Britta Gustafson: The question learned in time |

Britta Gustafson: The question learned in time

The desert slows the timelapse portrait of our lives

Britta Gustafson
Then Again
Britta Gustafson for the Snowmass Sun

It feels like a rare and precious thing to have time to simply sit and observe. Sometimes it feels like we’re just witnesses to an epoch of humanity, living in geologic time, watching a timelapse portrait of our lives flashing by with swirls of stars. Sunrise, sunset, day to night, snow to summer and back again, in a whirl of daily duties, we age so quickly. Trying to simply focus on one moment has its challenges.

The desert, in its extreme and patient way, can seem to slow that pace.

On the surface it doesn’t appear to teem with life in constant motion in the ways of our vibrant forests and oceans or of our chaotic, scrambled towns and cities. The desert sands, slow and steady, migrate across vast distances and subtly etch their latent presence as they pass.

Even the desert life is graceful in its movement. Black birds glide on the wind, hovering and focused. Reptiles seem dormant until their pensive state is startled or disrupted. The spiny needle-like leaves of the juniper stay put while the tree keeps its figure for decades.

In contrast, we scurry over its surfaces, busy as ants, leaving that wild landscape perplexed by our anxious existence.

But it can get in you, with its wise ways that settle the mind.

Looking across a sandstone bowl I watched the young faces of Evan Woody and Sarah Graber’s Aspen Middle School fifth graders flushed with exhaustion, wind-blown but still awestruck.

To see kids slow down and take in a moment at an iconic monolith like Delicate Arch supports the principle motivation that initially helped to inspire our outdoor education programs. Perhaps it’s those moments that can’t be forced but can be nurtured.

Those who dreamed up the idea of a curriculum centered on outdoor education left a lasting impact on this community. They built a framework in which we still thrive. At times we experience dueling cultures in this valley, and now might be one of those times. While many of us strive to encourage a deeper cultural value for this place rather than a life of glitz, decadence and real estate, the buy-now-pay-later mentality that paves over the future is a powerful and seductive force.

And yet, I’m cautiously optimistic that our schools are still sowing the seeds of kindness, respect and appreciation for nature, and that the young minds who will be the leaders of tomorrow still have this opportunity to experience learning without being directed or influenced.

With nature as their teacher, children learn to value their environment, themselves, and one another. They experience the precarious power of the natural world and gain an appreciation for what it gives and for what it can take away. They learn resilience and cooperation and bond as a generation while playing in the most awesome of settings.

In an introspective setting like the desert, kids can grow at nature’s pace. There they have the mental space to explore their fears and challenges. And I have seen how typical school cliques erode as they learn to support each other. As my daughter put it after her seventh grade rafting trip last week: “We learned not to judge each other based on grapevine reputations.”

The ripple effect is what has made the greatest impact on our community. Ask anyone who has been a part of any piece of the outdoor education story of this town. It’s about who we are.

John Kuehlman, the Aspen Middle School teacher and founder of our outdoor education program in 1968, believed that an immersive experience in nature would support students in achieving a deeper sense of community, self reflection and appreciation. And he believed the effect would be to radiate more kindness, something of which we can always use more.

In the desert evenings, as the sunset illuminates the rocky surfaces with its fiery dance, the kids gather around. There, time seems to settle into the pace of the slow-moving stars above as the students express concerns, and offer gratitude to one another for companionship and camaraderie.

They relive the wonder of all they have shared, and explore the true nature of who they are. And in that slowed time and space you can catch a glimpse of the adults they will one day become. And they do it all together.

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