Hilltown Families


“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.

Think about this:

The local woods and trails in Western Massachusetts were common destinations for 19th-century hikers and fueled the creative genius of many writers. Engage with local history and experience the landscape from a literary perspective by reading some of these writers’ works before embarking on your next outdoor adventure. To get you started, read the poetry of William Cullen Bryant or writings of Henry David Thoreau.

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?

This Father’s Day, explore our scenic byways here in Western MA while reflecting on family stories. Capture moments with images and keepsakes while traveling around the region then capturing your stories by pulling together a multimedia family tree!

Think about this: Unlike major highways, how do our scenic byways foster a sense of place and allow us to discover new and hidden places in our communities? What Father’s Day traditions do you celebrate?

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.

Artist Georgia O’Keeffe was inspired by spring wildflowers. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was inspired by the traditions associated with keeping honeybees. The honeybee and the wildflower inspire one another! And around and around it goes!

How do these ephemeral woodland flowers inspire you? What traditions do you partake in that might be associated with honey or beekeeping? You might be surprised to learn how they inspired the traditions of early America…

Depending on the climate and local flora, the taste of honey changes based on which flowers in a region the honeybees have pollinated. Learn more an annual honey festival that takes place in the Pioneer Valley each year, or sign up for classes with a local beekeeper association to learn more about apiculture.

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?

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, marking the season and connecting us to where we live through food traditions.

Interested in cooking up the spring harvest at home? Spring crops to include in your recipes this time of year include fiddleheads, ramps, rhubarb, strawberries, and asparagus. 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.

Think about this:

By eating seasonally, how do we keep ourselves in sync with nature?
Why do you think it is important to support local farmers and keep local agriculture healthy in our region?
What favorite recipe do you have for any of the spring crops?

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.

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?

The beauty of New England living is that each season offers a new way to learn and engage in our communities. Locally grown and produced food is a community-base resource that can help us understand how to connect to the seasons through local agriculture. Farmers’ markets bring farmer and neighbor together in placemaking events on town commons, plazas, and street corners. Each week, seasonal produce holds center stage while skills are shared and intergenerational engagement takes place. Sharing knowledge and skills is a type of collaborative consumption that not only connects neighbors but also expands our sense of place and connections with people of all ages. — Where are your local farmers’ markets or farm stands?

Community meals and family suppers connect us through the sharing of food and stories. Add a trip to the local farmers’ market to select seasonal produce grown locally and add another dimension your culinary adventures! When we authentically engage with that which sustains us (seasons, food, community) we expand our awareness of what it means to be in community and strengthens a sense of self within the context of the places we live and visit. Farmers’ markets are seasonal reminders of these connections and community-based educational resources that allow us to direct our learning through our senses.

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. What story do your recipes tell? Who will inherit the recipes you discover and invent this summer? What stories will they tell of the food that grows near you in Western Massachusetts? How will future generations 100-200 years from now understand the cultural and food traditions we practiced? The art of recipe collecting and writing is something that allows the generations to share their family’s culture through the legacy of 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. Here is a short list of literature inspired by farming and food to add to your reading lists.

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!

The second Sunday in May brings us Mother’s Day, an annual holiday to mark the season while spending time with your favorite mother(s), or mother figure, in your life. Use this holiday as a catalyst for learning about traditions in other cultures that celebrate mothers. Let it also be a source of inspiration for creative gift-giving and nature-based presents!

Our parks are rich in history, botanical beauty, and inspiration! Why not visit one of these local treasures on Mother’s Day? Pack a picnic or plan a hike. Parks, trails, and state forests are not only community-based educational resources that support nature-based learning, but they are also sanctuaries that connect us to our community, our family and ourselves. Enjoy a Sunday afternoon at any of these local treasures!

Poetry Explorations for Mother’s Day

2002 Poet Laureate Billy Collins has been described as “the most popular poet in America” by the New York Times. Collins’ poetry is rich with human emotion told in a way that is quirky and whimsical. His poem “The Lanyard” is a reminder of all the gifts mothers offer to their children, friends, and families – the gifts that are often taken for granted or unrecognized, moments from infancy that are not remembered because we are too young – and yet they are some of the most important and precious gifts ever received. Read Collins’ poem on Mother’s Day; perhaps share it with someone who embodies motherhood for you and reflect on the qualities and unsung gifts you have received from them. Perhaps list them in your handmade card and include a copy of Collins poem as a reminder of gratitude and love.


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.


Think about this:

  • How does Billy Collins’ poem, “The Lanyard,” use humor as a way to highlight the immense gratitude the poet feels towards his mother?
  • What non-commercial gifts and activities can you do on Mother’s Day to celebrate motherhood in Western MA?
  • What traditions do you associate with celebrating Mother’s Day?
  • How can we use Mother’s Day as a catalyst for learning about art, ancestry, and women’s history?

Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts Seasons: May & June 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… Read More

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