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Winter Isolation
Maurice Broun
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
Sep 12, 2002

from "Hawks Aloft", copyright © 1949 by Maurice Broun.
Used by permission from Stackpole Books

Our nearest neighbor is two miles to the east, near the foot of the mountain, and an unbroken wilderness void of human beings extends four and a half miles south, to the nearest town, Hamburg. We have no telephone and no electricity. We have never felt it a hardship to be without these amenities to living. Despite our oil lamps, despite the washtub in which we bathed with hot water dipped from the tank on the kitchen stove, we have lived well.

Our detachment from the world in these times of endless turmoil and crises intrigues some of our friends; they envy our "splendid isolation." Of course we are not as remote as some might think, for people from all over the continent, and at least fifteen foreign countries, nosing their cars up our mountain road eight months of the year, have enriched our lives. Often we are asked: "Aren't you lonely up there?" We reply emphatically, "No! there's never a dull moment." Not even in the depth of winter, when deep snow closes the road and we seldom see visitors, have we ever felt the slightest touch of loneliness.

A young truck driver once delivered cement to us and thought it remarkable that anyone could live up here on the mountain. Then he saw one of our goats, and exclaimed: "At least, you got something human up here!"

I am a lucky fellow, for it would go hard with me if my wife demanded to be taken to night clubs, or to the movies, or to bridge parties, or if she dashed off at every trumpet call of the Womens' Political League. We are very simple people, with simple habits, free from the distractions which most people crave—or endure.

We enjoy people, but we also enjoy solitude—especially the solitude of the mountains in winter. This would be an unthinkable existence to the mass of people. I remember the woman who came to get her young son who had been staying with us. She could not get off the mountain quickly enough. "You can have it," she said tartly, "I'll take Atlantic City."

It is one of the tragedies of modern civilization, I think, that most people are unable to enjoy solitude. When I was in the Service I observed that almost all the stalwart young heroes whom I encountered were quite unable to endure solitude; indeed, they seemed to be afraid to be alone with their thoughts. Because I enjoyed solitary excursions into the jungles of the South Pacific islands I was considered eccentric. For perhaps a million years man must have been forced into solitude from time to time; his nervous system became attuned to the stimuli of nature: the sound of the wind, the lapping of waters, the green of plant life. Such things soothe the nervous system, allowing imagination and constructive thoughts to ripen in the individual. Christ, and all the truly great figures of history, recognized the value of solitude; they were able to pull themselves onto the right spiritual track by frequent contact with nature. So it is that because modern man has, for the most part, lost the ability to use solitude, he is quite unaware of the things he suffers. Perhaps a Sanctuary like ours has an additional function: to provide solitude and re-creation for the human soul.

As a youngster, city-bred, I yearned for the simplicities of country live; not merely rural living, but far-off wilderness living. I wanted to escape from the grating noises, the confusion, the artificialities of the city; I wanted to get as far as possible from the slavery of our machine civilization. I was inspired by Thoreau, who wrote: "... if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." I enjoyed my first taste of solitude during three years passed in the pioneer development of the Pleasant Valley Bird Sanctuary in the heart of the Berkshires. It was a salutary experience for me, in which I quickly learned the full meaning of self-reliance. For to breast the sudden transition from city living to life in the woods meant learning how to use my hands and tools. I then in part had achieved my dreams but, unlike Thoreau, I was a sorry bachelor. Three winters of complete aloneness could not entirely fulfill the "direction of my dreams." I wanted a marriage partner, but I despaired of ever finding one who would put up with me. But as all things supposedly come to him who waits, in due time I found my wife during another three years of comparative solitude on Cape Cod.

We have spent five winters on Hawk Mountain (two of them before the war), without ever once feeling any trace of "cabin fever." To both of us, winter is a season of deep contentment. And nearly complete isolation. We have been snowed in as much as seven weeks at a time. Once only have we seen a snowplow on our usually forgotten road. That was after a severe storm in late January, 1948—the winter which, according to the oldest inhabitants of the valley, was the worst and hardest in their memory. Except for the little runways of our dogs and our own imprints around the house, the snow lay deep and trackless. And then, wonder of wonders, the snowplow churned up the road. We could hardly believe our eyes. For a brief hour or so, we were excited and delighted with this consideration never shown to us before. But presently we reconsidered. We resented this intrusion! We were blissfully secure in our isolation. The unbroken road was beautiful. Who cared for a life-line to civilization!

Our winter preparations begin in late May, when the tender shoots of pokeweed, or pigeon-berry, appear along the roadside. The pokeweed shoots are delicious; like asparagus, but better, in my opinion. Pokeweed grows so abundantly near Schaumboch's that my wife cans quarts of it. She has also canned dandelion greens. It is a thrilling thing, in the dead of winter, to bring up from the cellar these tasty, nourishing Maytime products. Then, in June and July, she busily gathers and preserves the wild strawberries and blackberries (from the valley pastures), and the vegetables from our gardens. Later she makes the most savory jellies from the wild grapes which grow in dense tangles all about the edges of our little apple orchard.

By early September the cellar food shelves neatly display many jars of garden products. The coalbin is full, and wood is stacked high. But we are far from self-sufficient, since we have very little arable land and a minimum of livestock. Our livestock consist of a pair of Saanen goats, which provide us with all the milk we need throughout the year, and some Rhode Island roosters.


One Christmas Eve a furious ice storm struck. Sleet and snow piled up rapidly and a stinging east wind crackled the ice-burdened birches by the house. We were snug by the little wood stove in our living room. There was an odd scratching at the window. "Sleet," I remarked to my wife. The scratching persisted. Upon investigation we saw a small bird struggling against the windowpane. I went out and gently picked up a goldfinch. It might have perished within an hour, on the deep snow of the window sill. The goldfinch had room and board for the night, in a small wire cage which I placed in the cool, dark attic. Next morning we looked out on a glittering, fairyland world in which we were trapped securely. But not our goldfinch. It took off with a joyous song. Nothing could have given us deeper pleasure on that Christmas Day than the rescue of that terror-stricken little bird, lost in the night.


When the evening is nearly spent, and before we bank the fire in the kitchen stove, we may go out into the frosty night. We pick our way silently up the snow-hushed road to the crest of the mountain. In the distant valleys glow the friendly town lights; above gleam the austere, celestial lights. Darkness and light reign alike, in profound peace. On a moonlit night the glittering snow is etched with lacy shadow-patterns from the leafless trees. We may not say a word until we are near the house, for to return is like leaving a cathedral in which a loud word is a profanation, or an irrelevant thought a sacrilege. Living close to nature, participating in her mysteries, we are aware of God on every hand-embodied in the landscape and identified in the animals and birds, the trees and rocks, in clouds and sunshine, with all of which we identify ourselves humbly, but with deep contentment and peace. This, I think, is the essence of religion. And it is our life in the winter of Hawk Mountain.

from "Hawks Aloft", copyright © 1949 by Maurice Broun.
Used by permission from Stackpole Books

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