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Forested splendor in Berkshire County

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In the southwestern corner of Massachusetts, Berkshire County is a place of natural splendor. Its 100,000 acres of forest - spruce woods, red pine, oak and maple - provide cover for the moose, coyote or black bear occasionally glimpsed in these parts. More commonly, there are herds of deer, as well as colonies of beaver and mink.

Hiking trails lace the woods, running companionably beside lakes and rivers and up and down mountainsides. At Monument Mountain, there are giant boulders left over from the ice age, when glaciers carved the landscape and scooped out the lakes.The Appalachian Trail runs straight through the center of the county, from Clarksburg to Bartholomew's Cobble in Ashley Falls, a National Natural Landmark whose marble outcroppings are 500 million years old. From here, you can look out over the glass-smooth Housatonic River and its valley, in this season shifting from deep green to red, orange, yellow and purple. The view might make you agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes. "If you would be happy in Berkshire," he wrote, "you must carry mountains in your brain."

Below, of course, this landscape has been much tamed - molded into country roads that wind through small villages whose trademark white steeples and red brick show up, vivid against the changing leaves.

For more than 100 years, the scenery has drawn visitors - many of whom came and stayed. Herman Melville was one of the first, desperate to escape what he called the "brick kiln" of New York. The estate he lived on, Arrowhead, is now home to the Berkshire County Historical Society, which offers guided tours of the house, set on impressive grounds near Pittsfield. From his library, you can look out a window at the humpbacked outline of Mount Greylock, far in the distance and, if the light is right, imagine, as he did, the figure of a great whale.

Others followed Melville. The sculptor Daniel Chester French - who created both the Minuteman in Concord and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington - settled in Stockbridge. Edith Wharton's home, the Mount, modeled on a house by Christopher Wren, still stands in Lenox; in summer, Shakespeare & Co. performs there.

Not all the newcomers were so literary, of course. There was also a fair showing of businessmen, newly rich from the Gilded Age's up-and-coming technologies - oil and gas as well as railroads. In Lenox, one New York plutocrat built Blantyre to replicate an ancestral home in his wife's native Scotland. The place is now run as an inn, albeit a fancy one; weekend rates range from $225 to $600 per night.

In Great Barrington, Stanford White designed Searles Castle for the widow of the founder of the Central Pacific Railroad, and in Stockbridge, White's firm built Naumkeag for Joseph Hodges Choate, a New York lawyer best known for staving off income-tax legislation.

The county is still synonymous with high culture, though. In summer, it is home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra - as well as the dance festival at Jacob's Pillow. But even off-season, it offers enough live music to fill a weekend.

There are good museums here. Probably the best known is the Norman Rockwell, in Stockbridge. Among the highlights: a view of Stockbridge's Main St. at Christmas, and, in a skylit gallery off to the side, the famous Four Freedoms, painted during World War II.

The county also offers good shopping. Country Dining Room and Tea Garden Antiques displays everything for the table (178 Main St., Great Barrington). Also in Great Barrington, Elise Abrams has more of the same. Note: The town of Sheffield must have more antiques dealers than it has people; if you're interested in old furniture, jewelry or just curiosities, by all means, stop.