As an aviation flight instructor, one of the things you are required to learn and then to fold into the basis of every lesson are the "laws of learning." I've seen many students roll their eyes at this part of their training when all they really want to do is climb into the airplane and fly. I've found that these laws, or principles are worth noting whether you're learning to fly an airplane, learning to write a novel, or as was our case this week, learning to snowshoe. These principles aren't specific to aviation, but I'm listing the FAA's spin here for reference. If you're still with me after skimming the list, I'll make my point (and sign your logbook for an hour of ground school to boot).
FAA-H-8083-9 lists six principles of learning: Readiness, Exercise, Effect, Primacy, Intensity, and Recency.
"If students have a strong purpose, a clear objective, and a definite reason for learning something, they make more progress than if they lack motivation. Readiness implies a degree of single-mindedness and eagerness."
"The principle of exercise states that those things most often repeated are best remembered. The instructor must provide opportunities for students to practice and, at the same time, make sure that this process is directed toward a goal."
"The principle of effect is based on the emotional reaction of the student. It states that learning is strengthened when accompanied by a pleasant or satisfying feeling, and that learning is weakened when associated with an unpleasant feeling."
"Primacy, the state of being first, often creates a strong, almost unshakable, impression. For the instructor, this means that what is being taught must be right the first time."
"The principle of intensity implies that a student will learn more from the real thing than from a substitute."
"The principle of recency states that things most recently learned are best remembered. The principle of recency often determines the sequence of lectures within a course of instruction."
What, you're asking, does this have to do with writing or snowshoeing?
It's a little after six in the morning mountain time, and we're flying home from a four-day trip to Montana in a couple of hours. I thought I'd write a little while the image of the mountains outside my cabin window is still fresh (the principle of recency). It was a busy four days. I really thought that we'd have a lot of down time here and that I'd edit my novel and maybe start on a new one. But the words wouldn't come. I spent much of the day yesterday in awe, staring out at the mountain engulfed in a cold, blue-white blanket of snow-covered silence (the principle of readiness).
We left Arkansas packed with snow boots, hand warmers, socks, snow pants, and two of everything I thought we'd need for the trip. I knew it would be cold, but its been almost sixteen years since we lived in the northern part of the country and I'd forgotten how the winter sun falls into darkness behind the mountains with a snap and with it a cold that will steal your breath away. The altitude here is almost eight thousand feet above sea level, a six-thousand foot difference from our home in the Ozarks. Within an hour of landing, I felt my brain squeeze into a tight knot from oxygen depravation beyond anything aspirin could address, and swapped the coffee I was drinking for warmth for water to retain what was left of my mental acuity. Clearly, I wasn't as ready as I'd thought (principle of exercise).
Intensity is one of my favorite principles as it applies to most everything in life; it's particularly relevant when it comes to plot and character development. Ernest Hemmingway was known to have said that he lived life so he'd have something to write about. Climb a mountain? Write about it. Plunge yourself deep into the horrors on the front lines of a battlefield? Write about that too. As a journalist, he saw a world of beauty and madness that filled his thoughts with voices who could only be quieted with a pen. Or scotch. But that's for another essay.
I have issue with the principle of effect. The FAA (or B.F. Skinner...those lines blur at times) would have me believe that pleasant experiences are the most beneficial to the learner. I beg to differ. Anyone who has lost an engine in the clouds had to keep their wits about them while keeping their wings level and airspeed adequate to glide to a safe landing spot will tell you it's a powerful learning experience. We practice this in training; real life is a totally different thing. I guess this example is a twofer: effect and intensity.
Sunday was a wash as are most travel days. Monday we put on snow cleats and walked into town for provisions and to scout out potential trails. I'd purchased snowshoes and cold-weather gear for my husband and myself for Christmas knowing we were going to take this trip. Snowshoeing was a first for the both of us.
We dry-fit gear in the living room. He wanted to practice walking with his snowshoes in the four-foot drifts outside the cabin, but it was cold...maybe 5F on the high side and I said no. I'd figure it out Tuesday on the trail...how hard could it be?
From the cabin window, I could tell he was frustrated. I often miss these bonding moments and after twenty-five years together, should really know better.
"How was it?" I asked as he flicked bits of hardened snow off the cleats with a fireplace broom.
"Harder than I'd expected. You should have come."
He was right. I should have joined him. His first experience with snowshoes wasn't the best and I'd hoped it wouldn't deter him from Tuesday's planned trek. We watched how-to videos on YouTube and found that we'd not fitted the gear correctly. He adjusted position, ratcheted the snaps more snugly, adjusted his poles and tried again, this time with better success. The next morning we headed to Ousel Falls, a beautiful hilly trail just outside of the village.
The mountain was breathtakingly beautiful, so much so that I soon forgot about the cold. Because my better half had come prepared, my shoes and poles were adjusted perfectly. We took water, protein biscuits, and bear spray, and headed out for a two-mile hike. About a third of the way in, I stopped, out of breath due to the altitude, and scanned the mountainside, trying to memorize every turn, every vista, the blue-gray skies changing by the minute as snow swept across the valley. Chances are I'd not come this way again.
We'd climbed another five hundred feet and then descended into a steep valley. The falls were beautiful, frozen sheets of iced spikes which sparkled in the intermittent sunlight and I stood, transfixed, soaking in the babble of the river, the black and white magpies flitting from tree to tree, and the grandeur of the snow-covered pines before me. The return trip is always quicker, my husband is good to say. And even if we made the hike today, it wouldn't be the same. There's only one first time.