Mountains, Monasteries, and the Metropolis

Santa Fe Institute
3 min readNov 17, 2020

A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute. Originally published January 19, 2018.

Key Monastery, India. Photo by Samantha Hentosh on Unsplash.

“Because it’s there.” — George Mallory

“Monasteries, those scattered danger points, become the chief objectives of nocturnal flight.” — Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence

“Even in Kyoto, longing for Kyoto.” — Basho

Over the course of a creative life there are times when one craves solitude. Albert Camus suggested that “In order to under-stand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” This understanding is followed by the impulse to assemble discoveries within a critical community. For Darwin, this was provided by the Royal Navy sloop, the Beagle, about which he reminisced that “I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind,” a sentiment shared with Herman Melville, who wrote of the Pequod: “A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” And having survived the challenges and improvements of isolated and steadfast community, the now perfected idea is ready to confront the world of the metropolis, Charles Baudelaire’s “Ant swarming City, City full of dreams.”

The development of an idea is a transit from the deliberative solitude of the Mountain, into the collaborative fraternity of the Monastery, to be finally delivered to the diverse appetites of the Metropolis. Each place corresponds to the needs of a creative stage: contemplation, conversation, and commerce.

The Santa Fe Institute is metaphorically a Monastery in the Mountains — living at the edge of wilderness and society. By contrast, the Salk Institute and the Flat Iron Institute are Monasteries in Metropolises — supporting populations of researchers above the clamors of San Diego and New York City. Very rarely a Mountain is discovered within the Metropolis — such is the John Soane house in Lincoln Inn Fields — one scholar’s Mount Kailash in central London.

The Santa Fe Institute is a Monastery dedicated to science, a community with a shared belief in the value of the rigorous pursuit of frighteningly difficult problems. The name of its present home is the Cowan Campus and after thirty years this community is set to expand. Responding to the growing success of complexity science and its evident value to the world, a second scientific Monastery, the Miller Campus, is now in development in Tesuque. Starting with a generous gift of land and property from Gene and Clare Thaw, and now undergoing upgrade, enhancement, and re-purposing with a new gift from William H. Miller, SFI will be supported by two campuses: one focused on basic complexity research (Cowan Campus) and the other on its many applications and successful de-livery to the Metropolis (Miller Campus). After all, as Edison once observed, “the value of an idea lies in the using of it.”

From the Winter 2017–2018 edition of the SFI Parallax newsletter. Subscribe here for the monthly email version, or email “news at” to request quarterly home delivery in print.



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