Learning Ahead: Berkshire Mountains

Berkshire Mountains: Where Art, Nature, and History Intersect

“The Berkshires” refers to the highland region of Western Massachusetts west of the Connecticut River and lower Westfield River. The region is bordered by the Taconic Mountains, the valleys of the Hoosic River and Housatonic River and by the Hudson Highlands. Culturally, the region is a popular area for exploring art, learning about history and discovering the local, natural landscape. Particularly during the summer, the various Berkshire towns feature festivals, art shows, and events to enjoy.

“The Berkshires” refers to the highland region of Western Massachusetts west of the Connecticut River and lower Westfield River. The region is bordered by the Taconic Mountains, the valleys of the Hoosic River and Housatonic River and by the Hudson Highlands. Culturally, the region is a popular area for exploring art, learning about history and discovering the local, natural landscape. Particularly during the summer, the various Berkshire towns feature festivals, art shows, and events to enjoy.

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Sense of Place: Berkshire Mountains

Learning Ahead: Summer Trails

Summer Trails: Leisure History & Literature

Towards the end of June, we find the beginning of summer and a landscape ready for exploring in the warmer months. In Western Massachusetts, we are fortunate to have so many conserved landscapes that offer mountain views, scenic trails, access to waterways, and places to discover nature’s inspiring energy.

In the 19th-century, outdoor recreation became a popular leisure activity.  Summit houses, such as the one atop Mount Holyoke at Skinner State Park, were constructed to accommodate tourists traveling to see mountain views.  An interest in the wild landscape and sweeping view of countryside inspired many Americans to explore the natural landscape and value spending time outside.  Many writers and artists looked to nature as a creative muse for poetry and painting.  Walking through the woods became a pleasurable and meaningful pastime. Read the rest of this entry »

Sense of Place: Summer Trails

Think about this:

  • How has the Western Massachusetts natural landscape inspired writers and artists of the past?
  • Why do you think nature writing was so prevalent in the early-mid 19th century?
  • How did nature writing in the United States inspire American conservation in the 19th century?
  • What is the Western Massachusetts hiking trail that inspires you the most?

Learning Ahead: Father’s Day

Father’s Day: Local Geography & Family Trees

Vistas & Byways

In 1910, inspired by the already established Mother’s Day, the first Father’s Day was proclaimed. It wasn’t until 1972 that it became a federal holiday to be observed on the third Sunday in June. Similar to Mother’s Day, consider celebrating this holiday with the father figures in your life. Give non-commercial gifts that are handmade or creative in thought to those you consider fatherly spirits by making cards and offering gifts that engage your creativity and our local community. (So much better than another tie or wallet!) Looking for the right words to share in your handmade card? Let poets inspire your muse! Many have shared emotions and stories as they relate to the father figure in their lives. Visit http://www.poets.org and search for “poems about fathers.”

June is a month that encourages time spent outdoors, so why not plan an excursion along one of the many Western Massachusetts scenic byways!  Along the way, you can stop at different farm stands, take photographs of beautiful country views, take a hike, and enjoy a picnic lunch at one of our many vistas. (See September/October Season issue of Learning Ahead for a list of area vistas.) Read the rest of this entry »

Sense of Place: Father’s Day

Learning Ahead: Spring Wildflowers

Spring Wildflowers: Native Species, Art & History

In New England, spring ephemerals and beautiful woodland wildflowers appear throughout the spring, lasting only a short while during this fleeting season.  During this time of year, our fields and forests are community-based resources that can support our interests in botany, ecology, and even entomology, while connecting us to the seasons and the spaces that surround us. Guided hikes led by naturalists, botanists, and enthusiasts happen throughout the season, helping identify the environments in which different wildflowers grow, their relationship with local pollinators, folklore, and medicinal or culinary use. Check out our list of Weekly Suggested Events every Thursday for a comprehensive list of activities happening around the region to support your interests and education, including guided wildflower walks and hikes. And be sure to subscribe to our free eNewsletter delivered to your inbox each Thursday morning!

Another option is to visit the trails on your own to discover wildflowers for yourself. Look back to our September/October Season issue of Learning Ahead for over 25 places to go on a self-guided hike with your family, friends or on your own here in Western Massachusetts.

[Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield]


Download our May/June edition of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts for embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.

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Wildflowers & Honeybees in Art & Literature

Art and Reason

Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield

While exploring spring ephemerals, think about how these fleeting flowers have influenced artists across the centuries. Take, for instance, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, a common spring wildflower that can be seen in the deciduous woods of Western Massachusetts. It is native to the Northeastern United States and flowers from April to June. In 1930, artist Georgia O’ Keeffe created a series of 6 paintings of this flowering plant while on Lake George in New York. The National Gallery of Art owns five of these six paintings. Looking at the painting, how does the artist choose to represent the flower? Remember, this flowering plant is quite small; how does the artist create a sense of drama and intensity that may often be overlooked when coming across the plant on a woodland walk?

Are there any other wildflowers you can think of that have influenced artists? Take a moment to consider why flowers are so appealing to humans. Is our attraction to flowers emotional or practical? For the honeybee, flowers are a source of food. What do they signal for humans? Could it be for the same reason? Other reasons? Read the rest of this entry »

The Sweet Art of Beekeeping

Honey: Farming & Food

Depending on the climate and local flora, the taste of honey changes based on which flowers in a region the honeybees have pollinated. Honey produced in the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts could have a slightly different taste than the honey produced in the Pioneer Valley. It’s fascinating how the flavor profile of the honey changes based on environmental differences; it truly reflects a sense of place, topography, and geography. Read the rest of this entry »

Sense of Place: Wildflowers & Honeybees

Think about this:

  • What were some early American uses for honey? What other sweeteners might have been present or absent from their diets?
  • How does Georgia O’Keefe choose to represent the Jack-in-the-Pulpit? How does she create a sense of drama and intensity that may often be overlooked when seeing the plant on a woodland walk?
  • Why is the health of bees important for our own food production?

Learning Ahead: Spring Harvest

Spring Harvest: History & Local Flavors

Did you know that Western Massachusetts was once considered the “asparagus capital of the world?”  Our region is known for this late spring harvest that still grows profusely in Western Massachusetts. Many of our local towns honor the asparagus harvest as a traditional part of spring through food celebrations and community meals. Read the rest of this entry »

Eating Seasonally in the Spring

Eating Seasonally

Interested in cooking up the spring harvest at home?  Asparagus Risotto, a delicious spring recipe offered by Alice Cozzolino of Cummington, MA. Then consider how the limited availability of asparagus during the late spring connects us to the season and reminds us to appreciate seasonal eating. Other spring crops to include in your recipes this time of year include fiddleheads, ramps, rhubarb, and strawberries. By keeping ourselves in tune with the seasons and the agricultural cycles, we can begin to cultivate a diet centered on sustainability, support local economies, and feel deeply connected to the community that cultivates the food we eat.


Download our May/June edition of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts for embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.

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Sense of Place: Spring Harvest

Learning Ahead: Memorial Day

Memorial Day: Gathering Together & Honoring The Past

For some, Memorial Day is a deeply personal holiday, a day for remembering those who have served the people of our country. Participating in these Memorial Day celebrations and ceremonies can also be a form of placemaking, strengthening ties to community spaces and encouraging social interaction between generations. These events also offer a chance to personally thank local veterans and recognize them for their bravery and service.

Memorial Day honors those veterans who died serving our country in the armed forces.  Many of the ceremonies take place in outdoor, common spaces, such as Main Streets, town commons, and downtown sidewalks.  Community members gather together, in the spirit of kindness and compassion, to show gratitude for those who dedicated their lives to serving our democracy.  During these parades and outdoor ceremonies, folks bring bouquets of flowers, fresh baked bread, and other small tokens of kindness to share with veterans still living, in appreciation for their service, and that of their fellow soldiers who lost their lives.

Memorial Day parades are an opportunity for place-making and intergenerational dialogue.  Community members of all ages come out for the day’s ceremony and parade, while many of the activities take place in the gathering spaces of a town. It provides a space for neighbors, families, and friends to spend time together in a communal place.  Many Western Massachusetts’ towns ask their historical societies to organize events around Memorial Day to help us learn about local history and about those who served our country in the distant past. It is a day of remembrance from both a contemporary perspective and a historical perspective.  In the past, the following towns have hosted Memorial Day parades: Amherst, Agawam, Athol, Chicopee, Easthampton, Florence, Great Barrington, Greenfield, Hadley, Holyoke, Housatonic, Plainfield, Pittsfield, Stockbridge, Westfield  and Williamsburg, among other towns in the region.

Each parade and event may include local school marching bands, community picnics, community dinners, bike rides, gun salutes, and guest speakers.  Memorial Day parades connect communities to their local history and past while celebrating, and being grateful for, the chance to spend time together in town. Read the rest of this entry »

Sense of Place: Memorial Day

Think about this:

  • How does Walt Whitman’s poem “Ashes of Soldiers” attempt to honor those fallen soldiers who may no longer be remembered? Why did Whitman write this poem for them?
  • Does your town have a Memorial Day parade? When did it get started? Who started it? Check out your local history society or library for more information!
  • What Memorial Day traditions does your family celebrate?

Learning Ahead: Farmers’ Markets

Farmers’ Markets: Engaging Community through Food

With the spring comes a resurgence of farmers’ markets. Local farmers have been planning and growing and are now ready to bring their seasonal produce to town commons, squares, and gathering places across the region to enjoy with our families and neighbors. The experience of going to a farmers’ market exceeds the basic transaction of purchasing fresh vegetables. Farmers’ markets are places that bring a community together, affording the opportunity to support local agriculture, make healthy food choices,  share stories, and connect with neighbors and farmers.  Farmers’ markets are community builders, the American version of the European plaza, and are intrinsically a part of our New England culture and traditions.

In Western Massachusetts, many farmers’ markets have expanded to not only include agricultural products but to also provide a space for local artists, crafters, performers, and teachers to make their services, knowledge, and products directly available to the community.  This type of collaborative consumption allows community members to support small businesses and individuals that directly affect the health of a small town’s economy, promoting sustainability and resilience at a local level.  Additionally, some farmers’ markets host spaces for instructors to lead workshops on topics related to homesteading, nutrition, and cooking.  The opportunity to learn at farmers’ markets through intergenerational skill-sharing makes them an important community-based educational resource that brings people together via shared interests.  Read the rest of this entry »

Farmers’ Market & Meals: Explore, Gather, Share

Farmers’ Market & Meals: Explore, Gather, Share

Create a meal with friends from start to finish! Learn where your food comes from, meet the farmers, and prepare a meal together. On the day of a farmers’ market, get together with friends or your family and peruse the market to see what produce is available. Based on the seasonal produce you find at the market, be inspired to create a meal together. Cooking seasonally with ingredients found at a farmers’ market help to connect to the seasons and the history of New England by understanding when and how local produce impact our meals and food traditions.

Stop by different market booths and meet the farmers that grow your food. Introduce yourself! Perhaps mention what you plan to make that evening. Ask them for tips on how to prepare their seasonal produce and swap recipes with others. Purchasing food directly from a local farm is part of a storytelling experience. From their land and hands to your hands and kitchen, it all becomes woven together into a tale of sustainability and local community.  Read the rest of this entry »

Recipe Collections & Storytelling

Recipe Collections & Storytelling

Food is an integral part of our human story. The act of cooking calls upon centuries of cooking methods, ingredients, spices, and flavors that have shaped our distinct cultures and traditions. Within our families, recipes are passed down and certain dishes are often considered an important part of our unique family gatherings and holiday celebrations. For example, when someone says, “No one makes apple pie like my grandmother,” that reflects how food shapes our memories and connects us to those we have spent time with and who are an important part of our personal history.

The art of recipe collecting and writing is something that allows the generations to share their family’s culture through the legacy of food. Cooking manuscripts from the 18th and 19th centuries permit us to see what early Americans in New England were preparing, giving us insight into how some of those food recipes have informed our current meals. In their own way, recipe cards and collections tell stories of who we are and how we connect with each other. Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Musings on Farming and Food

Literary Musings on Farming and Food

The act of growing food, the experience of living on a farm, and the process of cooking have all inspired writers to ponder how the cultivation of land has influenced the stories we tell and the moments we remember. Farming is a rich part of the Western Massachusetts New England tradition. The rich soil of the Connecticut River Valley is a community asset and important to preserve as farmland. Both the pastoral and wild landscapes of Western Massachusetts are an important piece of our New England history, identity, and sustainability. These are the landscapes that inspired poets like William Cullen Bryant and painters like Thomas Cole to champion the American landscape as being different and separate from Europe’s established cities and their developed environment. Our land is a part of our story and history. Agriculture connects us to the land. It is how we define our relationship between our everyday lives and the soil.  Read the rest of this entry »

Sense of Place: Season of Farmers’ Markets

Think about this:

  • How do recipes unfold the stories of our ancestors? What do they say about our agricultural practices and the places from which our families came?
  • What if you were to do a 10-mile diet like Vicki Robin in her book Blessing the Hands that Feed Us? Where would you find your produce? What farms would provide you with your food? Imagine the extended community you would become familiar with!
  • How can the purchasing of food locally help build a stronger and more resilient community?
    Have you ever thought of growing your own food? Container gardening is a great way to get started!

Learning Ahead: Mother’s Day

Traditions & Cultural Celebrations: Mother’s Day

Although Mother’s Day has officially been a holiday in the United States since 1914, the celebration of motherhood dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who celebrated mothers and their roles in society through festivals that honored the goddesses Rhea and Cybele. Rhea, daughter of the earth goddess Gaia and the sky god Uranus, was considered the mother of gods and Cybele was known as the “great mother.”

Throughout the world, there are many cultural traditions that celebrate motherhood. For example, in Thailand, Mother’s Day is observed in August, in honor of Queen Sirikit. There are ceremonies and parades as well as the gift of jasmine to mothers.

In Ethiopia, Mother’s Day is celebrated during the end of the autumn rainy season as a part of the Antrosht festival. During this 3-day festival, daughters give vegetables, butter, spices, and cheese to mothers while sons give meats. Read the rest of this entry »

Small Town Explorations on Mother’s Day

Small Town Explorations on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day festivities here in New England are simple and sweet. They usually include a shared meal with family and meaningful time spent together. Now that the weather is warm, consider a picnic or outdoor explorations as a way to celebrate the mothers in your life while connecting to special places in Western Massachusetts

The Bridge of Flowers (Shelburne, MA)
Once a trolley bridge, The Bridge of Flowers spans the Deerfield River, connecting the Town of Buckland with the village of Shelburne Falls. Nearly 100 years old, the gardens on the bridge feature a variety of flowers in bloom not only in May but all season long. A shared walk across the bridge followed by perusing local art galleries and shops offers a flavor of the creativity and culture that support the micro-economies sustaining our small towns. From April 1 through October 30, visitors to the bridge can expect to see well-marked bulbs, perennials, annuals, shrubs, and trees in bloom during different times of the season, supporting an interest in plant studies and reuse of industrial spaces. Visit the website to find out what flowers are in bloom before you go, and see how many you can find in bloom.

Pulaski Park (Northampton, MA)
A sweet little park in the center of downtown Northampton, MA, this newly (2016) renovated park is adorned with market lights and has cozy seating areas. This park provides a space for families and neighbors to gather in conversation and enjoyment during the day or evening. In the warmer days of May, ice cream from a nearby vendor enjoyed in the park before taking in a play or concert at the Academy of Music Theatre would be a lovely way to enjoy downtown Northampton and an evening on the town with your favorite mother figure.

Other parks rich in history, botanical beauty, and creativity include: Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Explorations for Mother’s Day

Poetry Explorations for Mother’s Day

2002 Poet Laureate Billy Collins has been described as “the most popular poet in America” by the New York Times. Collins’ poetry is rich with human emotion told in a way that is quirky and whimsical. His poem “The Lanyard” is a reminder of all the gifts mothers offer to their children, friends, and families – the gifts that are often taken for granted or unrecognized, moments from infancy that are not remembered because we are too young – and yet they are some of the most important and precious gifts ever received. Read Collins’ poem on Mother’s Day; perhaps share it with someone who embodies motherhood for you and reflect on the qualities and unsung gifts you have received from them. Perhaps list them in your handmade card and include a copy of Collins poem as a reminder of gratitude and love.


Download our May/June edition of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts for embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.

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Sense of Place: Mother’s Day

Learning Ahead: May & June Cultural Itinerary for Western MA

Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for
Western Massachusetts
Seasons: May & June

Who am I? Where am I? These are the fundamental questions proposed by the humanities. Inquiries related to local history, literature, and education, inspire us to think deeply about the places where we live and how our identity fits into the context of our community and the seasons.

Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts is a bimonthly publication produced by Hilltown Families that sheds light on embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.

With these downloadable seasonal itineraries, self-directed teens, lifelong learners, and families are encouraged to engage together in cultural opportunities that support similar interests, resulting in a shared history, strengthening a sense of place.

Looking through a seasonal lens, a May and June cultural itinerary for Western Massachusetts includes:

  • Giving handmade and NATUREBASED gifts to honor the mother figures in our lives. Supporting NONCOMMERCIAL celebrations: Mother’s Day
  • Sharing of skills, stories, and fresh produce once a week through PLACEMAKING and COLLABORATIVE CONSUMPTIONFarmers’ Markets 
  • Acts of KINDNESS and INTERGENERATIONAL engagement mark history and honor community members: Memorial Day
  • FOOD celebrations and COMMUNITY MEALS connect us to the seasons and one another: Spring Harvest
  • Native species and their impact on our culture strengthen our SENSE OF PLACESpring Wildflowers
  • Family trees and scenic byways as a CATALYST for learning: Father’s Day
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURES and local geography inspire the muse: Summer Trails
  • ART and CULTURE come alive in the summer: Berkshire Mountains

Click here to download free pdf (36 pages).


Mass Humanities This program is funded in part by Mass Humanities, which receives support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and is an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Special thank you to sponsors of this issue, including Thornes Marketplace.

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