Into the Wilds
When a deer stepped out of the brush during the Aspen Institute’s Wilderness Seminar last August, the timing was perfect. “Cue the deer,” someone whispered, and smiles quickly lifted the gravity of our discussion.
Our group of 20 had formed a discussion circle on a carpet of soft duff in a clearing of towering spruce trees at Crater Lake in the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness. Above us, the twin peaks of the Maroon Bells soared to more than 14,000 feet.We had been pondering 18th-century political philosopher Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime and the beautiful when the deer took us from the abstract to the real. Burke’s meaning suddenly gained significance: “Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small. Beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive.”Burke described the setting exactly. Century-old spruce trees overshadowed by jutting peaks revealed the sublime, while the delicate deer, ears and tail twitching, revealed beauty. In one sweeping glance Burke’s distinction became clear, and in that moment the mission of the Wilderness Seminar was achieved.
Part of that mission was breaking free of the gravitational pull of the traditional Meadows campus seminar rooms, a hallmark of the Executive Seminar since the 1950s. The logistics of the five-day Wilderness Seminar ensured that participants would be immersed in Aspen’s wilderness backyard. Guided by an Institute-gathered notebook of readings, we explored the complex relationship between man and nature. Guided by the trails before us, we explored the wilds surrounding Aspen in a journey of body, mind and spirit.
Designated Wilderness Areas comprise only 2 percent of the lower 48 states – approximately the same area that is paved – and yet wilderness stirs the heart and impassions the soul. Wilderness represents only a fraction of our national land mass, yet it resonates with a vital part of our beings. To better grasp our wilderness roots, seminar participants looked to the divergent philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Where Hobbes saw man’s existence in a state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” Rousseau credited nature for providing man with superior qualities of vigor, good health and strong instincts.For cultural perspective we referred to the Book of Genesis and man’s dominion over the natural world. For a counterpoint we read Jared Diamond, who depicted the collapse of civilizations due to the over-consumption of natural resources. In the thrall of the sublime and the beautiful, we experienced the passion of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Wallace Stegner.As we opened ourselves to the forces of nature at Crater Lake that August afternoon, storm clouds moved in, shading the face of the Maroon Bells in a gloom of dark shadow. Distant rumblings of thunder portended a storm as we opened our books to Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s, “Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory,” where we learned how the medieval mind reviled mountains as “nature’s shames and ills … warts, wens, blisters, imposthumes,” created by a punitive God for man’s atonement after his fall from grace in the Garden.As we hiked down the trail from Crater Lake, thunder boomed from the ridges, mist slipped like a veil over the high peaks, and our minds churned. Walking, wrote Thoreau, is beneficial for digesting ideas and mulling perspectives, and the hike was as important as the discussion.
After a short drive up the Castle Creek Valley, we convened at the ghost town of Ashcroft where lightning strobed the afternoon sky and rain pounded on the metal roof of the historic, weathered saloon where we took shelter. The deserted ghost town was eerily quiet in the century-long absence of silver miners who forged their community from the wilderness in 1879. Their biblical dominion came with guns, drills and dynamite, their view of nature straight from Hobbes.Once the storm had passed we set out in the misty mountain air on a trail along Castle Creek, its waters shimmering over multicolored river rock quarried by glaciers 10,000 years ago. Our eclectic group included captains of industry, schoolteachers, wilderness writers, and conservationists. Casual conversations shifted randomly with our choice of hiking partners, as did our perspectives. This was another mission of the seminar: exposure to differing, informed viewpoints.At the Pine Creek Cookhouse we met our dinner guest, Father William Meninger, a learned Trappist monk from the St. Benedict’s Monastery in Old Snowmass. Father William pulled a handwritten manuscript from his robes and described the sacredness of mountains: “Different religions, cultures and traditions revere lofty summits as heavens or hells, gods or demons, wombs or tombs, temples or divine dwelling places.”After dinner, our discussion tempered the sacred with the practical through the impassioned debate between defenders of old-growth forests and those who would log them. As we left the Cookhouse and stepped into the inky night, flashes of lightning provided a metaphor to the often black-and-white viewpoints on which resource issues revolve.
The trailhead near the historic logging and mining town of Lenado is 15 miles from Aspen on a narrow, winding mountain road and leads into the 82,000-acre Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness Area. Our destination was Margy’s Hut, a rustic log cabin administered by the 10th Mountain Hut System, perched on a timbered ridge at 11,300 feet. The 6.5-mile trail took us through a profusion of thimbleberries, raspberries, chokecherries, cow parsnips and wild roses along the murmuring creek.Our lunch discussion took place in Sawmill Park, a broad meadow at more than 10,000 feet whose western horizon is rimmed by the Elk Range and marked by the distinctive shark teeth of the Maroon Bells. Facing this panorama, we ventured into William Cronon’s essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Cronon’s “trouble” with wilderness lies in the idea that statutory wilderness is a cultural invention that establishes a hierarchy of nature in which we risk losing our connections with the less glamorous natural places in which most of us live.
We learned from other writers that Western advocacy for wilderness preservation can harm the Third World by threatening the interests of developing economies. If indigenous peoples are to retain autonomy and cultural integrity, cautioned several authors, then large international conservation organizations must resist undermining indigenous cultures by advocating against traditional, life-supporting work on the land.Gathered in that wide-open meadow, the questions started coming: • Is wilderness a fundamentally American cultural invention, the export of which is presumptuous, self-serving and imperialistic?
• Does wilderness conservation in the Third World assail the autonomy and threaten the livelihood of people trying to live off the land in primitive simplicity? • Do we assign wilderness a “Garden of Eden” idealism that imposes impossible expectations on indigenous peoples?During a break, we explored the surrounding forest where a plane crash 30 years before had left three dead. Pieces of the plane- tragic, desolate, virtually forgotten, and alien in that wild landscape – attested to human frailty. Gradually these remnants were being absorbed into the forest by the indifference of nature, which cast yet another light on our journey.The final 45-minute ascent to Margy’s Hut traversed through the deep hush of a dense spruce/fir forest where ferns and shrubs filled the understory. Around a final bend in the trail, the hut stood in a clearing, wood smoke rising from its stovepipe. The hut, named for Margy McNamara and built by her husband, Robert McNamara, became our base camp for two days. The deck of the hut became an impromptu seminar forum, framed with views of the rugged Williams Mountains.
That night, we gathered around a crackling campfire where sparks shot forth toward the stars. By the orange glow of the fire we read and discussed selections from Psalms 104, the verse of Lao Tse, and the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, and William Wordsworth. Bunks in the hut and tents in the surrounding lodgepole forest provided tranquil repose for tired bodies and minds.To the summitThe next morning, with the door flung open to birdsong and mountain breezes, we reviewed a paean by Chief Luther Standing Bear, whose idealistic reflections described wilderness as a sacred, pristine haven, the spiritual home of the Native Americans. Historian J. Baird Callicott tempered our view by detailing the broad-ranging impacts of so-called primitive man on the North American continent long before the arrival of Europeans. Wilderness activist Dave Foreman brought management and idealism to bear in his future vision for big, connected wilderness areas linked by wild corridors throughout North America.
Midmorning, with lunches packed and compasses in hand, we broke into small groups and followed a compass bearing without benefit of trail or guide, bushwhacking to the ridge of 11,700-foot Mt. Yeckel. Gathering on the summit, we delved into wilderness trials depicted in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” Wallace Stegner’s “The Sound of Mountain Water,” and Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage.”Our summit experience culminated with an Aspen Times article about three remarkable Aspen women – Connie Harvey, Joy Caudill and Dottie Fox – who championed wilderness during the 1960s, more than doubling the size of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and preserving the very wilderness in which we now gathered. That afternoon we sought our own resonance with the wilds, spending two hours alone in “solos” that provoked insights that were written in a letter, self-addressed and sealed, to be mailed to their authors six months later. Art was the theme of our final night around the campfire, where we viewed and discussed paintings by Bierstadt, Gauguin and a Japanese watercolor of Mount Fuji. A collection of “Bedtime Readings” from the Institute provided quiet introspection after the campfire had died, when only night breezes sighed through the forest.
As we busied ourselves with breakfast on the final morning, co-moderator Elliot Gerson concluded that the Wilderness Seminar had achieved its goal. We had hiked mountain trails, stood before glowering peaks, felt the presence of wild nature, and wrapped our minds around a pantheon of wilderness thinkers, historians and philosophers. What Gerson had hoped for as “interesting weather” was delivered as if on cue – just as the deer had appeared at Crater Lake – with roving thunderstorms, rain dashing against our hooded jackets, sun radiating from deep blue skies, and smoky mists clinging to mountain peaks.”This seminar has given each of us special meaning for our relationship with the natural world,” concluded co-moderator Roger Widmann, “not just in wilderness, but with nature all around us. This has truly been a journey … in every sense of the word.”
As we slung on our packs for the last hike, we said our goodbyes to fellow participants, who now felt like old friends. With a final view of the Williams Mountains, we followed the woodland trail away from the hut, musing over the words of Maurice Herzog, leader of the 1950 French expedition to Annapurna: “This diaphanous landscape, this quintessence of Purity – these were the mountains of my dreams. An enormous gulf was between me and the world. This was a different universe … a fantastic universe.”Paul Andersen co-created and co-moderated the Wilderness Seminar. He is a columnist and contributing writer to The Aspen Times.
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