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Summer in the Birkshires
by Homer Page
I am totally blind as a result of a retinal disorder that is genetic in origin. However, I had some residual vision until I was 30 years old. I can remember bright colors and visually constructed spatial perspectives, but I could never see well enough to read or recognize a person by his or her facial features. I have not had light perception for over 25 years.
Throughout the years, a number of persons have told me that they would rather die than lose their sight. They believe it would mean giving up the beauty and inspiration of the natural and created world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps I can explain some of the ways I experience the world through my senses and imagination. During the week of July 4th, I visited the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. I want to share with you how a blind person can grasp the richness of the world, and perhaps you may grasp some of the magic of this historic slice of America.
At the western end of Massachusetts, a range of hills masquerading as mountains provides the setting for a delightful summer vacation. Angie Wood, the editor, and I spent a week in July taking in the Berkshires. I have often been asked how I can enjoy the experiences of sightseeing, viewing nature, and appreciating art. The Berkshires offer ample opportunity for doing all these things and our visit provides the opportunity to present the way in which a blind person perceives the world.
We flew into Boston and drove westward along the Massachusetts turnpike past cities and towns with familiar historic names. The Connecticut River divides Massachusetts. The turnpike crosses the river at Springfield and then begins its climb into the Berkshires.
Angie tells me of the forest of trees that line the roadway. I roll down the window and listen to the songs of the birds in the trees. I feel the presence of the wooded barrier and note the sense of isolation from development along the highway. She confirms my observation.
We exit the turnpike at Lee and find our lodgings. We discuss the layout of the roads and cities. Later we will look at a map. She will take my hands and trace the Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont borders. We will study the roads. I will build a map in my head of this geographically complex region of New England. As my understanding grows, my feeling of engagement with the area also grows.
We read brochures and check the Internet for information. The area was originally settled in the second half of the 18th century. Lee is named after General Charles Lee, the second in command to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Stockbridge was named for the Native Americans who occupied the land where the town now stands. Monuments list the names of those from the area that fell during the Civil War.
Angie reads a headstone that we find in Lee. "Here lies old John, a gallant war horse," it read. John’s master organized a unit of light cavalry and led the soldiers south astride old John. John and his master came home after the war with those who were left alive. The Union was preserved and slavery abolished on the backs of old John and all the other young men and horses who answered the call. I stand in the Town Square. I can feel their presence.
We drive along Highway 7 into Vermont. The sun warms my body and the air cools my face. I feel the warmth of the sun withdraw. We are clearly passing into a shaded area. I hear the resonant sounds of birds singing in a forest canopy. The sounds of the car wheels are absorbed. I can no longer hear the pop of insects across open fields. I smell the strong aroma of pine rosin. We have entered a state forest.
I ask Angie if the trees have grown together across the highway.
"Yes," she tells me. "The leaves form layers of dark green high above us. The branches touch one another across the road, blocking out the sun and creating a tunnel to protect us from the heat and the rain. It goes on for miles."
We leave the forest. The pungent smell of horse manure communicates the presence of open fields and stables. The echo of a bridge speaks of a stream running below. The smell of new mown grass and the sound of a tractor announce a nearby field of hay. I feel the slight tilt of the car and hear the motor pull as we climb out of the river bottom. I am engaged with the landscape. I am creating a vision of scenic beauty in my own way.
Later, we stop. Angie gets out of the car to photograph the sun setting across a lake. I stay in the car and listen to the sounds of the coming night. An owl is hooting from his hiding place. A chorus of frogs is tuning up. A few crickets chime in with their meditative chant-in. The life of the night is awakening along the shores of this ice age gouge in the surface of the earth. I am, for this moment, a part of this landscape. I am grounded. I belong.
During the night I am awakened by the melody of a long train. Its whistle greets me. Its rattle and clank educate me. I follow its progress as it weaves, dips, and rises again. It draws a line for me through these little mountains. I follow the line and learn about the hills and valleys. The map in my head fills in. The flat map becomes three-dimensional. I am very happy in the middle of this fascinating night.
Throughout the Berkshires, galleries display original art. We visit one of the more unique of these institutions. Santarella is located in Tyringham. Sir Henry Kitsman, an Englishman who became an American citizen, converted the barn into a studio in 1935. He was a sculptor and creator of monumental art. After his death in 1947, it became a gallery and museum commemorating his life and work.
We visited Santarella on the hottest day of the summer, but its thick walls and strategically located electric fans moderated the heat. The air was thick with humidity and swarming insects. Mosquitoes furiously attacked at every turn in the myriad hallways of the barn.
Angie describes the paintings and drawings and hands me pottery to examine. There are pots with faces breaking through the sides and looking out upon the world, or so it seems. Gentle breezes from a fan gently stir wind chimes producing soft music. Replicas of Kitsman’s work remind me that a man who passed from life over 50 years ago can engage me across the decades.
We walk through the gallery and out into the Oriental garden. Croaking frogs tell me that a pond lies at its center. Angie tells me that a sculpted hand protrudes from the water. It holds a sword. It is one of 23 sculptures that are on display in this garden. This one is entitled "The Lady of the Lake". I imagine an underwater woman wielding a sword in victory, or perhaps she is signaling for help. In any case, she is no simple victim.
We climb a rise into a grove of pines. A cool breeze brings the scent of pine sap and fallen needles. We startle a deer that lets out three groans of what I imagine to be irritation and disgust. I hear her shuffle rapidly down the hill and then she is gone. It happens so fast.
We come upon a work by Adrianna Shultz. Two slabs of marble, perhaps three feet in diameter, face one another. They are separated and held together by a glass block that is approximately a five-inch cube. The top edges flow symmetrically together across a space that separates them. Shultz seems to say, "We are separate, but we are bound to one another. We flow together across space in harmonious ways. The space that is contained between us can be beautiful and complete. Here we are, solid marble and liquid space, but bound together, we are a whole work of art."
I am reluctant to walk on, but the mosquitoes are feasting on me. We walk through the garden. My hands explore the art. From time to time I have a question for Angie. She waits for my questions, letting me explore the sculpture in my own way while she engages it in her way. We would stay longer but the heat and the insects win. We surrender and flee.
On the last night of our visit to the Berkshires, we find our way to Tanglewood. By now, the heat has broken and the night is cool. Once Tanglewood was the home of a wealthy family, but in the late ‘30s it became the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Over the years, performance venues have been added and conveniences for patrons have been included. Tens of thousands come to the Berkshires each year to visit Tanglewood and listen to the music. We sit on a blanket spread on the lush Tanglewood lawn and eat a picnic dinner. It is our last night. We reflect on the Berkshires and regret tomorrow’s departure. We read the program. Before the intermission, the orchestra will play two selections by Mozart. The performance will feature the world famous violinist, Itzhak Perlman. Polio severely disabled Mr. Perlman when he was a child. He is a wheelchair user. The program says that he is conscious of his disability in everything that he does and that his consciousness of his disability permeates his music.
I have read that while he is perhaps the greatest violinist in the world, he must often go to a back alley to locate an accessible entrance to a concert hall.
I remember that Mozart suffered from what we would now call a bipolar disorder. But it did not stop him from becoming the greatest musician and composer ever to live. The orchestra starts to play. I listen to the beauty and reflect on these two disabled men whose art fuses across the centuries. Each exists at a level of excellence only imagined by the rest of us. They come together in the pure sounds that flow from the strings of Perlman’s violin, and together they reach for the heavens. On a cool, clear Massachusetts night they touch the stars.
Full to bursting with life, I listen and sip a glass of wine. Where are those who could think that blindness is worse than death, or disability is in itself justifiable grounds for a life to end? They understand so little.