Monday, December 27, 2010

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." -Marcel Proust

At the end of every fall season, usually sometime in mid-November, the Spruce Knob Mountain Center begins to clear out. Over the course of the month, the fall staff of about 20 funnels down to 10, then 3 or 4, then 1 or 2, then sometimes none. The students and teachers that fill the yurts, the dorms, the deck, and many pockets of our cherished woods and fields throughout the fall stop coming - quite suddenly. Sooner or later the snow begins to fall, shutting down the long driveway and oftentimes the road as well. For short time, the entire mountain seems to hibernate beneath a blanket of snow.

For the past two years I've had the incredible fortune to have the mountain more or less to myself for the month of December. Landmarks that I've seen thousands of time take on new forms in the long shadows of winter. The narrow entrance to Backridge Cave, in the upper left picture, fills with snow. The young spruce trees bend with a heavy coat of snow. The "High Plains" - the large fields just up the hill from the yurts in the lower right picture - look otherworldly. There is always the question of what I do with all the free time and space on the mountain in the wintertime. Really, much of my time is spent simply grappling with survival in this environment. Chopping, bucking, and splitting wood. Building and maintaining fires. Baking bread and cooking soups and stews. Ensuring that our buildings endure the ferocious alpine winter. Just getting dressed in the morning to go outside is an endeavor. Walking from the shower barn to Ulan Bator in deep snow can take 3 or 4 times as long as it would beneath the summer sun. Most of the time left over is spent skiing, snowshoeing, reading, visiting friends in town that I've neglected throughout the busy season, and developing whatever skills and hobbies I deem most interesting at the given moment.

Christmas has come and gone now and December is nearly over. In early January 4 or 5 of our core staff will begin to dig out their wool clothes, trudge through the snows to the Earth Shelter, build a fire, dust off their keyboards, and begin the behind the scenes work that will make the coming season happen. Cleaning, fixing, scheduling, hiring, purchasing, and a thousand other little jobs. The rest of the core staff will filter in throughout early March, the new staff for the season will arrive shortly after, and not long after that the schools and other groups will begin to arrive and fill the buildings and woods with new energy.

All of us who come to this mountain come for more or less the same reason - because it's a special place, one of the rare truly unique places on Earth. What we can learn from this mountain is certainly more than we can learn from any book, any film, any other person. Whether we come here as a student, a teacher, an astronomer, a summer camper, or a staff member - we come because what we get from this place is not something we can get anywhere else.

To see the mountain in all its seasons this year is a powerful reaffirmation of what an important place this is. Happy New Year. -JPD