Thursday, December 01, 2005

Notes on the Fire by David Witt, Seton Collection Curator for the Academy for the Love of Learning

Seton Castle Fire November 15, 2005
The Academy for the Love of Learning, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a non-profit educational and research organization, whose mission is to awaken, enliven, nurture and sustain the natural love of learning in people of all ages. The Academy acquired Seton Castle in 2003 and earlier this year began a historically accurate renovation. The project was about three-quarters completed when the fire occurred. Information on the Academy and its programs is available on our website. More news about the fire and how you can help will also soon be posted.>

Notes on the fire are by David L. Witt, Seton Collection Curator for the Academy.

The first reaction to the death of a building is disorientation as the mind refuses to comprehend: billowing black smoke rises as if thrown up from a volcanic explosion on the hilltop. Residents of Seton Village rush outside of their homes only to stand as if frozen until cries of “the Castle!” from several present state the unthinkably obvious. Then the other senses come into play as the acrid scent of burned material, the taste of blowing dust, and the touch of fire heat overtake everyone.
Then sound creates yet another level of lasting impression. The first measures of barely audible crackling begin the movement in an ominous fashion. As we approach, a building noise crescendo comes from the roaring of burning wood and the play of winds, some atmospheric and others self-generated. Additional sounds are layered in – the generators and engines of fire trucks, the rush of liquid streams aimed at the conflagration, and finally passages of vocal accompaniment as firefighters give commands and helpless civilian onlookers tell stories of their escape or speculate on what is happening before us. After a couple hours of dramatic conflagration, the fire quiets to the low sizzle of flame, the popping of cooling masonry, the expanding and contracting of metal like little shrieks of percussion events.
With original construction begun around seventy-four years ago, and renovation started in the early part of this year, we witness the end of this phase of the Castle restoration. But even in the midst of the destruction, several persons dare to suggest that this transformation gives rise to hope for new creation, a rebuilding which will honor the Castle’s past and forward its legacy into the future. Historical layers (physical and memory) are fractal-like in complexity, a continuation of old patterns in ever renewing variations. That is, every moment past also leads to a new beginning, even from tragedy.
Seton states in Book of Woodcraft and The Gospel of the Redman the importance of overcoming the fear of death. The death of a building is not exactly what he had in mind, but his Woodcraft principles provide guidance (and maybe consolation) as we move on to create the next phase of Seton Castle history. Two traits he valued were courage and perseverance, demonstrated in the Four Lamps (or laws) of Woodcraft – Beauty, Truth, Fortitude, and Love. Taking just one example from each: The Lamp of Beauty: “Conserve the woods and flowers and especially be ready to fight wild fire in forest or in town.” In the event, fire fighters and wind conditions kept the fire from spreading into the piƱon woodland or neighboring houses. The Lamp of Truth: “Be reverent.” The majesty of unstoppable fire forces at least a kind of respect, but also a sincere thankfulness that all the construction workers and firefighters escaped injury. The Lamp of Fortitude: “Be brave. Courage is the noblest of all attainments.” We need this as we face the rebuilding. The Lamp of Love: “Be joyful. Seek the joy of being alive.”
The staff of the Academy for the Love of Learning, residents of Seton Village, and a large number of concerned persons (via email, phone contact, etc.) have come together for mutual support. A gathering took place there on November 30th for those most directly affected. Paying homage to our beloved Castle is the kind of “tribal” gathering Seton would have approved.

Editor's Comment

I received this submission from David Witt this morning. I met with David in early October in Taos and had planned to write about our visit in this venue when news of the fire reached me a few weeks later. I instantly felt comfortably with David as he shared his story about working at Philmont in his college days, including a stint at the Seton Library. He was drawn by the magic of New Mexico as many others, myself included, have been and has lived in the area now for many years. We specifically discussed ways in which interested people can help in the restoration of Seton works and other possible collaborative efforts. I expect you will hear more on the those topics soon.


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