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Aspen’s wild side

Paul Andersen

The bear claw marks raking many of the aspen trees on the Meadows campus show the wild side of Aspen. Bears roaming among the pillars of the marble garden where seminarians perform Antigone is indicative of Aspen’s proximity to the natural world.Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson remarked casually last weekend that a bear had been rummaging around the carport of his Meadows townhome. “It’s a teenage bear,” said Isaacson, as if it were a raccoon or a feral cat.Songbirds flit about the quaking aspen trees at the Meadows like props from “The Sound of Music.” Climb one of the grassy knolls on the campus and stunning mountain vistas unfold like a Sierra Club calendar.From the seminar rooms at the institute, where a strip of windows lines the top of the walls, one may glimpse the surrounding wilderness. Distant mountaintops come into view for participants discussing Aristotle, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Martin Luther King Jr. and other great thinkers and writers.More than a mere backdrop, the wilds surrounding Aspen are the reason the institute chose Aspen as the place of its birth over 50 years ago. It certainly wasn’t because of Aspen’s prominence in 1950, because its most prominent feature then was quiet.The Aspen Institute came to Aspen because of these words: “Walter, you simply must see it! It’s the most beautifully untouched place in the world.” That was Elizabeth Paepcke telling husband Walter about the Shangri-La she had discovered in 1939.The Paepckes decided that Aspen was the perfect place for The Aspen Institute because it was surrounded by mountains and the overwhelming presence of nature. Aspen was free from the distractions of city life, a place where you could slow down and explore ideas. Aspen caused the great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer to proclaim: Aspen ist zu nach an den Himmel gabaut. “Aspen is built too close to heaven.”The Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius felt a similar euphoria when he came to Aspen and hiked in the wilderness. Said Gropius: “I had a curious experience facing these great American scenes. First it makes one very humble standing on Buckskin Pass and looking from the mighty horizon to the flowers at one’s feet; then these beautiful sensations transform into an incessant stimulus of which I hope to make good use.”An Aspen Institute seminar participant in 1951 put it this way: “At such altitudes everything was a little sharper, in clearer focus, a little nearer the sky.”Aspen, at about 8,000 feet, became not only the “Athens of the West,” as the philosopher Mortimer Adler said; it became Mount Olympus! The gods of Western culture – philosophers, musicians, physicists, artists, entrepreneurs – gathered here, and they gather here still because of wild, beautiful nature. Aspen, and particularly the Meadows Campus, is a place to turn off cell phones, pagers, palm pilots, laptops and digital watches. It’s a place to rein in the overriding urban pace, a place to decelerate and re-enter life at a more sustainable speed.The wilderness beyond the town boundaries, beyond the windows of the seminar rooms, is a literal and figurative frontier, a place that has a great deal to teach us about perspective and balance in our lives.Wilderness is a one-stop shop for physical, mental and spiritual renewal and rejuvenation, abody/mind/spirit experience that contributes to the development of the whole person, which has been the underpinning goal of the institute since day one.Thoreau went to Walden Pond to be alone, away from the noise and distractions of life. He wrote: “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Wilderness is such a place.Anne Morrow Lindbergh in her book “Gift From the Sea,” wrote: “The solution for me is neither in total renunciation of the world, nor in total acceptance of it. I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes; a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return.”Paul Andersen is willing to share solitude with an occasional teenage bear. His column appears on Mondays.


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