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Bugbee’s Wilderness: Metaphysical and Montanan
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Bugbee’s Wilderness:
Metaphysical and Montanan

Our true home is wilderness, even the world of everyday.

—Henry G. Bugbee, Jr.

Henry Bugbee was Born in New York City in 1915. This may not seem the most fortuitous birthplace for an interpreter of the wild rivers of Montana, but we might also remember that John Muir, interpreter of the High Sierras, was born in Scotland. Perhaps the movement west is an important prelude for such a vocation. Bugbee studied philosophy at Princeton and then at Berkeley, but before he could finish his graduate work, he was called for naval service in the Pacific. The time at sea was a formative wilderness experience, on which his writing draws heavily. Returning from sea, he finished his PhD and took a teaching position at Harvard. Not many years later, he took a position at the University of Montana, to teach philosophy, fly-fish, and be at home in the wilderness.

“The theme of reality as a wilderness” recurs throughout The Inward Morning, and the sense of wilderness he has in mind is clearly the sacred space of Henry Thoreau and John Muir, rather than the howling wasteland faced by the puritan and pioneer or Gifford Pinchot’s crop of timber (Bugbee, Inward Morning 128). America’s reverent romance with wild country stands in the background of his reflections, but he dwells on the meaning of wild country only through extended personal anecdote. The wilderness of mountains and seas is a light he wishes to shine on everyday experience; it is not so much the subject of the work as the teacher.

Two decades later, Bugbee returned to the theme of wilderness in the other direction. The context for this was the advent of the new Wilderness Preservation System and the public hearings to determine which de facto wildernesses would become wildernesses de jure. In “Wilderness in America,” he reasons from the metaphysical and pedagogical significance of wilderness to the political exigencies of conservation. [End Page 46]

My goal in this paper is to begin to build on this project. By further applying the perspective of The Inward Morning to questions of preservation, I seek to show that Bugbee’s work can inform a helpful approach to pressing problems of science, value, and preservation. How is it that meaning and value dawn upon us in our experience of the natural world? And can we take the experience of natural scientists—or even poets and artists—as yielding better and surer ways of valuing nature than the ways of valuing yielded by the experience of lumbermen, ranchers, and miners, which are so often in opposition to preservation?

The Metaphysical

When Dan Conway says that “the concept of wilderness bears an unusual share of the philosophical burden assumed by Henry Bugbee in The Inward Morning,” it is not because the idea shows up that frequently (“Wilderness of Bugbee” 259). Ideas like finality, certainty, and responsibility show up much more often. “Wilderness” appears on little more than a half-dozen pages. But what Bugbee does say about wilderness is rather startling, and it culminates and unifies his other themes to a large extent.

The first wilderness we meet in Inward Morning is the swamp that lay around Bugbee’s childhood school. There, in the last days of winter, Bugbee and his friends would go “swamping” (Inward Morning 42–43). Swamping is an activity that can have no possible utility for any other prior goal one might have, and it involves a great deal of discomfort—breaking through the remaining ice to muck aimlessly through mud and water. It was, in other words, “rather senseless” (Inward Morning 42). The story is told to illustrate the way value comes to us in our experience, calling to us from unlikely places. There is a value to swamping that cannot be explained or predicted. It can only be known through responding to the call by participation. You have to abandon yourself to the water:

It was not particularly pleasant, as I recall. I can remember the shivering cold. But there was no mistake about the gladness of being in the swamp or the immanence of wilderness there.

(Inward Morning...