The only thing more beautiful than Massachusetts’s Berkshire Hills is the work produced by the many artists who have flocked there for nearly two centuries.IT has been a banner year for playwright Juliane Hiam. In the past 12 months alone, she has had two plays in production -- one about nineteenth- century Paris and the other a children’s play based on Norman Rockwell’s illustrations. In addition, she was the writer-in-residence at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, where she also taught playwriting to elementary-school students. Currently, she’s teaching playwriting to adults through an organization called Inkberry. Some might consider her level of output unusually high. But that kind of prolific creativity is commonplace where Hiam resides, in the bucolic setting of northwest Massachusetts’s Berkshire Hills.
Berkshire County, a district that encompasses the westernmost portion of the state of Massachusetts, from its north border all the way to its south one, contains the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains, which are known as the Berkshires. This scenic region is known for its rich natural resources but more notably for its reputation as a magnet for poets, composers, authors, artists, inventors, singers, and other creatively spirited people. This phenomenon can be traced back to the 1850s, when the area became inundated with great literary minds such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in a cottage near the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for a year and a half during a particularly productive period in which he wrote The House of the Seven Gables and parts of The Blithedale Romance. Herman Melville, a noted author who had visited the Berkshires since his boyhood, moved his family to the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1850. He is said to have drawn inspiration for his most famous work, Moby Dick, from the looming shadow of Mount Greylock. And Henry David Thoreau, a frequent visitor to the region, wrote a lyrical homage to the same peak, which is the highest point in the state of Massachusetts, in his “A Night on Mount Greylock.”
That artistic tradition has continued throughout the years, with talents from Norman Rockwell to Gwyneth Paltrow seeking solace and stimulation amid the pastoral landscape. It seems even those who leave -- like Hiam, who grew up in Berkshire County but left for a period to study in California -- eventually find their way back.
“The Berkshires absolutely inspire me,” Hiam says. “The pioneer spirit from early settlers, the poetry of the nature, and the collaboration of the artists who are attracted here all make for good musings.”
So, what is it about this fabled region that has made it such a beehive for creative souls? In addition to the area’s inspiring natural beauty, its convenient geographic location just 130 miles from Boston and 150 miles from New York City makes it an easy escape from either of those metropolises. But others say there’s more to the attraction than simple proximity. Early Native Americans revered the Berkshires because they felt the land had sacred energy. Some locals believe the land’s mystical properties come from the underlying bedrock of granite and quartzite. Charles Flint, an arts and antiques dealer who lives in the town of Lenox, Massachusetts, consulted with a geologist to satisfy his own curiosity about what’s behind -- or perhaps more accurately, beneath -- the Berkshires’ renown. The geologist confirmed to Flint the existence of the mineral-rich bedrock, a geological remnant of molten temperatures caused by tectonic shifting millions of years ago.
“I’m not necessarily a believer that this is all because of quartzite and granite,” Flint says. “But when I realized all the accomplished, famous people who have lived here, starting with Melville and Susan B. Anthony [and continuing] up through the present day, I compared it with the rest of the world and couldn’t find any place else where the success was this tremendous in proportion to the population.”
Stuart Chase, executive director of the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, agrees that the artistic concentration in the area is uncommon. “There’s tremendous creativity here,” he says. “It’s a beautiful region with vast cultural resources.”