Andersen: Getting lost in the world
On May 30, I spent a meaningful hour on the John Burroughs bench at the Aspen Meadows. A simple, wooden bench among a stand of shimmering aspen trees has become a personal sanctuary of mine.
“I come here often to find myself. It is so easy to get lost in the world” — Burroughs’ words to the weary, the troubled, the soul seekers — are embossed on a small bronze plaque affixed to the bench.
Years ago, someone at the Aspen Institute — an enlightened thinker and realist — placed that bench with that plaque in a small copse of aspen saplings and proclaimed it a haven. Here was a place to reflect on self — away from the worrisome woes of the world.
Unfortunately, more recent decision makers at the Meadows/Institute elected to locate the Bucky Fuller geodesic dome at the same site. The intrusion is substantial but not quite fatal to the experience of seclusion, which is still available.
I went to the Burroughs bench because I realized how deeply my life has become entwined with causes, issues, career, relationships — the many and often defining externalities of life. All these things are important to me, but not to the point of losing myself in their pursuit.
I went to the bench in order to heed Burroughs’ message, and I brought with me one of his beautiful books. “Riverby” is one in a large and impressive collection that Burroughs (April 3, 1837, to March 29, 1921) wrote in the late 1800s. “Riverby” was Burroughs’ home in rural New York.
Burroughs is an exemplar because he found himself in nature and appears never to have been lost in the world. Still, he must have gotten turned around occasionally, or he would not have written, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”
Putting the senses in order requires awareness of the senses. In our fast-paced lives, the senses are dulled by a barrage of external inputs, many of them electronic, noisy, frenetic and mind-numbing. Finding the senses is the first step in finding oneself because sensory awareness requires a moment of reflective quiet.
Sitting quietly on the Burroughs bench, I listened to robins sing, nuthatches chatter, the lawn sprinklers whirr and a small irrigation ditch gurgle happily with spring snowmelt. Then I opened the brittle pages of “Riverby” (my copy was printed in 1924) and was transported to another age, another mind and the richly receptive and cultivated senses of Burroughs.
In observing the world around us, Burroughs cautioned, “the common and familiar cease to impress us.” We take it all for granted.
“The great service of genius, speaking through art and literature, is to pierce through our callousness and indifference and give us fresh impressions of things as they really are,” he wrote. “When poetry does this, or when art does it, or when science does it, it recreates the world for us, and for the moment we are again Adam in paradise.”
Burroughs shared this sense of spiritual awakening with many personalities of his time: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Henry Ford (who gave him a Model T — one of the first in the Hudson River Valley), Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison.
Burroughs imparted deep love for the natural world, a love gained by intimate familiarity with that world. This love requires a measure of humility, deep-seated curiosity and the luxury of time spent on self-realization within the rich sights, sounds and textures of nature.
It is easy to get lost in the world, Burroughs warned. It is easier still to be lost and have no awareness of how lost we are, so consumed by the artifices that overwhelm us.
Taking a timeout, seeking respite, opening the senses and reflecting quietly on who we are, not on what we do, is what the Burroughs bench provides. One day it will disappear under the ravages of time, just as Burroughs succumbed to mortality, just as we all will.
The bench and the plaque may be lost but not the need for it. That will only grow through the tumult of the madly, spinning world in which many wander lost.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.