Reflections on the wonders of Stone Hill
Photos by Megan Haley
Bluebirds nest here. Black bears live in the deeper woods. In the fields, Holstein cattle graze near wood lilies as orange as the monarch butterflies and steel sculptures 16 feet high shaping the initials of philosophers. Mark Taylor and his family have lived at the other end of Stone Hill since 1990. He taught as a professor of religion at Williams College for nearly 40 years before moving to Columbia University. In warmer weather he often comes back here on the hill and works in his garden.
Over the years, he has written on philosophy and art. He has also cleared underbrush and made a rock garden, and then a bone garden and sculpture in stone and metal. His land has evolved into art. He wanted to create an exhibit about the hill, he says, blending art and philosophy with history and ecology. So he talked with Henry “Hank” Art, professor of biology and environmental studies at Williams College.
Art came willingly into the adventure, and together he and Taylor have curated “Sensing Place” in the Lunder Center at Stone Hill at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through October 10. Art also moved to the southern end of Stone Hill in 1988 and found the hill early in his years of teaching.
Back then the Clark was one white building, he says, and many active farms surrounded the pasture. He has brought students here to study ecology and field botany and the natural history of the Berkshires, and this fall, for the first time in several years, he will bring them back to use this exhibit as a field study. Though he has lived here for years, he says, he has learned an incredible amount in working on this show.
“You get a sense of place from the investment you make in a place,” Art says. In putting together “Sensing Place,” he has identified some 90 wildflowers that grow here, and he has led an effort with five surrounding landowners to name, map, and mark the trails on and around the hill. “I can’t say no one will get lost,” Art says.
“There’s a point to getting lost,” Taylor adds, smiling. Art remembers the last time he found himself on the hill in a place he did not recognize and came across a group of cows grazing in the middle of the woods. The connection was immediate and visceral. “You can taste it, feel it, hear it,” he says. “Being involved in the curation of this show put me back out in the field, and I experienced it in ways I hadn’t with a group of students.”
So he and Taylor want to draw people out into the meadow. In the gallery, they have gathered artifacts—the root ball of a buckthorn tree, the skull of a steer, an iron plough. They asked a group of people to join them that included writers, artists, a biologist, a farmer, a landscape architect, and others to reflect on Stone Hill, choosing an object or offering their own. Novelist Jim Shepard tells the story of a sharp-shooter’s rifle used to hunt bear, and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert looks closely at a column of earth from Hopkins Forest. Heather Williams, a professor of biology at Williams, has created sonograms of bird song; a motion sensor triggers the liquid sound of a song sparrow.
Maps, photographs, and time-lapse film show the hill evolving through time. To shape the works into a whole, Art and Taylor have collaborated with Jessica Ludwig, a design consultant for the Clark’s campus expansion; David Breslin, the Clark’s former curator of contemporary projects and associate director of the Research and Academic Program (he is now at the Menil Collection in Houston); and Jarrod Beck, a sculptor and environmental artist from Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Clark is changing its relationship to place, Taylor says. With the Lunder Center and the new addition, the museum turns toward the hill. He has seen people sitting on the new terrace, looking out to the pasture, and walking out past the fence. Stone Hill may be the most heavily visited site in Williamstown, he says. People find it beautiful.
“And fearful, too,” Art says. Taylor agrees, recalling a guest from London some ten years ago who woke early in the morning and was shaken because there were no outside lights between him and the night sky.
That kind of fear has led Taylor to this show—because he wants to respond to it. Place is disappearing, he says. People move fast, and they keep moving, and so fewer people get to know where they live. As people live more on screens, they have less sense of the world around them. And places are becoming so uniform that Southern Florida can look like North Dakota—or Helsinki.
“When every place is the same place,” Taylor says, “then it is no place.” That loss of place has a cost, he argues in his book Recovering Place, written in expectation of this show: “When we do not know where we are, we do not know who we are.” That knowing takes time, he notes, like learning the way the light over his land changes in a day or a season. “My favorite is October,” Taylor says. “It’s palpable before the leaves fall.”