Several years ago, The Road From Coorain was one of the featured texts in our first year seminar. The first ten or so pages offer a detailed description of the author’s natal land of Australia, and some of the students complained that it went on “way too long” and was boring. When the author, Dr. Jill Ker Conway, visited campus and delivered a convocation address, she suggested that they consider the landscape as one of the characters in the book, which gave the smarter students pause and forced them to reconsider the work. I was reminded of this pedagogical moment recently when I heard the news that Dr. Ker Conway had passed away. She was a remarkable woman and while I could easily devote a whole essay to her autobiography as well as her accomplishments, what I want to focus on is how particular places can give shape and meaning to our lives.
Her obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald lauded the very thing that had annoyed some of the students: “The opening pages of Road From Coorain paint some of the most lyrical, vivid and haunting descriptions of the Australian bush, portraying a visceral link to the land decades after the author had left it.” In this way, Ker Conway is among a cadre of writers who are closely associated with the places about which they write. Consider Wendell Berry and the rural landscapes of Kentucky, Joan Didion and her beloved California, or Zadie Smith and the multi-cultural knit of contemporary London, or even Philip Roth, who also recently passed away and whose autobiographical fiction was often set in Newark, New Jersey. As adept wordsmiths, these writers are able to make places come alive, so that the reader is lured there, too.
Certain places—a particular neighborhood or town, a sprawling city, a distinctive landscape or geographic region—can come to have a special significance in a person’s life. For some, this is the place they call “home”; it is the place they are from (or where they have resided for a long stretch of time) and its familiarity becomes the basis of its continued significance, even if they no longer live there.
Others are drawn, often inexplicably, to places that are not their home but that they find beautiful, or compelling, or which bring a sense of comfort. I have a friend from Alabama who lights up when she talks about the majestic beauty of the Pacific Northwest. There is clearly something magical about that place for her, despite the fact that she has only spent an accumulated few months there. New Age spirituality has fastened on to this phenomenon, sometimes describing it as a “soul place.” For example, Dr. Judith Rich describes her “soul connection” with Russia in an essay entitled “The Soul of a Place: Where Does Your Soul Call Home?” Caroline Hindel explores some of the indicators of a “soul place,” including a sense of inspiration, peacefulness and even nostalgia. People who travel sometimes describe a mysterious affinity for a place.
But there is another way in which a particular place can have significance. For some people, a place doesn’t just lure them because of its beauty, sublimity, or some other compelling quality but it actually comes to form the foundation of their life’s work—it calls them and makes a claim upon them. Henry Bugbee (1915-1999) exemplifies this well.
Most likely you have not heard of Henry Bugbee, because he is a minor figure in American philosophy (although much appreciated by the people who do read him). Bugbee only published one book, a collection of journal entries that he titled, borrowing from a poem by Thoreau, The Inward Morning.
Like Thoreau, Bugbee was a consummate walker. As he describes in The Inward Morning, his philosophy “took place mainly on foot. It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely while walking, but throughwalking that was essentially a meditation of the place.” Bugbee develops a somewhat complicated view of how our participation in a particular moment and presence in a place can become “moments of obligation” that are life defining.
I’ll explore Bugbee’s ideas about presence and participation in a future blog post; here I want to focus on the place that mattered most to Henry Bugbee. It was not the place where he was born (New York City), nor where he grew up (Connecticut), nor the most notable place that launched his career (Harvard University). It was instead a place that after some twists and set-backs, became his home and more than his home—Missoula, Montana.
In a recent compilation of some of Bugbee’s unpublished writings entitled Wilderness in America, editor David Rodick arranged a set of appendixes to enable a reader to better understand Bugbee as a person. These include a lengthy interview with Bugbee as well as several letters and tributes from friends and colleagues who admired him. The appendixes also include a curriculum vita that Bugbee wrote towards the end of his life, in 1993. Rodick reminds us that a vita is much more than a résumé; the original meaning of curriculum vitae was a “living record of a life of learning” (177). At first glance, it appears to be a standard chronological listing of his educational and employment history. But Bugbee’s brief commentary throughout his vita tells us something about the twists and turns in his life, and why Missoula was so significant to him.
Bugbee was denied tenure at Harvard for “reasons of insufficient publication” (editor’s introduction, 3) and went on to hold a series of teaching and administrative positions. In 1958, he went to the University of Montana in Missoula in order, as he writes in his vita, “to build a strong Philosophy department, but a change of the university administration did not support this understanding,” and he resigned in 1961 (179). He then spent some time at Penn State and as a research fellow at Harvard but then he returned to Missoula, “which became HOME for me from then on.” Bugbee goes on to add, parenthetically, “I found that Montana had claimed me and my fundamental loyalties of placement.” He retuned to the University in 1967 where he taught through to his retirement in 1979. In the vita he notes:
And this Rocky Mountain country has sustained my life and work every since, the two having become more and more inseparable. I have walked these hills most days from 1963 to the present. (Wilderness in America, 179)
For Bugbee, Montana was not just the place where he happened to live and work—it made a claim on him and gave his life orientation. In part, this was because he had an intimate knowledge and appreciation for the landscape because of his frequent walking of its trails and paths. But the connection to the place went beyond appreciation—it also became the focus of much of his political activity, as he attended hearings and worked for many years on matters related to conservation. His obituary in The Missoulian described his testimonies at wilderness hearings as “spectacular moments, in which his audience, accustomed to the idiom of economics and recreational resources, came to realize there is a kinship between the eloquence of nature and the eloquence of art.”
When I first started teaching at Monmouth (located in rural Illinois), I was surprised and even a little bit frustrated by how many students expected to return to their hometown after graduation, or refused to apply to graduate programs or for professional work outside of the Midwest. I saw it as my job to expand their horizons and encourage their ambitions even as that might mean weakening family ties and denying the lure of “going home.” I was wrong. For many of my students, their sense of connection to a particular place is an important part of their identity and potentially an important piece of their “vocation puzzle.” Their lives can be examples of what Josiah Royce called “enlightened provincialism”— loyalty to the local while still having an expanded sense of the world and its complexity.
But at the same time, they need to have enough courage to venture into new lands, because they may discover a place that, like Missoula Montana was for Henry Bugbee, becomes inseparable from their sense of themselves and their life’s mission. As with many aspects of vocational discernment, this is often only understood retrospectively.
Hannah Schell is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015).