“To See Heaven in a Wildflower”
Bartholomew’s Cobble and all its splendor
This hepatica, an herbaceous perennial that is a member of the buttercup family, emerges in early spring and can be seen at Bartholomew’s Cobble.
As a girl growing up in Monterey, Elizabeth Orenstein would walk with her mother on Beartown Mountain Road, near the 30 acres they lived on. She remembers coltsfoot in bloom. Her mother taught her to call plants by name, she says, and now, for her college thesis, she is painting them.
As a young police officer riding a motorcycle beat in Cumbria, in the Lake District in Britain, Eddie Wren found an escape from the pressures of the job—photographing asphodel and water lobelia. It was not something he talked about with his colleagues, he says, but wildflowers gave him respite. He has gone on to become a photojournalist and wildlife blogger and a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. Now, more than 40 years later, he lives in Chatham, N.Y., and the blooms under his lens are not wood anemones in the high fells but rue anemones blooming in Sheffield at Bartholomew’s Cobble. And he wants to share them.
He and Orenstein are part of a group of 33 volunteer guides who will run the Cobble’s annual Wildflower Festival through May 7. “There’s a crazy density and diversity of plants here,” Orenstein says. “I’ve been to many beautiful natural places, and you don’t find this.”
Coming down the steps of the southern cobble, by the horse-shoe bend in the river, to walk along ancient boulders and a rock wall of walking ferns dripping snowmelt is magical, says Orenstein. Bartholomew’s Cobble is a Trustees of Reservations property and a rare configuration of quartzite and marble and hemlock forest along the Housatonic River. “We live in the oldest mountains on earth,” says Carrieanne Petrik-Huff, Trustees’s engagement manager for Southern Berkshire County. She points out a rock face in a sunny, protected spot where wild ginger and bloodroot grow. “That’s why these flowers do so well,” she says. “The rock and the river hold the heat, and we’re facing south, so we get passive solar.”
Some 800 species of plants grow here, with one of the greatest diversities of ferns in North America, and as many as 50 species of early spring wildflowers bloom within the Cobble’s 329 acres. The festival celebrates ephemerals—woodland flowers that bloom in the short time when the ground thaws and sunlight reaches the forest floor, before the trees leaf out.
Blooms change continually, Petrik-Huff says. When the white and yellow Dutchman’s breeches have gone by, the wild columbine will be opening.
The guides will come in their free time, even in the rain, and have been training on Saturday mornings since early March. They are a diverse group, from college-age to retired. Some have old roots here: Colleen Vigeant remembers her grandmother’s wildflower garden in Southfield, next to the buggy-whip factory. Her grandmother’s sister, Marian Emmons Pratt, now 93, would pick wild pink, lavender, and white hepatica for her mother, and Pratt has shared her great aunt’s drawings from the 1880s of wildflowers around their farm in Caanan Valley, Connecticut.
Other guides are more recent transplants—from Brooklyn, St. Louis, Costa Rica, and the U.S. Navy. Some of them know New England woods intimately, and some grew up calling a dandelion a daffodil and first came to the Cobble out of curiosity.
Wren came on guided walks eight or nine times last spring with his camera before signing on to lead his own. He grew up walking in the Lake District National Park, an area known for the Romantic poets and Beatrix Potter. His father knew the country, he says, and he found as an adult that his father was a massive source of information about the local wildflowers.
“He always believed strongly that there was a cure for all man’s ailments in the hedgerow—in the plants,” Wren says, “and he has been proved right time and again.” In spring, his father would forage for a meal and prepare an “herb pudding” from early greens and flowering plants.
Orenstein began leading tours last year, and this spring she is finishing her undergraduate degree through a low-residency program at Goddard College in Vermont. She is writing her senior thesis on Bartholomew’s Cobble, and she is drawing plants there as well. She has learned to pay attention the way an artist or a naturalist does, looking at her feet to see what has come out, like the fragile petals of bloodroot that bloom for only a few days. The leaves curl around the stems to keep them warm.
Blue Wood Aster–Guide Elizabeth Orenstein is painting wildflowers as part of her study of plants and trees at Bartholomew’s Cobble for her senior thesis at Goddard College.
The Wildflower Festival at Bartholomews Cobble runs through May 7, 2017.