Ten months ago, my family and I left the Boston area for what Smithsonian Magazine has just declared the Best Small Town in America: Great Barrington, Mass. On one of my first days, I met a neighbor who welcomed me warmly to the area — then started talking about energy.
“You’ll love the energy here,” she assured me. “It’s like there’s a force.”
“A force?” I repeated, thinking, magnetic? Police? “Star Wars”?
“Yes,” she nodded. “Between the Taconic Hills and the Berkshires, there’s a kind of magical force.”
Maybe it’s magic that earned us the number one spot — though the Smithsonian’s editors say they were just looking for places that combine small-town friendliness with urban amenities. In some ways, the town reminds me very much of Cambridge, where I lived for a long time: lefty politics, a strong local food movement, a very high per capita rate of yoga instructors. But because Great Barrington is small, and lacks the tempering influence of, say, Boston’s financial district nearby, it initially seemed to me like Cambridge taken to the extreme.
Ever overhear some Cambridge moms swapping stories of natural childbirth? In Great Barrington, it’s the dads who do that. Think Whole Foods shoppers get worked up about the origins of their produce? In Great Barrington, even toddlers reject food if it isn’t local enough. A little boy in my son’s playgroup recently looked down sadly at his snack while the other kids were eating. “Mommy,” he whispered with some urgency. “I want butter that comes from our cow.”
I spent my first few months here sending out semi-panicked, semi-amused emails to urban friends with the subject line, “another Berkshire moment.” But soon, I realized at least some of the differences were superficial. I mean, sure, it is a little surprising to ask what a new acquaintance does for a living and learn that she’s “in granola.” But it turned out the woman does marketing for a local granola company, whose product has since become a staple in my kitchen.
Some of the differences aren’t so superficial. In Cambridge, flyers for major civic events don’t include a cheery note, “There will be opportunities for chanting, so don’t forget your drum!” But hey, at least in Great Barrington you’re invited to participate. In Cambridge, a drumming performance would likely ask only for your $20 donation and your silent admiration.
Indeed, the longer I live here, the more I’m reminded that Cambridge can be a little strident in its convictions, prone to resolutions and boycotts and the belief that if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Great Barrington, meanwhile, exudes kindness. If you’re not with us, you must not know us well enough yet. Want to try some of our homemade gluten-free banana bread? Need the name of a good medicine man? You’re welcome, and enjoy.
At times, Great Barrington feels like what Cambridge would be if everyone there had a little more time and elbow room, and wasn’t riled up about delays on the Red Line, lunatic drivers, or long lines at Starbucks. Plus, I’m learning, behind the New Age personas there is a seriousness of purpose as well as a lot of talent — in organic food, yes, but also in performing arts, academia, even business.
Is it any surprise that it’s all starting to grow on me? I’m not churning my own butter yet, but I’m baking my own bread. I don’t routinely hug the waitstaff in my favorite restaurant — not uncommon behavior here, I should add — but I’ve become a little chattier, a little more effusive, a little less edgy.
“You wave at everyone,” a visiting friend pointed out, a little accusingly, when we were out for a walk. “Every single car that goes by, you’ve waved at.”
“Really?” I said, as the excuses popped into my head. I just wanted to make sure the driver could see us! It wasn’t a wave; it was a muscle spasm!
Then another car approached and up went my hand again — almost as if by magical force.
Alison Lobron directs the Berkshire Writing Workshop in Great Barrington.