Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Sanctuary celebrates 90 years

“We drove in over a rough dirt road, under a fine arcade of sugar maples, canoe birches and other trees, where cinnamon and interrupted ferns almost hid the mossy stone walls on either side.”
John B. May remembers a walk in Lenox 90 years ago. That quiet morning has changed many lives. He was the director of ornithology for the Massachusetts department of agriculture, on a visit to Lenox, and he wrote about it in the summer of 1950 for Mass Audubon.
He and his companions climbed over a barway to look at the wide boards of an old barn. Then they followed the traces of an old cart path to an alder swamp where a tiny brook ran “among the grass tussocks and sprawling bushes.” And they climbed Lenox Mountain from Yokun brook to the summit.

Lenox Mountain rises behind Tracy Brook sanctuary.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Lenox Mountain rises behind Tracy Brook sanctuary.

Members of the Lenox Garden Club were taking their first look at the land they would turn into Pleasant Valley Sanctuary in Lenox.
People can make almost the same climb today says Becky Cushing, Sanctuary Director of Mass Audubon’s Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries.
Pleasant Valley Sanctuary is celebrating its 90th year this summer and fall with events all season, including a brunch honoring their founders in September.
The sanctuary began with a book, Cushing says. Dallas Lore Sharp, a professor at Boston University, published Sanctuary, Sanctuary, a call to protect the land, and he came to Lenox to speak.
Sharp saw the landscape changing around him. There were few trees here then. The mountains had been logged. The beaver were gone. Roadside flowers were disappearing, and honey bees, and song birds. He wanted people to know the plants and animals around them, familiarly.
Cushing wants that too — to let people relax here and just be.
“We’re just helping people feel comfortable” she says, “so you feel you know where to go and how to be safe. … Once people are here and on the trail, they realize how good it makes them feel to be here.”
Stephanie Bergman, her development manager, has felt the same, curating an art show with seven local artists that will in September. When she welcomes an artist to the sanctuary for the first time, and they walk across the meadow to the barn, she hears them breathe out.
“The air is just clearer here,” she says.
Mary Parsons felt the same call that day in 1928, coming to see the fields and wetlands. She knew too that if she and her fellows could not preserve the land, “the wood would be sold and the hillside stripped,” she writes in a Pleasant Valley publication from the summer of 1940.
She led the way in raising funds to buy the 250 acres of the old Power Farm. And then the informal committee of gardeners had to sort out what to do with it. They held their first meetings in the barn, she says, sitting on piles of hay.
May recommended Maurice Broun, who had worked with him in Boston, and an energetic urban naturalist became the sanctuary’s first superintendent.
Broun had grown up looking for birds on Boston Common, Cushing says. The mountainside was a new world to him, with its old orchards, glens and gorges.
In his own essay after May’s, he recalls those founding years as restoration at a full sprint.
He put up 225 wooden bird boxes and hauled chestnut logs out of the woods to support them, with the help of a local farmer and a team of horses. He created five miles of trails and bridges with a World War I veteran named Charlie Hartman. And he got to know all that lived near them. He would walk the new trails, recording ferns and wildflowers, and he would spend his evenings identifying them.
He watched woodcocks taking the high dive of their mating flights. Chickadees would lands on his hands for sunflower seeds.
He recorded 136 kinds of birds in the sanctuary. He also transplanted more than two thousand plants. Along the trails and in the glens he planted cardinal flowers, gentians, trilliums, orchids — a dozen kinds of native wildflowers.
In 1929, the sanctuary acquired 50 more acres of farmland from a neighboring family. Harriet Crockett sold them the land and stayed with the sanctuary to run a tea room on the ground floor of the old farm house. Her family had lived in the Berkshires for generations, Cushing says. Her father had served in the 54th regiment, the first regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War, and the house had been built just after the revolutionary war.
The second floor became lodging for the warden, with a garden of ferns, and flying squirrels in the attic.
Broun moved on in the early years of the Depression, and the sanctuary brought in more willing workers — including beavers. The sanctuary re-introduced them in 1932, Cushing says, and they turned the alder swamps into natural ponds.
And because of them, the sanctuary became home to water birds. Alvah Sanborn, who followed Broun as director for some 30 years, saw wood ducks, black ducks, green herons and bitterns.
Cushing still hears his name.
“People say he was my mentor. He changed my life. He got me into conservation,” she says.
He led walks in the woods and fields, and he came into schools, like René Laubach, who followed him here as director here for another three decades.
The sanctuary has touched many lives.
In September, as the swamp maples turn red, hawks are riding the thermals. Songbirds prepare to migrate, and around the pond near the boardwalk, so do a glinting community of dragonflies. Green darners, with jade and deep blue bodies, will fly 900 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, while the ruffed grouse settle in here for the winter.

This story first ran in Berkshire Magazine in September 2019. My thanks to editor Anastasia Stanmeyer.

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