Paul Andersen: Fair Game
June 24, 2012
There is a small clearing, a peaceful cloister, where I sometimes go to ease myself. It is at the Meadows, within the city limits of Aspen, though few people know of it. It is a quiet place off the main walkways, hidden behind one of Herbert Bayer’s grass mounds.
An aspen grove shades a circular wooden bench where many have rested themselves in cool breezes and allowed thoughts to percolate. I usually go there by myself, as others have, to take a few deep breaths and feel the calm this place exudes.
On the bench is a metal plaque, and on the plaque are etched the words of the naturalist and philosopher John Burroughs: “I come here often to find myself. It is so easy to get lost in the world.”
That simple statement speaks to a need that is deeply human, especially today, when we are tugged and pulled by the vortex of stimulation emanating from mainline connections with cell phones and media babble.
As I read those words again the other day, I realized how important this bench and this cloister are in a place soon to be inundated by the Environment Forum and the Ideas Festival, events that invite losing oneself in a world of infinite complexity and intellectual rigor.
Burroughs must have felt similarly overwhelmed in his day and recognized the need to balance knowledge with self-realization in a quiet place in nature. The intensity of inputs has only ratcheted up since then, making it imperative that we find solace amid the onslaught of the news and the demands of family, society and livelihood.
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Getting lost in the world today is a widespread human plight that few are even aware of. Many are lost who don’t know they are lost until one day when they pause to discover, in deep inner silence, a rare awareness of the rhythm of their hearts, the pulse of their bodies, the sound of their breathing and the faint but undeniable beat of the universe that runs through us all.
It is important to be fully connected with the world but only if a realization of self is felt in equal measure. Otherwise, facing the universal void can come as a shock, an unsettling fright that is often held off until the verge of death. Silence and solitude bring a ringing to the ears and prodding questions to the mind: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? These are the queries Burroughs brings to the bench in the aspens.
Henry David Thoreau said the same with his centering mission at Walden: “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach – and not, when I came to die – discover that I had not lived.”
Burroughs, who was known as “The Grand Old Man of Nature,” believed that in nature lies “the ways of the Eternal,” that wisdom is self-contained, that all of us have the wherewithal to connect with the divine, free of religious institutions and high priests.
“The perception of the beautiful is not part of our knowledge,” he wrote. “Neither is the perception of the moral or the spiritual. These things are from within.”
I appreciate Burroughs for his words on the bench. I equally appreciate whoever selected them and had them etched on a plaque that was placed there decades ago. That person understood how important respite from the madly spinning world is, that peace and quiet in nature are a necessary complement to intellectual engagement, that a sense of self is essential to a relationship with contemporary society and the dizzying world of ideas.
This small sanctuary at the Meadows, which has unfortunately been dwarfed by a recently installed geodesic dome, symbolizes the still, small voice heard by the prophet Isaiah when he communed with his intuitive wisdom in the desert centuries ago. That voice, calling among the tumult of modern times, is crying out for a place to be heard.
We need more quiet sanctuaries and the time to appreciate them if we hope to find ourselves in the madly spinning world we frantically build around us.
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