Britta Gustafson: Learning to care for what we love |

Britta Gustafson: Learning to care for what we love

We protect what we love, and we love what we know

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

When you love something, you protect it, care for it and nurture it. To truly love something you must know it, and to know and understand something you must experience, touch and feel it firsthand. It must become a part of your life, who you are. That is how we fall in love. And we will do anything for that which we truly love.

Growing up in the Aspen schools, “field trip” was synonymous with the Maroon Bells. Colorado’s venerated postcard setting served as the backdrop for our adventures.

As little kids, we really had no idea that those world famous peaks were some of the most photographed mountains in North America, or that the setting itself, with its crystal clear reflective lake and the picturesque framework of aspen- and pine-painted valleys, is a natural masterpiece so idyllic that it tops the bucket list for many travelers from around the world. We just knew it as a fun and beautiful place where we often went to escape the confines of brick walls and locker-lined halls.

The yellowing leaves are reflected in Maroon Lake on a stormy day in Aspen on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. Maroon Bells will be open for reservations to drive and park through October 24 this year and a shuttles will be available through October 23. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Surely the school educators knew that the Bells were a natural go-to for quick and fully immersive nature connection — and right out the back door of our campus to boot. Or perhaps our teachers themselves were simply drawn to the liberating departure from chalkboards and textbooks; the divine setting alone must be teaching us something.

Up there, we escaped. As elementary schoolers, we learned how to hike on the way up to Crater Lake. We played and skipped rocks in Maroon Lake, ran free through the fields before the current pathways existed. We played tag and picnicked in the grass and upon the golden leaf lined carpets of fall. We made art, sketched and painted the scenes. Collected collage items and made Mother’s Day gifts. We wrote haikus about the trees, and made up plays about the mountains. We held concerts and graduation ceremonies up there.

Once we even made a short film there, singing songs of innocent unity to Soviet kids during the Cold War. Another time we shuttled up there to watch a live avalanche release. We learned to be climate conscious during a presentation at the Bells where many of us were first introduced to the benefits of recycling and the dangers of styrofoam and hairspray.

Whoever dreamt up that kid-friendly environmentalist infomercial knew what they were doing, presenting the downside of human waste set against that majestic scene. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t march straight home and insist that their parents start recycling, forever refusing styrofoam. The very next day, the puffy hairstyle trends of the ‘80s were a thing of the past in our school.

And we often found ourselves swaddled by Mother Nature up in that valley as we navigated our social structures through middle school, hiking away the cliques and sorting out who liked who as we clambered around on the scree slopes.

Most often it seemed as if we were left to our own devices until the buses returned.

But it worked its magic. I fervently believe that nature became, for most of us, like a second religion. Perhaps we seemed to take it for granted, but it was vast and permanent, steady and reliable; a part of our lives. The glorious background that we were experiencing so frequently made falling deeply in love with the place as natural as loving family, and that love only grew into deep appreciation over time.

We were blessed to be surrounded by nature, and generations of valley kids have gone on to advocate for our environment and our planet because experienced it, felt it beneath our feet, sat amid its glory and felt its powerful presence even after we returned to our human made world.

Now the Maroon Bells, shrouded in nature’s white spotlight, have become a tourist attraction that allows for a little less of that wild space to roam free these days. Still, we are fortunate to be surrounded by dozens of other magical outdoor settings that offer the same sensations and experiences.

It will always be worth the effort to continue the tradition of bringing kids out into nature, with or without a planned activity. They absorb more than we may be able to see, and even when they are just kids being kids, out in nature they are learning one of life’s great lessons. It’s a gift that will pay forward in perhaps unforeseen ways.

We must know our natural world to love it, and we will grow up to protect that which we love.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.