Problems of Place: Contingent Geographies

“But is geography fate? I love where I’m from, but… that love feels random. And as I am made of love, I, too, feel random.” 


I wear Minnesota around my neck: a small concrete cast of the state, maybe an inch long with a copper foil covering the top right corner. I bought it as a talisman to wear to my dissertation defense, and under the copper is Level III Ecoregion 5.2.1, better known as the Northwoods: a region mapped in my mind to its finest details, teaming with stories and statistics, a place I know today almost as well as I know it a century and a half ago. Those who recognize it will ask me if it’s where I’m from. No, I respond, I’m not from there. But it’s where my roots are.

Historians are profoundly aware of the importance of place—at the heart of our discipline is a firmly held conviction that people make no sense outside of their geographies. But with environmental historians this focus borders on mania. We ground our scholarship in place—the way land shaped people, and people shape the land. Fundamentally, this was what drew me to environmental history, because I studied it as an outsider: by eighteen I’d lived in nine houses in five cities across two continents. Once I left home, I only made it worse. In fifteen years, I’ve renewed a lease once. At one point I just went ahead lived on a boat, which was curiously one of the homiest places I’ve known. As a kid I would get very melodramatic about it (occasionally my two a.m. anxiety will land, with no warning, on when—at an age old enough to know better—I wrote a tortured monologue about the idea of home and performed it on stage at a summer camp talent show). In college I wrote long personal essays about geography, desperate to connect to landscape. But nothing stuck—not until I began my dissertation. While a career in academia seems at odds with growing roots, my scholarship allowed me a way out, a way to connect with place that my life has not.

For years I thought this restless dissatisfaction was specific to me and my own fervid fascination with geography, but I have come to understand that both sides of the problem—my longing for a place to call my own, and my inability to achieve it—are part of a broader pattern. To travel is a privilege, but to have your own geography determined by someone else is not. What I have found exhilarating about moving and traveling—the vast and scattered networks, the experiences of new cultures, the ability to see loved ones regularly—are borne of the enormous privilege and protections of my white, wealthy upbringing. They have shielded me from feeling the worst effects that contingency has had on my colleagues.

The anxiety of unknowability, the exhaustion of trying to plan a future that is out of my hands, and the tedious little tasks and mental exercises that come from having no location are all endemic not to my individual choices, but to the profession. Academia forces us into a series of random geographies; as young scholars every life choice feels contingent on someone, somewhere, else. We study the way humans connect to landscapes, but we have no such place to call our own—and any steps we take to build those connections seem at odds with pursuing the scholarship that explores them. In this market, forgoing jobs because of their geography is, at best, terrifying.

In her address to the Gender Equity Breakfast at this year’s American Historical Association conference, Linda Kerber remembered that when she graduated women weren’t recommended for hire because it was assumed they would leave the profession for motherhood, or their husbands would be hired away, and they would follow. Now female scholars subject to the same tyranny of geography—we will move where the job is, we will let our career dictate our homes—without the cultural assumption that partners ought to tolerate it, or an economy that allows them to easily follow. And the problem is compounded for women who want families. In the same talk, Kerber described one of the confounding challenges for many women in the profession: our careers push us to work hard when we’re young, but biology remains stubborn.

Yet young scholars do our best to hack all of this, to make it work. We’ll even try to beat biology: recently I took a morning off from building out my spring syllabus and writing my manuscript to take the first steps in freezing my eggs, for a future when I’ll have a home, a place to bring kids into. Anne Helen Peterson recently wrote of our entire generation “we didn’t try to break the system, since that’s not how we’d been raised. We tried to win it.” That is not unique to academia, but there are few other industries where uncertain work is so deeply tied to an instability of geography.

Many of us entered the profession because we naively dreamed of a quiet college town and a big front porch: a life profoundly grounded in place, rooted in scholarship and work that felt worthwhile. But more and more we’re beginning to admit that the exhaustion of endless contingencies is unlikely to stop anytime soon, that that is how the system is designed, and that we may not be one of this year’s lucky lotto winners. As Greg Wiker joked on Twitter, “Tentatively considering putting a panel together title ‘Fuck If I Know’ for #AHA20. Let me know if you have no idea where you’ll be in 12 months and are interested.”

And yet come next year’s AHA I’ll still be there, still trying to make it work. Because while the academy may deny me place, my scholarship is the only way I’ve ever found to connect with it.

* * *

My second year of graduate school I lived on the third floor above a tea room and bar in our small downtown. My floor was the bar’s ceiling, with no insulation. Our bright living room always smelled of chai, and on Friday and Saturday nights the apartment was so loud my roommate and I had to shout to each other over high school punk bands. In the windows of art galleries and craft stores on the brick-paved pedestrian Mall I lived on, there was a design on t-shirts and tote bags. It was an abstract tree with roots spreading down, splaying wide, breaking the bounds of the print. “Charlottesville,” it read, “grow your roots.” Well, I tried.

Or I tried my best. I had a boyfriend five time zones away who wanted to talk for an hour every night right as my cohort went to happy hour. On breaks I’d fly back to see him and my undergrad friends. On weekends I’d drive up to DC where I managed to convince my old high school friends it was still reasonable to invite me to dinner, because you never know, I might appear. I was always looking over the horizon, to the next possible future, afraid to get locked in place in case it would hold me back, and as a result I made connections everywhere and grew roots nowhere. I drafted this on the seventh leg of travel over a three-week period in a white-knuckled attempt to hold together lines of friendship, my duty as a loving daughter, and professional networks. I tell first dates that I might move this year, or maybe next; no, I don’t know to where. Not once, but twice I have fallen in love with men only to have my geography blow up our relationship. Yet one thing has remained constant throughout: my scholarship.

I have spent eight years digging into the “lost region” of the Midwest, searching out a quiet corner in which I could nest. I have passed long, rainy March afternoons wading through the forests in the small reading room of the Wisconsin Historical Society. For a month I slept in dingy motels and drank cans of beer with men in their fifties in dive bars on the Upper Peninsula as I bounced around local archives. And Minnesota, the home of most of my childhood summers, is now mapped out in my memory generations deep. The woods I played in as a kid are now the source of analysis. A three-hundred-page manuscript is probably no less melodramatic a way to find home than a bad talent show monologue, but it has succeeded where other efforts failed. I have never lived in Minnesota, I have never spent more than a few months there. But the years of effort, the endless reading and writing, have paid off: academia may be denying me a home, but my scholarship has given me roots.