“Wild ginger.” Thom Smith, a Berkshire naturalist and longtime Berkshire outdoor columnist and freelance writer, pulls a young plant free of the ground. It has soft semi-circular leaves, and the root — slight and pale this early in the growing season — tastes pungent and peppery.
Thom has invited me to join him and his old friend Tony Costello for a walk in the woods. The new leaves are still light, and they let light through. This time of year, the earth is soft and the breeze is sweet. Everything feels fresh.
And we are on an adventure. A way in down this trail, yellow Lady’s Slippers are in bloom. This is one of Thom’s secrets, and he is willing to share it with me.
It’s a gift.
And as we walk, I think how many beautiful things grow in these hills, within easy reach of my front door, that I never knew about until someone told me or took me to see.
Finding them is what this site is for, to find the people who know a scarlet tanager’s song and help me to know it too — or an oboe solo, or a pencil sketch of a mother and child in the Arctic.
Denise Markonish, the curator at Mass MoCA, once visited 400 artist studios across Canada. She told me she got to within 20 miles of the Arctic circle before a snow drift closed the road. She drove stretches of two-lane highways with no sign of human life for hours at a time and found artists from St. John’s to Toronto to Nunavut — and she got them talking to each other.
Then she brought them here, and I could talk with them. I remember clearly, years later, walking through that show for the first time, and later on, at my old desk in the Eagle newsroom, talking by phone with Terrence Houle from his studio in Calgary about beadwork and horses and solo piano and places that feel like home.
Next week, Mass MoCA will open its new Building 6, doubling the museum’s size, with artwork by Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Bourgeois, James Turrell, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson and Gunnar Schonbeck from Bang on a Can. I’ve been waiting for months to see them, and I’m not alone. The fiddlers and mandolines at the music jam in Lickety Split on Satudays have been joking about Schonbeck’s mammoth banjos since before the thaw.
Opening day is May 28, and I’m looking forward even more now, because at 3 p.m. Nick Cave’s Soundsuit Parade will perform, choreographed by Williams College professor Sandra Burton. Nick Cave’s installation is a sunlit mobile, a heliographic maze that catches you over the breastbone as you feel the toughness and sadness and tensile strength in it, and when performers come in, it brims over.
A few weeks ago, on a quiet spring night, I had the chance to see Okwui Okpokwasili in awork-in-progress dance performance. The lights went down in the foot-ball-field-sized gallery, and we stood along the walls. The music was a sky-opening percussion, and I closed my eyes and held my face up to it. And then she appeared, down the length of the room, as a glimmering shadow. She was wearing the inversion of a soundsuit. It wasn’t a sculpture to mask the body. It was transparent, a membrane. And it ballooned around the only light in the room. She was wearing the light, carrying it on her shoulders, as she felt a way through the maze, touching the membrane, floating in it and emerging through it finally like a monarch in a chrysalis.
All that concentrated beauty lives just up the road this summer, and we can see it just by walking in.
You will have to ask Thom about the Lady’s Slippers; we both want to keep them safe. But keep reading, and he will tell you this summer about meadow flowers the way he showed me the taste of wild ginger. There is absolutely nothing like asking the people who know.
In the photo at the top, a radiating star gleams in Nick Cave’s installation Until at Mass MoCA. Photo by Kate Abbott