Appropriately for this blog, I actually went walking the Berkshires recently. The scale and scope of this whole thing has ranged farther afield than originally contemplated, but while I like the mix that has emerged - and apparently so do a considerable number of you, dear readers - it felt good to get back to my roots and take a ramble to one of my old Berkshire haunts and this time I had my children for company.
Emily and Elias are at that magical age when they like nothing better than a tromp through the woods and are too exited about the adventure to ask to be carried. At six and three they are curious about the world around them and able to hike considerable distances, but this was the first time I tested our mutual endurance by suggesting we climb Monument Mountain, an eminence of gleaming quartz rising steeply above the village of Housatonic midway between Great Barrington and Stockbridge Massachusetts and affording panoramic views of 4 states.
It was a cold November day but the sky was clear and there was little wind. Throwing together a picnic lunch and a few essentials, we set out to climb the mountain and feast on its craggy summit. A couple of key omissions were soon discovered - notably that Emily's gloves had remained behind - but as you can see in this photograph my big black ones served her as mittens. My "garlic mustard patrol" cap, awarded for Best Invasive Species-related Post by the Invasive Species Weblog, was likewise commandeered by my daughter to ward off that low angle sunlight, but these minor difficulties addressed by stoic paternal sacrifice we continued our journey without further delay or mishap.
Monument Mountain is a Berkshire treasure, conserved and stewarded since the 1899 through ownership by The Trustees of Reservations, one of America's first land trusts. The mountain is the dominant feature of this landscape and has a storied past. It once had a cairn of stones from which it derives its name, a monument erected slowly over time by the native peoples of this region. Local luminary William Cullen Bryant obscured its origins in his 1824 poem "Monument Mountain" with romantic imaginings about the grave of an Indian maiden who hurled herself from the cliffs out of unrequited love. Bryant may have gotten his history wrong, but nearly 200 years later his poem does manage to convey something of the feel of this remarkable place:
"...Sheer to the vale go down the bare old cliffs,--
Huge pillars, that in middle heaven upbear
Their weather-beaten capitals, here dark
With the thick moss of centuries, and there
Of chalky whiteness where the thunderbolt
Has splintered them. It is a fearful thing
To stand upon the beetling verge, and see
Where storm and lightning, from that huge gray wall,
Have tumbled down vast blocks, and at the base
Dashed them in fragments, and to lay thine ear
Over the dizzy depth, and hear the sound
Of winds, that struggle with the woods below,
Come up like ocean murmurs. But the scene
Is lovely round; a beautiful river there
Wanders amid the fresh and fertile meads,
The paradise he made unto himself,
Mining the soil for ages. On each side
The fields swell upward to the hills; beyond,
Above the hills, in the blue distance, rise
The mighty columns with which earth props heaven..."
Other Berkshire authors have made mountain excursions here, none more famously than Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who first met on a picnic on Monument Mountain in the early 1850's. Hawthorne's publisher, James T. Fields, recalled that Melville "bestrode a peaked rock, which ran out like a bowsprit, and pulled and hauled imaginary ropes for our delectation." An earlier sojourner, Rev. Timothy Dwight, President of Yale University, visited the Berkshires in 1798 and recorded these impression of the mountain:
"After passing the ridge of the mountain, the country on the north opens beautifully to the eye of a traveler. The mountain itself extends on its eastern front a magnificent and awful precipice, formed by ragged, perpendicular cliffs of white quartz, and rising immediately west of the road between five and six hundred feet. Beyond it spreads the valley of the Housatonic, here running for several miles from east to west, and the fine hills by which it is bordered. In the valley and on the hills, the farms and houses ornament the landscape, while a variety of mountains by which the whole scene is encircled to the eye finish the view."
From its jagged summit - the Devil's Pulpit - one looks out over the Housatonic Valley between the Berkshire and Taconic Ranges and across to the Catskills. This photograph, facing north, overlooks Stockbridge with Mount Greylock, highest point in Massachusetts, visible near the horizon more than 40 miles distant with Vermont's Green Mountains just beyond. It is a very steep climb over 600 feet of elevation gain, but Emily and Elias managed to make it to the top after little more than a hour.
There were waterfalls to watch spilling over stones and dashing down clefts in the mountainside. We found acorns with missing caps and birch trees perched above the ghosts of their nurse logs. We learned to name the trees by their bark alone, and heard the throaty rasp of a crow in the pines.
We clambered up the rocks, Elias holding my hand but still keeping pace with his mountain goat of a sister, and triumphantly ate our picnic where the great authors did before us, flushed with the excitement of our accomplishment. We took the longer, more gradual descent down the western side of the mountain, gazing up from time to time and wondering aloud; "Did we really climb all the way up there?" This was the first of a series of hikes we three took together that week, accumulating confidence and memories with every step and learning the stories the land has to tell.