Spirits of Place: The Berkshire Mountains

Fall is my favorite season, and one of the things I’ve missed since moving to California is the Autumn of the northeast–the clarity, the crispness, the incredible color (and the incredible relief after soupy summer heat and humidity).  Autumn is my favorite season, but for some reason when I think of the Berkshire Mountains, where I spent my adolescence, it’s all about summer.

The Berkshires are quiet, worn mountains, less showy than their cousins to the west. And in spring and summer they are green, a green with an undertone of blue, as if all the leaves were lined with darkness.  The green is velvety and dense and aromatic and cool: if I climbed the hill behind my house on a sunny day, crossed the perilous blackberry thicket, and made it to the woods, the air was suddenly fifteen degrees cooler and scented with leaf and decay and spring water.   The house where we lived–a barn, actually–backed into a mountain and overlooked a sprawling country valley centered on the Housatonic River.  There were more mountains across the way, and the least sounds–a scrap of conversation, a car door closing, a cow lowing irritably–could echo up from the river or from Route 7, which paralleled it.  The valley was all fields and pastures, houses, roads leading to towns to the north and south: all known places.  But behind the house we had 140 acres of mountain: an ancient overgrown orchard contained within mossy stone walls; a stand of birch trees; slabs of rock that made little caves my friends and I explored on hot summer days; and a stream that bubbled in and out under rocks and was as cold and sweet as anything I’ve ever tasted.  The green-ness of the place is tangible: you can smell the chlorophyll, taste the must of last year’s leaves decaying under a blanket of pine needles; see the swarms of gnats boiling in the distance, and feel the damp, hot air on your skin.

When I moved away from the Berkshires I didn’t look back–except to visit my parents.  I am a city girl; keep me too long in the country and I begin to get red and irritable. And yet.  A dozen years ago my older daughter spent her first summer at camp in Vermont about 150 miles north of my parents’ house in Massachusetts, and for most years since then–through her five summers there, and through my younger daughter’s time there as well–I’ve been able to get in touch with that sense of mystery and green every time we visited.  The camp is a very different setting: a glen, really, surrounded by woods, with a lake, a stream, and–never forget–150 kids and counselors (and goats and dogs!) running around.  But every time we’d drive onto the camp property and step out of the car I was again in the green, vast and cool and mysterious, with the air shimmering on my skin, and the smell of chlorophyll everywhere around me.


Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and a double-handful of short stories which are available on her bookshelf.  She has just finished a book set in medieval Italy, and is now working on a new Sarah Tolerance novel.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Spirits of Place: The Berkshire Mountains — 2 Comments

  1. I live in New York about two minutes from the Massachusetts line, and your description sounds just like home. The richness of the green…I’ve always thought I’d have to visit a tropical rainforest to beat it.

    When I went out to bring in the mail yesterday, I breathed in the smell of leaves crushed underfoot, damp after days of rain and mist. That’s a smell straight out of childhood, of leaves being raked into piles not so much to clear the lawn as to create something huge and springy onto which to hurl yourself and into which to burrow.

    I love those seasonal signposts, showing me I’m leaving one season or heading into another. I know winter’s almost out when the ice on the lake I enjoy for a back yard has warmed enough to grow rotten and dark, and begun to break into chunks that can be moved around by the wind. When the plates collide with each other or bash into the shore, the honeycombs shatter into thick needles, making an enchanting tinkling sound. I’m always disappointed when the warming temperatures do all the work without help from wind, and the ice goes out without making music.

    Then I wait for my personal marker that spring’s just around the bend and the long days of brown and white are almost past: the first sight of the green haze, the merest impression of green you notice when driving along, when the first buds are too small to be perceived as leaves but are asserting their color, saying, “Here we come!”