Where words and nature meet: Leverett poetry boxes encourage hikers to slow down, contemplate

  • A winter scene in Leverett, where mushrooms cover a log on a trail at Leverett Pond.  Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A bench overlooking a trail in Leverett’s 4-H Forest. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Trails in Leverett Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • The frozen surface of Leverett Pond. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A poetry box along a trail in Leverett’s 4-H Forest, where hikers are encouraged to record their experiences and thoughts in verse. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Leverett Pond, as seen on a cold day in January.  Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A trail at the Depot Road boat access in Leverett. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Trails in Leverett. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A map of Leverett's poetry boxes. Contributed image

  • A map of Leverett's poetry boxes. Contributed image

  • Janine Roberts, 72, hikes around Leverett Pond on a spring-like day in February. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Janine Roberts, 72, hikes around Leverett Pond on a spring-like day in February. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Janine Roberts hikes a trail near the Depot Road boat access. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2020

Bitter-cold wind whips across the frozen surface of Leverett Pond, rustling the bare branches of a maple tree on its southern shore and sending dry leaves skittering across the ice. Cattails sway against brittle reeds; patches of snow create white islands in the nearby marshy ground.

If not for the cars driving by on Depot Road, it would be easy to forget that anything exists beyond the 100-plus-acre lake’s oblong circumference.

But even at this desolate time of the year, perceptive visitors can find signs of life. Songbirds, hidden among the rushes, break the silence; crows screech in reply from the shoreline. And there’s another kind of vitality that can be found inside a wooden box nailed to a nearby tree: poetry.

“The kingfisher we had come to study stooped / To take a tiny fish, while a young falcon stooped / To take both on a wing,” begins one poem titled “Native Bow Fishing at Leverett Pond.” Written in 2017 by Amherst poet John Paul Maynard, it’s first in a large notebook containing dozens of poems, some written anonymously in pencil, others typed out and signed. They have been kept safe from the elements inside the rudimentary box for the past decade or so.

The Depot Road poetry box is one of eight situated along nature trails throughout town as part of the Leverett Poetry Boxes project, a townwide initiative managed by the Leverett Trails Committee and co-sponsored by the Leverett Conservation Committee and the Rattlesnake Gutter Trust. The project was initially funded in 2012 by the Leverett Cultural Council through a Massachusetts Cultural Council, and its inception dates back to the late 2000s, when the trails committee was pushing to create new trails on conservation land.

“In the beginning, we focused on rebuilding trails that existed but had not been maintained, then (on) building connecting trails,” said Mary Alice Wilson, now of Putney, Vt., a member of the original group that put the boxes together. “At a meeting that I thought was going to be about trail maintenance, someone said — as I remember, it was Judith Davidov — ‘We need to do more than just build trails. We need to encourage folks to stop and look, to take photographs.’ ”

To that end, over the next few years, the trails committee held three photography exhibits at the Leverett Library featuring local nature images. During the final exhibit, Janine Roberts, a local poet, came up with the existing poetry-on-the-trails project.

“It was a gestalt of getting people out on the trails, helping people understand how other people were experiencing it, and, at the same time, recognizing the power of words to connect people to nature,” Roberts recalled. “I got the original idea from the Revolving Museum in Lowell because they put poetry boxes along the canal.”

Roberts, 72, lives and works as a certified therapist out of her home on Leverett Pond, a place close to her heart that provides constant poetic inspiration. When the temperature drops, the lake “sings” and she hears the ice cracking. Out over the water, the sky opens up: “You can watch meteorites falling and listen to beavers,” she said. The land “inhabits my poetry.”

Leverett is a special place, Roberts explained, because “You have such different environments in a relatively small space. You have Rattlenake Gutter, which is a remarkable trip back in time, and the pond, where so many different animals gather.”

Poetry has a way of capturing this beauty — “The otters, mink and all the different types of birds” — and preserving it for others to appreciate, said Roberts, who ran the doctoral therapy program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for 25 years before retiring early in 2006. She’s finds writing an important mental outlet.

“The first thing I did … was work on a poetry book,” she said. “A lot of my work has been pretty intense, with all kinds of complexities and intricacies that people are working through. Poetry, for me, was a way to hold and contain some of the intensity of that … so I could be anchored and available to other people.”

This perspective served as the project’s backbone. To that end, Roberts led three workshops at the library, providing guidance and prompts, and Rich Michelson​​​​​, who was at that time Northampton’s poet laureate, received a grant to host a series of workshops at area schools, including one at Leverett Elementary School. Roberts noted the project was a cross-town collaboration — she highlighted efforts by Anne Ross, the Leverett school’s principal, upper-grade teachers Bill Stewart, Alyson Bull and Christine Paglia Baker, library teacher Susan Wells and Steve Woodard and David Powicki, who built the boxes. 

Journeys recorded in verse

Besides the one at the Leverett Pond boat access, there are poetry boxes on Rattlesnake Gutter Road, Long Hill Trail, 4-H Trail, Woodard’s Corner, Gordon King Life Estate, East Leverett Meadow and Bates Sanctuary (eight altogether).

The poems, which are sometimes accompanied by photographs, range in topic from personal to experiential to historical. For example, transcending time, Maynard’s piece conjures a pre-Colonial scene of three Native Americans — two boys and their father — fishing near the same place where a picnic table now resides.

“The land is yours / Nonetheless. You need no license to fish anywhere. / In the end, you caught the only fish which matters: / The rainbow that was there and not there. / I saw you aim away from it — you compensated — / You shot your arrow at nothing. And it hit,” the poem concludes.

In an email, Maynard, a member of the Hadley Historical Society, said the poem was inspired by his desire to accurately re-tell the region’s history. “When I went to school in Connecticut, we were told there were no more Indians in this valley region. But that is incorrect. The Nipmuc, a recognized tribe” (which has offices in Grafton these days) and “the Pocumtuc, now extinct,” lived in western Massachusetts.

Through poetry like Maynard’s, Roberts says today's world is connected to bygone eras.

“There’s a way in which (poetry) holds us, in our context, in our history, these things that appear here and there in the land,” Roberts said, noting that compared to prose writing, poetry “is so focused. You can condense myriad meanings into just a few words. I think it’s really optimal to hold a longer perspective.”

Another box, located about a quarter-mile down 4-H Trail on Shutesbury Road, affords an entirely different poetic experience. The landscape of Leverett’s 4-H Forest, a 38-acre conservation area abutting Teawaddle Hill Road, is much different than that by the pond. The forest is dominated by towering conifers and willowy saplings, with much less ground cover. In warmer months, passersby undoubtedly serve as easy prey for mosquito populations living in nearby vernal pools. But today there are no buzzing insects.

Instead, winter’s eerie quiet blankets the peaceful wood. A winding path skirts a moss-covered stone wall until it rises to an overlook. At the edge is a wooden bench overlooking Doolittle Brook, which snakes its way downhill toward the lake. A box nailed to a thick tree contains more poems.

Among short notations of wildlife sightings — a bobcat sighting on Yellow Trail beneath the power lines in September of 2017 and a dead coyote seen in February of 2018, to name a few — poetic verses color the woods in a much different light than the day’s overcast skies.

“Lightning hits the tree crack boom/the tree hits the ground/I’m sure that the lightning will strike again,” begins one anonymous poem. Another traveler, identified only by the initials “K.B.,” shared these lines from 19th-century English poet George Gordon Byron’s narrative piece, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”: “There’s a pleasure in the pathless woods, / A rapture on the lonely shore, / I do not love man less, / but nature more.”

Nearly a decade on, it’s unclear how many people have enjoyed these and other verses contained in the notebooks. What is certain is that the Leverett Poetry Boxes project has achieved its goal: to encourage visitors to stop and appreciate the charming beauty of the region’s quiet woods, which served as inspiration for noted New England writers Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost.

Indeed, one of Frost’s most memorable poems, “The Road Not Taken,” offers a theme that’s echoed in may of the works found along Leverett’s poetry trail:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood/And looked down one as far as I could … Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”