The Berkshires welcome winter solstice with firelight and evergreens (BTW column)

We have almost reached the longest night of the year. We are moving visibly from one year to the next, and for hundreds of years people around the world have taken time for it. And in the Berkshires too.

They gather together on the longest night. They light the fire. They dance, play music and tell stories. In Iran, at Shabe Chelleh, friends and family read the poems of Hafez aloud. The Zuñi honor Shalako with a fire of juniper, as they remember family gone before and offer blessings for health in the year ahead.

The Irish have welcomed the returning sun since Newgrange, and the Celts have burned yule logs on wide hearths. The logs were massive, Old Moore’s Almanac tells me, as it traces the solstice in Ireland. Families would bring home as large a tree as they could haul and rest one end in the hearth to burn, and as it burned down they would push the tree farther in.

The Almanac describes those smoldering logs exactly the way Mohican families would heat their spacious, arched houses in the southern Berkshires, as Rob Hoogs told me a year ago at the Bidwell House in Monterey. He was creating a new trail, working with with the Stockbridge Munsee nation, the Mohican people who live in Wisconsin today. Three hundred years ago, Hoogs said, their knowledgably and generously fueled fires kept them warmer than the Reverend Adonijah Bidwell’s kept him.

If you’re looking for a blazing fire this weekend, you might take shelter in the Red Lion Inn or the Egremont Barn or Race Brook Lodge and take in some live music … or stop at Tourists for a Craft and Sip to make to make a pair of hand rolled beeswax candles and clay candle holders on Saturday afternoon.

In Ireland, people traditionally brought in a Yule log from their own land or as a gift from a friend, and the Almanac finds echoes of it now the evergreens and candles on holiday tables. This weekend is a time for holly and winterberry and walking in the snow.

If not gathering them from our own yard, we can find them at local farms, or meet them growing wild and get to know them, and leave them in peace.

So this weekend, maybe I’ll a moonlit walk at Notchview. The trails there are broad and quiet between the red spruce. The moon is waning tonight, and I hear the Ursid meteor shower will peak on the solstice, around the big dipper — though the meteors are most visible between midnight and dawn.

So I could take a walk through Mountain Meadow at sunrise and climb the hill to look out over the valley.

Or maybe I’ll head up past the hairpin turn to look for old growth trees. Thom Smith tells me the state forests along Route 2 have some of the few who have grown undisturbed since before my European forebears reached the coast.

He has seen a hemlock tree that has lived and grown in Monroe for 450 years.
Farther south and nearer the road, he says, Ice Glen in Stockbridge has hemlock trees 400 years old … and a white pine more than 13 feet across.

From there, my way home would wander by local farms that offer their own kissing balls and holly berries. Ioka Valley Farm, Whitney’s Farm Market, Taft Farms and Windy Hill Farm all offer their own, and I think of the scent of a room full of wreathes, the sweet depth of wood and balsam fir.

Township Four makes wreathes with evergreens and grape vines. Juniper has a rich lemon scent in a wreath, especially on a south-facing door where the sun will warm it as it returns.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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