Lauren R. Stevens | Hikes & Walks: Hit the trails near the Bryant Homestead

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William Cullen Bryant (friends called him Cullen) didn't stay at Williams College even a year, leaving as a parting gift a poem that made fun of all the mud there. He became a lawyer — for a period in Great Barrington — a respected poet, fiction writer and editor.

He was born in a cabin near Cummington. When he was two, the family moved to a larger home nearby where they raised him. They sold that, which in his later life he bought back, added to and purchased an adjacent wooded area, all for a summer retreat. We direct our footsteps to that wooded area along a small stream.

As progressive editor of the New York Evening Post, he endorsed organized labor, the rights of religious minorities and immigrants, and was one of the key eastern supporters of Abraham Lincoln. He was a conservationist, involved in the creation of New York's Central Park. Asher Durand painted Bryant and painter Thomas Cole together in the Catskills — both of them had directed America's attention to the beauties of the Hudson River Valley.     

The Rivulet woodlands, about which Bryant wrote a poem posted there, is part of the Old-Growth Forest Network. It contains large hemlocks, an old cherry and 150-foot pines, among the tallest in the northeast. They follow, as do the trails, the Rivulet, a tributary to the Westfield River.

Getting to the Trustees of Reservations' Williams Cullen Bryant Homestead from Pittsfield is direct. We take Route 9 up and over Windsor, past Notchview Reservation, to West Cummington Road, right. West Cummington Road is at the bottom of the long hill, just before the bridge across the Westfield. At the five-corners we follow the sugar-maple-lined drive, right, to the parking area behind the large, red barn.

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The stretch across the fields and West Cummington Road to get to the wooded area counts as part of the two-plus miles walk. It also provides good views of the Homestead, wonderfully jumbled by its additions, and the rolling countryside, from a relatively high elevation. We follow near the drive past a pond that provides water for fire protection.

The kiosk across the road gives all the necessary information including that for a self-guided walk, with numbered posts at strategic locations. The yellow-blazed Rivulet Trail runs downstream along the edge of a ravine.

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As is often the case in the northeast, private property that hasn't been logged or served as pasture contains some of the oldest trees. Here we encounter an inspiring hemlock forest. Maintaining the trail must be arduous, as the old trees shed branches or fall.

The trail splits to make a lasso route. Let's continue straight, to do it counterclockwise. Eventually we take a hard left, as the trail takes some odd jags, crossing a bridge. The Rivulet Trail then goes left, but we go straight on an extension, called the Pine Loop; indeed, through an awesome stand of pine.

Again, we needn't be alarmed by the indirection as the trail swings left, right, left, etcetera, or by the wet footing laced with roots we pass through. Soon we pick up the Rivulet Trail again, coming in from the left. All sections of the route are blazed yellow. Then we turn right on the section of trail by the brook on which we entered the woods.

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Cullen left Williams College in hopes of attending Yale which, however, family finances precluded. Although some thought the poem that made Bryant's mark, "Thanatopsis," was inspired by a secluded glen in Williamstown, these woods were more likely the source, as they were for most of his poetry. Another poem of his, famous at one time, "To a Waterfowl," is also posted by the Rivulet.

In the days of COVID-19, the Homestead isn't open, but the trails are. Furthermore, so is a picnic area across the drive from the barn.

As the Trustees note, "his fame was so widespread that the centennial of his birth in 1894 drew thousands of people to the Homestead to celebrate his life and accomplishments." Fortunately, we needn't be so accomplished to enjoy the wooded paths and absorb the distinct atmosphere of the old and mossy trees. Maybe we'll write a poem about them.

Happy trails to you.

Lauren R. Stevens is author of "50 Hikes in the Berkshire Hills," Countryman Press/W.W. Norton, 2016.


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