falls in February.

Jahnige noted that "trails are more than just a path . . . They are a sequence of events — visual, emotional, physical and sensory — all combined to create the trail experience." He focused on the 25-mile section of the Mahican-Mohawk from Mohawk Trail State Forest over the Hoosac Range to the Western Summit, a stretch he described as "one of the most wild and beautiful trails in the northeast."

The trail system of The Tourists hotel, in North Adams, includes a kind of xylophone that passersby can play. That sort of installation could reinforce and call attention to the natural sounds of the woods. Another possibility, perhaps solar-powered, could be train sounds where the Hoosac Range Trail crosses the Hoosac Tunnel — some 1,700 feet below. That, however, raises the issue of whether all the artists' sounds should be natural.

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Jahnige mentioned the psithurism at the Sacred Grove, a stand of 140-foot-tall pines near the upper meadow at Mohawk Trail State Forest. Perhaps an installation could call attention to the way the wind plays them. Or, another case, wind chimes might augment the sounds of the Norway spruce stand the Civilian Conservation Corps planted 85 years ago in Mohawk Trail.

Brooks provide an opportunity for water wheels. Bridges could include wires tuned like a harp, Jahnige continued. The crossing on the Cold River could include a listening site.

Animal sounds, again powered by a solar panel, could increase the trail experience, perhaps at a wetlands or a pond. Wind chimes at an exposed site might remind summer visitors of the sounds of winter, when branches covered with ice meet in the wind.

The Mahican-Mohawk Trail has a rich Native American heritage. Other art projects might attempt to capture that. Whether by storytelling or interpretive narration, art might attempt to recreate the setting and people who traversed the trail from prehistory to the time of contact with European settlers — and beyond.

These ideas captivated Mahican-Mohawk Trail partners and of course could be tried on any trails. As Jahnige pointed out, "Along this trail one can experience an amazing array of natural and perhaps soon augmented sounds, soundscapes and native voices of the past, present and future." Coming to a trail near you, human art articulating the art of nature.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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