My three Aspen shrines
December 9, 2013
There are three hidden places in Aspen where I go to remind myself that Aspen is a place of meaning and substance. I need to remember that because it's easy to forget the lofty values that founded modern Aspen when lesser values sometimes take prominence here.
The foremost of these three shrines reflects a time when the world was in far worse turmoil than it is today. I'm talking about the advent of the nuclear age, when the Cold War covered the earth with a pall of dread and fear.
It was during the early Cold War years that Aspen claimed its most important stature as a place for the rebirth of humanism. Aspen played an important role in reawakening what it means to be human.
This shrine is surrounded by a grove of thick spruce trees in the middle of town. Paepcke Park — where the gazebo stands on Main Street— is familiar to all locals, but this shrine is usually overlooked. It's somewhat hidden, and its obscurity also lies in the person it honors.
Albert Schweitzer, whose visage is displayed in a sculpted bust at the southeast corner of Paepcke Park, is honored on a pedestal of marble. Schweitzer came to Aspen in 1949, his one and only visit to the US. He brought his humanistic fervor to the Goethe celebration, the much heralded but little understood event that kicked off Aspen's cultural renaissance.
"Only through a truly ethical civilization can life take on meaning," spoke Schweitzer in 1954, when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. "Only through it can mankind be saved from destruction, from its senseless and cruel wars. It alone can bring about peace in the world."
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The roots of Aspen are entwined in this ethical precept as mirrored in the seminar programs launched by the Aspen Institute in 1950 and still held today. Ethics and morality became cornerstones in Aspen's cultural identity for those who choose to follow them.
"Only by means of reverence of life," he wrote in 1915, "can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with people and all living creatures. Only in this fashion can we avoid harming others and, within the limits of our capacity, go to their aid whenever they need us."
Living up to Schweitzer's values calls for a saintly mien that many would scoff at for being unrealistic, impractical and oddly inhuman. Sainthood, it seems, is better left to the few who take it seriously, who practice it in their everyday lives. This shrine reminds me of the importance of acting on high ideals.
The next shrine is across town at the Meadows campus. It, too, is obscure, as is the name on the small metal plaque affixed to a weathered, circular wooden bench beneath a stand of aspen trees. This intimate setting was once hidden, known only to the few who trod the grassy trail to its natural cloister.
Today, the Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome overshadows and diminishes it. Still, the bench is there, with the plaque, which offers a quote, "I come here often to find myself. It is so easy to get lost in the world." — John Burroughs.
Burroughs was a naturalist and a peer of Thoreau's. He expressed beautiful and philosophic thoughts about his deep attachment to the natural world. His quote needs no interpretation other than to say that more and more of us are getting lost in the man-made world, with few sanctuaries to receive our sensitive souls.
The final shrine is only a hundred yards away from the Burroughs bench, to the northwest, near the Herbert Bayer earth mounds. Tacked to an aspen tree is a small plaque with this sorrowful lament, "He loved this meadow and wished to be here. — Justice Harry Blackmun."
The words are sorrowful because Blackmun longed for a place that saw him infrequently. The demands of his life took him elsewhere and to high office. Yet his longing was for a quiet meadow with splendid mountain views, a power place in our valley. Blackmun resides in this meadow solely in spirit, as any good shrine should convey.
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