Walk with me. Listen to my liquid voice. I am an essay. My work is to flow.
Overture. sotto voce
Tyringham is located in south-central Berkshire County. The forested Berkshire Hills rise in northeastern and southwestern part of town, framing the pastoral Hop Brook valley in the center. Headwater streams flow from these mountains to join Hop Brook down in the valley. Hop Brook is a significant tributary of the Housatonic River; it flows northwest and joins the mainstream of the Housatonic further north in the town of Lee.
– BioMap2: Guiding Land Conservation for Biodiversity in Massachusetts, 2011
I’ve seen you glancing my way on your trips to the Transfer Station, back of your car loaded with Styrofoam and plastic, your eye riding my silvery waterbreaks, not fixed on the road. You can’t resist me. I’ve seen you pausing at the parking lane behind the grange, looking over the riprap to admire my rapids. You’ve taken me in from the Cobble summit at sunset, traced my gold seam through the wild hops. You like to imagine time stops here, fixed in a prospect. But forever isn’t anything like that. Walk with me awhile, though you can’t keep up. I’m always ahead of you, but you know where I’m going. Come closer. I am the local, though I’m only passing through. Up on the telephone poles they’re stringing new fiber, but look down, at deer track and moccasin, work boot and wheel rut; listen for the whirring arrow, the falling timber, the scythe, the millstone, the turning water wheel, the bleating and the lowing, listen for the plain talk, the high talk, the curses and hymns, boasts and groans, listen for Ann Alsop Gilder Palmer’s gnarled fingers playing Haydn on the spinet, and her sixth great granddaughter’s newborn cry; listen for the falling water, always falling, as I make my way along the valley, sluggish at first, sprawling, then swift and svelte, then pooling, flooding and freezing with the seasons, taking in suns and moons in seeming minutes, speeding clouds and faces leaning in, paws grabbing what they can, though most of it slips through; space and time together, the same and never the same… but I babble on.
Walk with me. Listen to my liquid voice. I am an essay.
Section A: Curtin Pond to Sodom Pond Surveyors: Adam Auerbach, Eric Brown, Laura Rice Distance: 2.24 miles Elevation: 1,343 feet to 982 feet Significant Tributaries: Hayes Pond Tributary and a small unnamed tributary through Ashintully Gardens Access Points: Just south of 309 Main Road, Monterey, MA 01245 (informal) Ecologically Sensitive Areas: none identified Section Overview The first section of Hop Brook beginning at Curtin Pond is characterized by clear odorless water, generally more than one foot deep. The substrate is mostly sand with limited silt and organic debris present. The water is nearly still with hardly a detectable flow. The banks are near pristine wet lands and much of the stream flows through a marsh area. Approximately 25% of the bank and riparian area is shaded. As the Brook makes its way towards the conclusion of this section at Sodom Pond it enters a large expanse of gated private property. The water runs parallel to a private road until entering the privately owned Sodom Pond. The owner has installed a small dock on the pond and also dammed the downstream side of the pond.
– Hop Brook Assessment Report & Recommendation Plan, 2014
Beginnings, “in the beginning,” origins, firsts, openings, commencements, roots, ancestries, stocks, and pedigrees—how you fuss over them—Township #1, Founders Day celebrations, a road sign at the boundary welcomes the visitor: Tyringham, 1739: A Hinterland Settlement; the frontier ministry, the oldest house, the earliest names, the mossy headstones. As if you could just scrape oblivion away. You can beat around the bushes here all you want, but you won’t find my source precisely. There were shifts, forcing up the granite; there was ice, filling up the hollows, pulling down the boulders; then there were puddles, widening the marsh along the flat valley, the “Holler,” a few indents deepening in the melt, starting a flow past the angle of repose, in a time before names, a slow, malarial plain no Mahican would settle in; good for hunting grounds, for tapping maples. Others came with their charters and bibles, and called it Sodom. “A plain well watered everywhere, even as the garden of the Lord” (Genesis 13:10). Here at the sluggish pond you can almost see what it was like then, in the “Hop Swamps,” when my valley stream had no channels and the waters drained and swelled like lungs, the milky mist just lifting in the morning light. Nearly still, temporizing, reluctant to be going, as if it were a matter of will, not weight. Where I ooze out into a course there are trees and shrubs for over a hundred feet on either bank; protruding and overhanging vegetation and numberless cattails turning to cotton. At some point I began to flow, found my power, carved into the banks through hemlocks and white pines, rinsed off the sediment and ran, free in form, gathering speed from the rivulets each spring; then the floodplain was cleared and tilled and grazed, the acres plotted, the children pulling out the rocks to mark the boundaries. Can a flow be sectioned? It was; dams and millponds spawned in these waters.
“Although there is no positive date of the first sawmill in Sodom, in 1787, Jan. 30, John Winegar of Lee paid 200 pounds to John Rusell, Justus Battle and Ishmall Spink of Tyringham for ‘privileges of the stream called Hop Brook at and near the Sawmill standing on said brook together with a convenient place to set a grist mill’.” – Eloise Myers (town historian and former proprietor, Stedman Rake Factory), 1963
It was in 1799 that Captain Thomas Steadman purchased a mountain farm which took in the water privilege at this point. Elizur Smith the pioneer paper maker of southern Berkshire and the noted founder of the great Lee manufactories bought this historic Hop Brook privilege and erected thereon, with his partner, Plainer, a wooden structure which was quite sizable and was a large paper mill for those days. – Walden’s Stationer and Printer, 20(7):16, October 26, 1903
“Water privileges,” taken to power saw mills, grist mills, cider mills, cotton mills, paper mills, wood turning tools to make bedsteads and butter bowls; sometimes my water was rusty, full of iron, sometimes sandy, full of lime; a use for everything, kilns and foundries, weirs on every stream running down to me, and all along my stream bed. Privileges to dam the stream and privileges to dump, the sting of lye, the stench of sulphur, the scorch of slag, the privy hole on the mill house floor.
“Round and round here went the enormous revolutions of the dark colossal waterwheel, grim with its immutable purpose.” – Herman Melville “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” Harpers, 1855
Here in Sodom, a rake factory, rake poles and fork poles, “Extras” made of hard hickory, churn handles, brushbacks and mashers, from modern machines forged in Sodom by dry, hard-shelled Baptists, Heath and Stedman, ingenious tools for making “teeth”; the din of industry chopping my song into intervals, whoosh-chug-whoosh-chug-whoosh-chug-whoosh, and clackety-clickety-clackety-clickety, bang boom bang boom, on the factory floor; and sometimes a deafening Boom and Whack, the boiler exploding, a stick of cord wood sent like an arrow, into the boarding house across the street.
“To paraphrase Tennyson, factories may come and factories may go, but rake-making in Tyringham goes on forever.” – Speech delivered by John Scott, Chairman of the Committee, Old Home Week, August 7-13, 1905
“The mills and shops of the Heaths and the Stedmans are no more. The fields and meadows are grown to brush, even Hop Brook has changed its course. Only the whippoorwill and the fox remain the same.” – Eloise Myers, 1963
—freshets and fire wiping out the mills, that were mended or rebuilt, then burned again.
The water privilege has expired now, my song again unbroken, except for the small, useless dam on Sodom Pond that makes a calm cascade; my waters are “clean” and “odorless.” Walk with me… oh, sorry, you can’t come in here, iron-gated and surveilled; Stedman’s Rake Factory is now the rusticated “Wildbrook,” a thousand-acre estate owned by PayPal’s CEO.
My waters are rinsing out the world. Here is a place that memory and money have invented, a place to idle, though nothing really idles. The old mills left no brown zones here. A “pastoral” retreat, a retro-prospect of green pastures; scattered sheep, horses, goats and cows, hay rolls (not covered in white plastic) dotting the fields and keeping the taxes low. You’re embarrassed by the pretense of a rural life, the privileged illusion, the post-card scenery, the restored red barn and its hex sign. And so glad of it. How you raged when they widened the old dirt road and pulled up those quaint white posts that had been there for a century. Hop Valley, Hope Valley, land of the patient, wading crane, the skimming swifts, the tumbled boulders, keeping apart from time.
The Shoulder of the Mountain
Section B: Sodom Pond to Monterey Road Surveyors: Adam Auerbach, Eric Brown, Laura Rice Distance: 0.31 miles Elevation: 982 feet to 930 feet Significant Tributaries: Camp Brook Access Points: Sodom Road, Tyringham; Main Road, Monterey Ecologically Sensitive Areas: Trustees of Reservations Conservation Area Section Overview The streambed primarily consists of sand, cobbles, and gravel which gives the stream a sandy color in appearance. The water appears clear with no noticeable odor and a depth of more than 1 foot. There are occasional riffles in the beginning of the section where the brook flows out of Sodom Pond, but the water becomes more still as the brook becomes wider and flows through several marshy areas. The majority of the stream banks have either shrubs and grasses or trees as a vegetative riparian buffer. As the second section begins just after Sodom Pond, the brook enters Ashintully Gardens, a Trustees of Reservations Property, which is an old estate site and garden consisting of hundreds of acres conservation area and historic gardens open to public access. This site provides access to an unnamed small tributary of the brook by way of walking trails through the gardens.
Dams falling, farms failing, land bought up by those with fortunes made elsewhere, till Tyringham got pretty high. In 1903 Robb de Peyster Tytus, “the Egyptologist” (who had uncovered the palace of Amenhotop III on the Luxor excavation), used a bit of his railroad inheritance to buy up five farms—Garfield, Duncan, Fenn, Beach, Clark, folded into one estate, 1,500 acres with the Hop Brook running through it, improved the barns, bought hands, bred cows and horses, and had a spiral road cut half way up Round Mountain, bought a car, the first here, and a chauffeur, hired Irishmen, Italians by the hundreds, excavators, masons and carpenters, to build a Palladian house, luminous white stucco, on the scale of Amenhotep’s palace, 35 rooms, 15 fireplaces, 10 bathrooms, grand double staircase and two story library, to rival any Lenox “cottage”; called it “Ashintully” (“the shoulder of the mountain”); then he and his new wife filled the place with ancient glass and fine porcelain, marble statuettes, silk lamps and Persian carpets, black lacquer desks and tufted velvet sofas, mirrors like Versailles’, organized Hunt Club meets in Tyringham, and died of tuberculosis the next year, in 1913, at 37. The wide terrace, 110 feet across, had been filled with the finest people, looking down on the valley and taking in my length, though they couldn’t hear me from way up there, as they chattered and clinked through the night, until the silence set in, and the widow couldn’t settle, remarried, divorced, fell on the polished floor, succumbed to a heart attack, so it passed through illustrious renters (melancholy Henry Adams was one), then speculators, her son by the second marriage buying it back, and burning it down in the 50s, inevitable, really, all those chimneys, the cold winters, the town-folk relaying buckets from my banks throughout the night, kids picking in the rubble years after. Four Doric columns, 30 feet high, still stand against the sky. Nothing beside remains.
You sit up there at the edge of the ruined terrace, your back to the void, and take in my long meander through the valley below. But no one can live up there for long.
Veering back to the road out of Ashintully Gardens, to the cow fence along the pasture, loosestrife muffles my voice. I pass by gold-leafed Beach Road, which leads up to the Visitation Monastery, on land bought in the 70s by nuns of the Sacred Heart, a silent order, silent except for their chimes, mixing with my murmur, at noon and six each day.
Section C: Monterey Road to Jerusalem Road Surveyors: Adam Auerbach, Eric Brown, Laura Rice Distance: 2.61 miles Elevation: 930 feet to 890 feet Significant Tributaries: Crystal Brook, Shaker Pond tributary Access Points: Monterey Road, Appalachian Trail (off Tyringham Main Road), Jerusalem Road Ecologically Sensitive Areas: none identified Section Overview The third section of Hop Brook is deeper than previous sections, often greater than two feet. The water flows slowly at the beginning part of the section and reaches higher velocity by the end of the section where the Brook reaches Jerusalem Road and the Tyringham Post Office. This section of the brook flows through primarily residential areas and grazing land and is generally more open than the previous two sections. Commercial land use for parking lots and roads are clearly visible from this section of the brook. Despite going through more developed areas, there generally is a riparian area of at least 100 feet on either side of the brook, with the notable exception of the post office parking lot area.
Deeper and faster now, rocks, small waterfalls, where I run behind the firehouse, a dry hydrant standing at attention. I flow through the hamlet, picking up the little pulse of the goings on, few and brisk, dalliance and dealings, a thin hymn, a shrill voice, a laugh, a greeting, occasional rumblings from the town hall. Not many people, a couple of hundred, a few more in the summer, down here in lower Jerusalem, place of the “World’s People” as your Shakers called them. The North Shaker Settlement still stands up on the hill, though the world’s people moved in there long ago. Here on my banks is a church (empty), a post office (narrow), a schoolhouse (rotting), a library (moldy), town offices where papers flutter in and out. Once there were shops, selling twists and buttons, salt and molasses, gin and brandy, paregoric and sulphur; trading sewing needles for cheese, tallow and salt for knitted socks; peddlers passed through with pink lace and suspenders. A hungry AT hiker stumbles out of the woods, looking for provisions but finds none; otherwise, the look of things hasn’t really changed much here in over a hundred years.
Our town put on Our Town! For two summer weekends, Hop Brook Valley was Grover’s Corners. Straight-faced scions of farmers and mill workers, late generations of the summer gentry, their trusts depleted, intellectuals, writers and musicians, pony-tailed environmentalists and burly loggers, the old and the young, the common, the genteel, amateur actors all, worked earnestly all year and put on the play with their neighbors. Acts I and II in front of the Union Church (1853) with its four Ionic columns, Act III in the cemetery on the hill behind it. George Gibbs was Andrew Slater, raised on the last dairy farm in the valley (which was also the first); he still hays the fields and mows the town lawns, and serves as fire chief; Emily Webb was Lordes Alvarez, whose parents run Woven Roots CSA. (Yoga classes and drumming on Saturdays.) Tom Fennelly, who monitors the transfer station in stony silence, was a voluble stage manager, and energetic Tonio Palmer, the serial small-scale entrepreneur, who really does lead the choir, tottered across the grounds as bitter Simon Stimpson. It was 2016, it was 1938, and it was, for a few hours, 1901.
Oh, you cried a river over Emily Webb’s 12th birthday, remembered from the grave:
EMILY: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute? STAGE MANAGER: No. Pause. The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
Only brooks, I think.
“Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be” says the Holy Sacred and Divine Roll and Book from the Lord God to the Inhabitants of Earth. How could it be dangerous to be living in a town like this, where it is always, somewhat, 1901?
Section D: Jerusalem Road to Breakneck Road Surveyors: Adam Auerbach, Eric Brown, Laura Rice Distance: 2.5 miles Elevation: 890 feet to 852 feet Significant Tributaries: none Access Points: Jerusalem Road, Breakneck Road Ecologically Sensitive Areas: none identifed Section Overview The Jerusalem Road to Breakneck Road section of Hop Brook has clear water that is quick moving with many riffles and is generally greater than two feet deep. The early part of this section begins at the Tyringham post office. Beyond the post office both river banks are densely lined with trees. The river left bank has a very steep gradient and there are boulders in the water. The surroundings of the brook gradually transition to more open agricultural land as the brook reaches the end of this section at the Breakneck access point. Throughout the entire section there is frequent vegetation overhanging the banks and water. The riparian zone is of high quality just beyond the post office, but degrades by the end of the section when the brook enters pastureland. However, the pastureland provides habitat for many ducks, easily viewed from Breakneck Road.
Deeper still, a steep gradient with riffles. Amos Hale’s carriage tipped over the road coming down from the Shaker stream, the one that meets me at a sharp angle, and broke his neck. And there were other dangers in Jerusalem, especially for New Yorkers turning to the rural life.
SIDNEY HOWARD KILLED BY TRACTOR ON ESTATE; Playwright Is Crushed in Berkshire Garage; (Special to The NEW YORK TIMES. Aug. 24, 1939)
Most Happy Fella, Gone with the Wind… his heirs are still here.
J. Player Crosby, 61, of 137 Jerusalem Road died Thursday of an apparent heart attack as he was flying his single-engine airplane. He was the president of Lenox Capital, an international investment capital firm based in Great Barrington, was a founding partner of Finamex International, and served as vice president of Salomon Bros from 1972 to 1982. He and his wife, the former Barbara Leventhal, were married Oct. 2, 1971, in Tyringham. – Berkshire Eagle, June 21, 2003
Crashed in this very field, this watery field.
The airplane hangar and landing strip remain, down at the bottom of Breakneck, near my banks. The roofs are falling in and the grass is high. My floodplain stretches over most of it in spring.
But today is Ann Alsop Gilder Palmer’s 100th birthday. Her grandchildren have organized a garden party and invited the neighbors, cutting back the brambles in the Italian walled garden that their ancestors built, when there was money for such things; it’s still a mess of weeds, but they have cleared the algae from the small stone pool that stops Silver Brook where it comes down to meet me, the sweet waters where Ann used to cool herself afternoons in the summer months. She is telling again how as a girl she crossed the Atlantic 24 times in Cunard liners, cabin class, that life before the war a dreamlike memory, a curiosity, not even a longing. Fourbrooks Farm has been her home for 70 years, where she has managed the livestock and the logging, kept the swayback barn from falling down, and practiced her arpeggios, that float over the fields most afternoons. Her granddaughter lives here too, writer, trailblazer, keeper of goats and chickens; swaddled at her chest is the other highlight of the garden party, infant Rosamund, named after a great aunt, a famous New York theater critic of her day.
Section E: Breakneck Road to the Housatonic River Surveyors: Adam Auerbach, Eric Brown, Laura Rice Distance: 2.18 miles Elevation: 852 feet to 845 feet Significant Tributaries: Mad River Access Points: Breakneck Road, Meadow Street; both informal Ecologically Sensitive Areas: Confluence with Housatonic River Section Overview The last section of Hop Brook stretches from an access point at Breakneck Road and passes another access at Meadow Street shortly before joining the Housatonic. Just before Meadow Street the Mad River tributary joins the brook. This section of Hop Brook is characterized by slow moving clear and odorless water. The brook widens in this section. The banks generally have wetlands on either side. The brook does pass under two roads in this section, and there is abundant agricultural land surrounding the brook. The non-agricultural stretches of the banks are characterized by a combination of grasses and flowers on both sides and more trees and shrubs on the right bank as one looks downstream. However, this section of the brook is generally open due to the high percentage of mowed land.
You fret over endings as you fret over starts. Really it’s the slowest of declines here, from 852 feet to 845 feet, nothing as dramatic as the outset, or as the last section, and anyway, there isn’t a plot. My work is to flow. But it’s time to spread out into the floodplain again, away from the noise of the village. From this low point on Meadow Street you can look back across the milkweed and the goldenrod, and admire the length of the valley without leaving the riparian zone. And isn’t that the point, not to step too far out of the river in order to see it, to “realize life,” as Emily says, while you’re in it? Here I can go back to my wetland ways, laze around in eddies, though the mower still cuts too close to the banks. My journey is nearly done. Soon I’ll be joining the Mad River, just for a short jaunt, then I’ll heave myself into the Housatonic and away. Not many houses here at all, not many lights coming on at twilight though charcoal fires once blazed in the dark mountains, a thriving industry through the Civil War. Fox and fisher cat begin to prowl. There’s a little bridge, a turtle crossing, fine for viewing the ducks under the drooping willows. Across Meadow Street from the Wildlife Management Area is Drake’s Auto Parts and Scrap Metal, a family owned business (“54 years in the salvage industry”), steel wrecks stretching over weedy acres. Crushed chassis of Chevys and Fords shoulder to shoulder, some in a pile-up; hoods and hubcaps hidden among the thistles; cushions molting like milkweed, and jagged glass burning in the late sun.
Look around, there is beauty here too among these rusting hulks huddled under the mountains. Does anything leave this place? It does look like the end of the road for these machines. But I go on a bit more; the beavers have clogged my arteries and a badly installed culvert has constricted my flow, but I’ll get to my destination one way or another; I already have.
The author would like to thank the Housatonic Valley Association for providing maps and descriptions of the Hop Brook assessment, and for their important work in monitoring the health of waterways in the Housatonic region.
Bonnie Costello spent her childhood in rural Ohio and her adolescence in suburban New Jersey. She now lives in Boston and Tyringham, Massachusetts. After a long academic career, she now concentrates on creative nonfiction. Her place-based essays have appeared in Yale Review, Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, Concho River Review, War, Literature and the Arts, World Literature Today, Literary Imagination, Solstice, and Salmagundi, among others.
All photos by Bonnie Costello unless otherwise noted. Photo of Bonnie Costello courtesy Boston University.