Learning Ahead: Boating Season

Season of Boating

The water is warmer and the ponds, lakes, and rivers are often swelling with water from summer thunderstorms. Whether it’s in a kayak or a canoe, paddling on the open water offers a unique perspective to witness wildlife, get exercise, and recreate outdoors.

Building watercrafts to traverse water is an ancient practice. In the America’s, there are many examples of indigenous canoes that allows for water travel across rivers and lakes. Often, these watercraft were built by hand from bark, animal skins, and logs and utilized for travel and trade. Compare the craft of these crafts with modern canoes today which are often built out of fiberglass by machines.

While kayaks seem to have originated in Greenland and utilized by Eskimos in Northern, cold climates, the canoe was built and used throughout the world by different cultures and peoples. Canoes were built as open tops and still keep this feature today whereas kayaks originated in the Arctic as closed top boats to prevent the icy water from getting into the boat, usually by stretching animal skins over the top.  Canoes: A Natural History in North America by Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims is an excellent literary choice for learning more about the history of canoeing.

With a historic appreciation of canoes and kayaks, there are many unique waterways in Western Massachusetts to take these crafts out to explore and connect with our local landscape. If you don’t have a boat for paddling, check out your local outdoor outfitter for boat rentals. Additionally, many campgrounds open for day use offer boat rentals for paddling adventures.  Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Ahead: Camping

 Season of Summer Camping

Summer is camping season! Campgrounds are open, tents are aired out, and the makings for s’mores are ready for starry nights surrounding the campfire telling stories and enjoying each other’s company. The smell of campfire and early morning rises in the woods during the cooler hours of the morning define the spirit of summer outside in New England.

Backcountry camping is different from car camping. Car camping allows folks to pack all of their gear into their car, drive to a campsite, and pitch a tent at a maintained campground or an area for camping. Generally, your car is close to where you pitch your tent, and most campground areas have sites and amenities (such as showers, rental equipment, and trails). Backcountry camping involves carrying everything you need in your pack, so you must be frugel with your packing. It also means you might be setting up camp in the woods in an area of your discretion, as opposed to having a site with amenities. It’s a different experience, and both allow for a range of adventure. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Ahead: Summer Wildflowers & Gardens

 Season of Summer Wildflowers & Gardens

Summer is the season of flower-studded meadows and blossoms on the wayside or at home in our gardens. Nothing says summer like a freshly picked bouquet of Oxeye Daises or New England Asters. Summer is also the time of year when public gardens are open to visitors wanting to learn about botany or just enjoy the beauty of cultivated flowers. These public gathering places connect community to the growing season, these senses in the form of color and scent, and to the incredible beauty and diversity nature has to offer. In Western Massachusetts there are a few public gardens to explore and enjoy that may offer inspiration to the artist, writer, or botanist inside:

Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Ahead: Fishing

Season of Fishing

The summer time is the season for fishing! There are many places to go fishing in Western Massachusetts as a way to connect with the local landscape while spending time outdoors. There are different types of fishing, such as saltwater fishing, freshwater fishing, fly fishing, and ice fishing. Fishing, or angling, is a sport that provides a direct interaction with our rivers and lakes as well as a meditative and tranquil way to relax and enjoy nature quietly.

The art of fly fishing has even inspired writers to create stories based on the sport, such as David James Duncan’s contemporary novel The River Why (1983). Voted the 35th best novel in the San Francisco Chronicle list of “The 20th Century’s 100 Best Books of the American West,” the novel centers on a young man from a fishing-centric family that moves to a small cabin in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range where he spends most of his days fly fishing. The novel was also made into a film in 2010. Check out your local Western Massachusetts library to see if the novel or film is available. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Ahead: Vacation Destination

Season of Vacation Destination

In the 19th century, New England was a popular place for outdoor recreation. At a time when the American landscape was championed for its unique, natural features, setting it apart from Europe, Americans were interested in exploring the mountains and woods that defined this country’s geography. In fact, as you discovered in the Summer Storms section of this issue of Learning Ahead, 19th century authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville participated in outdoor recreation by hiking up Monument Mountain. Henry David Thoreau, another 19th century author and transcendentalist, climbed Mt. Greylock, located in Adams, MA. Another scenic spot for recreational tourists was the Summit House at Skinner State Park (then known as Mt. Holyoke) which operated as a hotel, allowing visitors to stay overnight while visiting. As you can see, Western Massachusetts was a popular destination for 19th century Americans with many of the outdoor places and summits still available for today’s hikers and outdoor enthusiasts to explore. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Ahead: Season of Berries

 Season of Berries

Summer is the season of berry picking and canning! It’s the time of year when pies are baked and fruit is canned to enjoy during the colder months.

During the months of July and August, blueberries become ready for picking. There are many farms in Western MA where you can pick your own berries, or farm stands and markets to purchase local berries to enjoy at home. At http://www.poets.org, read Robert Frost’s poem “Blueberries” before heading out to your nearby blueberry farm to fill your pail. Consider the first and last stanza and how Frost describes the beauty of the ripe blueberry:

“Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!”

As you read the rest the poem, consider how is it structured. As a conversation between two people? What are they discussing? How is the blueberry and berry picking discussed in this poem? Bring the poem with you and read it together amongst a colony of blueberry bushes.  Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Ahead: Summer Storms

 Season of Thunderstorms

While winter in New England brings Nor’easters and blizzards that cover Western Massachusetts in deep snow, summer brings thunderstorms that soak the soil and bring a deep intensity to the summer’s verdant landscape. There is something humbling about a strong thunderstorm as it approaches with it’s dark clouds, bolts of lightning, and claps of thunder that exemplify nature’s unpredictability and larger-than-life personality. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Ahead: Outdoor Concerts

Season of Outdoor Concerts: Place & Spaces Inspired by Music

Summertime in Western Massachusetts brims with opportunities to spend time outdoors and gather in community spaces to listen to live music, discover new musical genres,  and share musical interests while supporting local musicians. Given all of the beautiful parks and outdoor spaces in Western Massachusetts, there are many summertime concerts and music festivals for all ages to attend. Pack a picnic and share the experience with family, neighbors, and friends.  Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Ahead: Independence Day

American History & Holiday: The Revolutionary War & Independence Day

Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield

The call for revolution in the late 18th-century echoed throughout Massachusetts as the early American colonists sought independence from the British. Massachusetts history is deeply rooted in the history of the American Revolutionary War, from acts of rebellion to the many battles fought on this soil.  Every 4th of July, communities commemorate the patriots of the North American colonies that spoke out against a government that they felt did not truly represent them and their interests. Lasting close to a decade (1775-1783), the American Revolution shaped our country’s early identity as a nation.  The places, spaces, and communities that made up the Massachusetts colony played a major role in the early American cause for Independence.

While visitors to Eastern Massachusetts can walk the Freedom Trail, learn about the Boston Tea Party, or tour the home of Paul Revere, folks in Western Massachusetts can explore the history of the American Revolution by witnessing historical reenactments of major battles, visit memorials to the cause’s courageous soldiers, and commemorate the war for American Independence through community celebrations such as fireworks, parades, annual events, and local resources. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Ahead: July & August Cultural Itinerary for Western MA

Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for
Western Massachusetts
Seasons: July & August

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 sense of place.

Looking through a seasonal lens, a July and August cultural itinerary for Western Massachusetts includes:

  • An American holiday as a CATALYST for learning: Independence Day
  • PLACEMAKING at parks and community spaces through music: Outdoor Concerts
  • Resources that are ubiquitous and NATUREBASED: Summer Storms
  • Sweet fruits that celebrate FOOD TRADITIONS: Berries
  • Western MA as a CULTURAL destination for relaxation: Vacation
  • Outdoor activities that are INTEREST-BASED: Fishing
  • Ephemeral seasonal HABITAT: Flower Gardens
  • INTERGENERATIONAL outdoor living: Camping
  • Learning LENS that connects us to the season: Boating

Click here to download free pdf (32 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:  New England Air Museum.

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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!

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