grew up on the prairie, in the freedom and loneliness of a small,
The edges of the town tumbled over into wheatfields. One gravel
road led north/south, another ran east/west. Muddy water trickled
through the gutters of the streets in springtime, riffled by gusts
that lifted smells of wet loam and thawing sod to our faces, suggesting
things catch one’s attention on the prairie (wildflowers
in a ditch), for there are no jutting mountains. Cyclists say the
prairie’s moral equivalent of mountains is the wind--unseen,
but felt in force, and wildly consequential.
horizon too is intensely and insistently felt. It is the source
seen or unseen. East is where day breaks. North is
where my body turns (day or night) to go, from town, toward our family’s
Easily the act of turning the body brings three hundred sixty degrees
of horizon into view. Beguiling, threatening, or indifferent, that
horizon is a constant presence. It displays indisputably that many
approaches can be made to any site or situation; and it keeps us
humbly mindful that possibilities undreamed of may lie beyond our
to what is small and to detail, but orient yourself always in terms
the whole; respect what is felt, as well as what is seen;
understand to the bone that unless you plant and cultivate you will
not harvest--and that any individual’s crop can fail despite
all diligence. This was philosophy offered by the prairie.
How I entered the profession of philosophy is another story.
In college, I took no classes in philosophy. I studied math and
French, primarily. But I could not choose between them. I was fascinated
by the relation between what mathematical symbols do and how words
work in ordinary languages. One night, beset with customary insomnia,
I rose from bed and wrote the essay that I sent as application to
grad school at the University of Chicago--an essay on the concepts
of symbol, and structure, and system. A year and a half later I moved
to Chicago, having deferred admission for an interim year in Cambridge,
England, where I studied the Cahiers (notebooks) of the French symbolist
poet, Paul Valery.
The shift from the short arches of Cambridge to tall Chicago Gothic
was whimsically bizarre. Yet, soon I felt at home, as never before.
Robie House stood on a street corner near the edge of campus, marking
the down-to-earth structure of everyday life that intersected here
with high intellectual tradition. Classical music, blues, and jazz
mingled, as Lake Michigan tossed or slumbered.
Moen, June 2002