Hilltown Families


Sheep-shearing is a great place to begin the conversation with your children about the influences sheep has upon our culture here in New England. Seeing sheep being shorn with traditional tools while listening to tales being spun by the shearer can give kids a unique insight into our regional history and this historical trade. Asking questions about how wool is processed after a sheep has been shorn, and how modern day processing techniques might compare to the techniques used in the Colonial era can support interests and lead to a lot of learning! Check out sheep shearing happening at community events and local farms, some using traditional tools (Wool Days & Sheep to Shawl), others with modern electric tools for comparison (Sheep & Woolcraft Fair).

There are many festivals and wool celebrations that take place in New England throughout the year. Here are a few where you can learn more about raising sheep, fiber production, and processing.

Each year, Earth Day takes place on April 22nd. Known as the birth of the modern environmental movement, Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970 and continues as a way to demonstrate support for environmental protection. Western Massachusetts is host to many secular celebrations, and festivals that honor the commitment to sustainable and resilient living, giving the community many ways to come together to engage on Earth Day through service-based learning opportunities, eco-workshops, and local gatherings. Check our list of Weekly Suggested Events for upcoming events that support sustainable living and connection to place. And since National Poetry Month and Earth Day share the same season and month, it seems appropriate to feature Ecopoetry, a movement of poetry with a strong environmental ethic that acknowledges the relationship between humans and nature.

6 Community Resources and Annual Events for Sustainable Living

The reemergence of flora and fauna in the outdoor world gives cause for celebration as the months turn warmer and new life abounds. For many, it is a time of celebration linked to spring’s seasonality as reflected in the types of food prepared in holiday celebrations, including Easter and Passover.

Western Massachusetts has been home to many poets and writers who were inspired by this region’s remarkable landscape. April is National Poetry Month. As nature begins to come to life in blossoms and buds, National Poetry Month is the perfect catalyst for exploring the outdoor spaces and places that inspired great writers of the past and present through some of the many local trails found in the region.

In Barbara Cooney’s book Miss Rumphius, the woman lovingly know as the Lupine Lady spreads beauty throughout her community by keeping a pocketful of seeds to distribute – so as to share the joy of nature’s treasures. During National Poetry Month, families can apply the Lupine Lady’s philosophy of life to the written word by participating in Poem in Your Pocket Day. Celebrated annually as part of National Poetry Month, Poem in Your Pocket Day encourages people to share writing and connect with others by spreading poems throughout their communities. Celebrated by literally carrying poems in pockets or by sharing words through more creative means, the event presents a unique opportunity to share important writing and to connect with others through the thoughts and feelings that great writing can provoke.

Springtime is filled with sightings of all kinds of exciting natural wonders. The season’s outdoor appeal makes it a perfect time of year for enjoying our natural surroundings and learning about conservation and species preservation, too!

The bird populations in Western Massachusetts have inspired many poets and writers, including William Cullen Bryant and Emily Dickinson, to pick up their pens and compose verses dedicated to our feathered friends, celebrating nature and the land.

What better way to learn more about birds in early spring than in your own backyard! Like poets Bryant and Dickinson, you can observe the birds that frequent your backyard feeder and later reflect on their characteristics to write interesting and poetic descriptions, gaining a better sense of Western Massachusetts’ bird populations and the species with whom you share your natural surroundings. Perhaps you’ll begin to feel inspired similarly to Bryant and Dickinson!

March is Women’s History Month, a national observation that honors and pays tributes to those women who dedicated their lives to social justice, the environment, education, and positive change for society. Their fortitude and perseverance as pioneers is honored during the month. Here a few women from history will be explored, however note the incredible number of talented women today in Western Massachusetts that continue to demonstrate the importance of women’s rights!

Did you know that Western Massachusetts is home to the first women’s college in the United States? In 1837 a female seminary was founded by chemist and educator Mary Lyon. This seminary is now Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA, the first of the seven sisters, a group of liberal arts colleges in the Northeast that were started as women’s colleges. Some of these schools are still women’s colleges today and two of them are here in Western Massachusetts. Both of these college campuses are open to the public to enjoy the grounds, peruse the libraries and attend public lectures and events and many famous women throughout history have graduated from these institutions.

Throughout history, women have been an integral part of the art world. As patrons, historians, innovators, critics, and creators, their contributions are widespread. Why is it that they are underrepresented in art history? How have gender biases influenced our art history narrative? How have women generated social change throughout history? How do they now use visual art and language art to address contemporary issues? Considering answers to these questions connect us to our history, one another, and the places we collectively call home.

Similar to fall, the spring season is a time of transition as habitats and animals begin to respond to the change in weather and climate. Phenology-based activities coincide with the natural changing of our seasons (our ultimate accessible community-based educational resource) and are great catalysts for learning through community engagement. Maple syrup season, filled with delicious community activities and opportunities, is our first crop of the year, followed by another seasonal event as winter transitions into spring…Vernal Pools!

Farm life follows the path of the seasons. In March and April it’s a time of new life on the farm when animals are born. The most place-based of local baby animal-learning resources in Western Massachusetts are of course our local farms, many of which allow visitors to meet the animals they raise and rely upon both for food and for farm tasks. And at living history museums, folks can visit baby animals each spring such as newborn lambs, calves, and piglets while learning about historical farm practices.

Let sugar season be a time of year for reconnecting to community and strengthening your sense of place through value-based community engagement that supports learning. Maple sugaring is a centuries-old tradition in New England, and the seasonal industry remains an important part of the foundation upon which local agricultural is built. Additionally, maple sugaring brings opportunities for families to engage in intergenerational community-based learning through visits to farms, community meals, living history, and experiential hands-on activities. April and May might be filled with the blossoms of spring, but there is no need for flowers when we have sweet maple syrup to enjoy on our pancakes with family and friends!

Sugaring season has been a New England tradition since practically forever. It was written about by English settlers as early as the mid-1600’s, and was a Native American harvest long before any Europeans set foot in North America. The history of this annual sap-harvesting tradition can’t really be boiled down to any specific time period or group of people, but it has nevertheless been done year after year for countless generations.

Families can experience what maple sugaring was like in the days of old New England at living history events where museum interpreters dressed in period clothing demonstrate life and skills from Colonial New England, including: tree tapping, sumac spile making, sap boiling over a fire, open hearth cooking, and other early American skills. At living history museums, history comes alive and are wonderful community-based resources for curious minds wanting to learn about New England history and lore of maple syrup.

A popular sugar season tradition for families in western Massachusetts is visiting a nearby sugar shack. There are sugar shacks to visit all over the region, and a great many of these can pair the experience of watching fresh maple sap be boiled down into a thick syrup with a homemade stack of maple syrup-covered pancakes. Many sugarhouses offer informative tours of their facilities, demonstrating their process of tapping, collecting, boiling, and bottling their syrup. In addition to learning about the sugaring process, a visit to a sugar shack can also be a lesson in local history and community resilience – many local sugar houses have been owned and operated by the same families for a few generations, making sugaring an important part of the local economy as well as a strong link between local families and their physical surrounding.

The maple tree and sugar season have been a source of inspiration for artists and poets in New England. Here we take a look at Western Massachusetts landscape painter, Robert Strong Woodward (1885-1957), and contemporary poet, Hannah Fries. In the early 1900’s, Woodward captures a typical New England scene that one can still witness driving along the same road in the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. And Fries takes the seasonality of New England living and rural life to describe a shared sentiment felt by two people in love in her poetry. See and read the influences of the maple tree and seasonal living in art and literature in the region.

If sugaring is something that your family is particularly interested in trying and you’ve got a yard full of maples, try it out for yourself at home! With the right supplies, sugaring can be a fun and fairly easy family activity. Kids will get to practice math and science skills while selecting trees to tap – first, they’ll need to identify the proper species, and then they’ll need to determine the diameter of the tree at a specific height. Lots of careful observation, use of tools, and recording of data will need to be done! Then, while you wait for the sap to collect, kids can track the amount that fills the bucket each day. Older students might even be able to figure out the percentage by which the volume of the sap decreases after it has been boiled down into syrup!

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 March and April cultural itinerary for Western Massachusetts includes:

First harvest of the year reunites us to seasonal FOOD TRADITIONS: Maple Syrup
Local HABITAT awakens us to the changing seasons: Vernal Pools
Local Changemakers as a CATALYST for learning: Women’s History Month
INTERGENERATIONAL sharing of the joys of native species: Spring Birds
NATURE-BASED activities connect us to local poets: National Poetry Month
Learning through the LENS of spring holidays: Easter & Passover
VALUE-BASED engagement connects interests: Earth Day
Discover seasonal CULTURE: Sheep Shearing

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: The Trustees of Reservations ♦ New England Air Museum.

%d bloggers like this: