AMHERST — Along a trail named for famed author Julius Lester, who made his home in the Amherst area, families can take in the natural surroundings while getting the chance to read and enjoy popular children’s literature.
As walkers arrive at a wooden pedestrian bridge that crosses the Mill River, marking the trail’s beginning at Mill River Recreation Area, they will see a pedestal featuring the introductory pages from “Some Bugs,” a book written by Amherst children’s author Angela DiTerlizzi focused on backyard bug behavior.
Continuing about half the distance to the dam at Puffer’s Pond, and set every few hundred feet at the edge of the trail, 17 additional pedestals take people through the rest of the story. Known as a StoryWalk, the project opened on Halloween and is an initiative from Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for W.D. Cowls Inc. and the Mill District in North Amherst.
“This is building on the idea of how Amherst is a children’s literature area,” Rechtschaffen said.
Rechtschaffen, whose role at the company is to create locations where people can gather, said she understands the need to activate different spaces in the community due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With more people heading outdoors, she sought to tie arts, especially those representing a natural theme, into the path.
DiTerlizzi said she is thrilled that her work was the first chosen.
“I think it will offer visitors the opportunity to engage with the beauty of nature, as well as the journey of words and pictures that lay within the pages of a picture book,” DiTerlizzi said.
Bugs seemed to be an appropriate theme, Rechtschaffen said, especially as conveyed in a representative way in the book. DiTerlizzi also helped develop the Mill District’s slogan, “Building Community: One Story at a Time.” Walking the trail and then reading her book is a perfect activity for families, DiTerlizzi added, especially during the time of social distancing.
The first StoryWalk was created in Vermont in 2007 by Anne Ferguson, and the concept since has been replicated around the world, Rechtschaffen said. Once she came up with the idea, she took it to the Conservation Commission and received approval in September.
Amherst Wetlands Administrator Erin Jacque, who presented information to the commission, said a similar project exists in Sturbridge and was popular. “It was wildly successful. Kids loved it,” Jacque said.
All the wooden stands were built by a carpenter at Cowls Building Supply and set into the ground by Conservation Department workers so as not to interfere with the trail. The pages from the book were removed from the binding, laminated and then inserted below a plastic shield. The pedestals are set at an appropriate height for children so they can approach them and read the book.
In seeking to draw attention to the arts, Rechtschaffen said she has worked with W.D. Cowls President Cinda Jones on projects, including a recent installation of paintings by Joe Dulude II at a barn on Cowls Road. There are also illustrations in the area of the North Square Apartments project of Josiah Hasbrook, a 19th-century Black man who was a mail carrier and operated a lumber and wood company in west Amherst, and Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, who helped develop the University of Massachusetts’ African American and women’s studies departments.
Though the art on Cowls Road is not connected to the StoryWalk, a map near these paintings directs visitors to venture to Mill River, a few hundred yards down the street.
Rechtschaffen said she isn’t sure what other books will be featured in the StoryWalk, with each piece of literature to stay for six weeks, though the next selection will likely be “Owl Moon” by Jane Yolen of Hatfield, an appropriate choice as the weather turns colder. But she wants to make sure the books reflect different themes and that some could also be in other languages in recognition of the town’s diversity. Partnerships with bookshops, the Jones Library and authors themselves are also possible.
In her position, Rechtschaffen said, the importance of arts will also be demonstrated in the opening of a Provisions store later this month, and a general store sometime in 2021.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.