Tuesday, November 5, 2013
November 5, 2013: Berkshire Stories: Monument Mountain
[Last month, I had the chance to visit the beautiful Berkshires of Western Massachusetts for the first time. The area’s as full of American history as it is of gorgeous fall foliage, and so in this week’s series I’ll highlight five such Berkshire stories, leading up to a special weekend post!]
On the impressive natural site through which multiple American stories can be traced.
Near the top of Monument Mountain, an open space reservation in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is a summit known as Squaw Peak. The nickname implies what poet Lydia Sigourney makes explicit in her “Indian Names” (1838): the ways in which Native Americans remain part of our national landscape and language, even when we have often otherwise worked to elide them from our histories. And indeed William Cullen Bryant, Sigourney’s peer and one of the first American professional poets, penned an early poem entitled “Monument Mountain” (1815) in which he narrates the legend of a local “Indian maid” who threw herself from the summit (suffering from an unrequited love, as all such tragic poetic ladies seem to be). Bryant’s poem concludes with his own recognition of the continued presence of such native identities and stories on our landscapes, both real and literary: “Indians from the distant West, who come / to visit where fathers’ bones are laid, / Yet tell the sorrowful tale, and to this day / The mountain where the hapless maiden died / Is called the Mountain of the Monument.”
A few decades later, Monument Mountain would be the site and source of a very different kind of literary inspiration. On August 5th, 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville met for the first time during a group excursion to the mountain; both men were staying at family homes in the Berkshires at the time, and while they knew each other by reputation and writing had not previously had the chance to meet. The group hike included not only the two authors but many other literary figures of the period, including Evert Duyckinck and James T. Fields, and this collection of creative voices helped produce what became a truly mythic version of the excursion: one in which a sudden thunderstorm forced the group to take refuge, during which time Hawthorne and Melville connected so immediately and deeply that some of the starting points for Moby Dick (which Melville would dedicate to Hawthorne) arose out of the conversation. I don’t mean to imply that the excursion did not include these events—it may well have—but rather that this mythic Monument Mountain moment also captures ideas of artistic genius and inspiration that embody much of what defined American literary narratives in this American Renaissance era.
Over the next century, Monument Mountain would be influenced by two distinct and competing national histories. On the one hand, the ongoing Industrial Revolution would threaten its continued existence as a natural space: for example, logging in support of iron foundaries in places like nearby Lenox heavily deforested the area. Yet at the same time, the burgeoning conservation movement pushed back on such trends: in 1899 the reservation was acquired by the Trustees of Reservations, a non-profit conservationist organization that reforested the area by planting red pines throughout the reservation in the 1930s. Fortunately for those of us who want to make our own ascent to the top of Squaw Peak, perhaps to find the kinds of inspiration there that could lead to the next literary classics (or at least blog posts), the conservationist efforts have won the day, and Monument Mountain reservation remains a vital part of the Berkshires’ natural beauty and power.
Next Berkshire story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?