Pleasant Valley Turns 90 – A historic perspective on the nurturing of a wildlife sanctuary
“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 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, and they climbed Lenox Mountain from Yokun brook to the summit.
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 that same climb today, says Becky Cushing, director of Mass Audubon’s Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries.
Pleasant Valley is celebrating its 90th with events that include a September 22 brunch honoring its founders.
The sanctuary began with a book. 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. The mountains had been logged, and the beaver were gone. Roadside flowers and song birds were disappearing. He wanted people to know the plants and animals around them, familiarly.
“We’re just helping people feel comfortable so you feel you know where to go and how to be safe,” says Cushing. “Once people are here and on the trail, they realize how good it makes them feel.”
Stephanie Bergman, development manager, has felt the same, curating an art show with seven artists that opens 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 that call in 1928, walking in the fields. She knew 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. Then the gardeners had to sort out what to do with it. They held their first meetings in the barn, on piles of hay.
May recommended Maurice Broun, who had worked with him in Boston, and this 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, Broun 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. He walked the new trails, recording ferns and wildflowers, and he spent his evenings identifying them.
He watched woodcocks taking the high dive of their mating flights. Chickadees would land on his hands for sunflower seeds. He recorded 136 kinds of birds. He 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 farmhouse. 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.
Broun moved on in the early years of the Depression, and the sanctuary brought in more willing workers—including beavers. Reintroduced by warden S. Morris Pell in 1932, they turned the alder swamps into natural ponds.
Alvah Sanborn, who served as director for 27 years, saw wood ducks, black ducks, green herons, and bittern. Cushing still hears his name: “People say, ‘He was my mentor. He changed my life. He got me into conservation.’ ” He led walks and came into schools, like René Laubach, who followed him as director for another three decades.
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, as the ruffed grouse settle here for winter.