T he path to the summit of Scotts Bluff National Monument is Nebraska at its best. Morning walks among sweeping panoramas in the serenity of the prairie are treasured rituals for many of us who live nearby. So in 2015, when 25,000 tons of sandstone broke away from the side of Scotts Bluff National Monument, pulverizing the path below and closing it for over a year, hundreds of walkers and I were left a bit out of sorts. We were forced to find new morning routines, reminded that even our monuments are just here for a moment.
From the history I’ve stitched together from elders, friends, and roadside historical markers, I sense that this area has always been shaped by transience. Passers through—in search of game or work in sugar beet fields or simply on their way to somewhere else—came, left their mark, and moved on. Among those travelers, however, some stayed or returned.
I myself first arrived in 2013 for my first job as a community planner, made this place home for five years, and left for new opportunities. When given the option to work remotely in 2020, I returned after just 18 months away and found things had already changed. Friends had moved, some of my favorite businesses closed, my work and position in the community were different. It felt like coming home and finding some other family’s pictures on my wall.
Anyone who has tried to make their home in a place that doesn’t feel “home” anymore understands. In Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter, Berry addresses precisely this sense of displacement. An iconic American environmentalist, poet, and novelist, he has written prolifically about rural life; Berry’s novels center in the fictional town of Port William, an analogue for his actual place of residence in Port Royal, Kentucky. In Hannah Coulter, the titular character is a twice-widowed elderly woman reflecting on her years in Port William. Toward the end of the book, she considers the changes in the town and her own sense of the community’s “completeness”:
The old Port William that I came into in 1941 I think of now as a sort of picture puzzle. It was not an altogether satisfactory picture. It always required some forgiveness, for things that of course could be forgiven. But the picture was more or less complete and more or less put together and the pieces were more or less replaceable. After the war ended in 1945, slowly at first but ever faster, the lost pieces were not replaced. Sometimes, as when we buried the old Feltners or Mr. Milo Settle, the new grave contained a necessary and forever finished part of the old life.
In my work, I come across many residents who view “home” similarly as a sort of puzzle with missing pieces. Ask elders in just about any small town what they think could be better in their community, and there’s a chance you’ll get a list of everything that used to be there. It's easy to pass off longing for “the good old days” as backward-thinking and unimaginative, but perhaps this lament is worth considering, even honoring. We seek out the lost pieces of home—friends, landmarks we love, traditions, institutions—not only because they constitute an essential part of what we think of as home, but also because they constitute an essential part of how we think of ourselves. Adapting to a new picture without all of its puzzle pieces is not only adapting to a new environment, but also a foreign way of being.
The towns and people of Nebraska most inspiring to me don’t dwell on missing puzzle pieces. “Home” for them is an active, creative process that draws on their gifts in new ways. They approach their projects with curiosity. Old and new friends dim and brighten to form new constellations of support and meaning. A friend from church engages our community this way. Despite losing his wife, despite his children moving away, despite retiring from his official job titles that compelled community presence, he still shows up. He fixes fencing on a friend’s rangeland south of town, he mentors youth, he presents to grief recovery groups, he helped lead our congregation’s giving campaign, he’s started framing pictures for others with old barn wood, he always makes room for new friends. His actions are ordinary but the innerwork that preceded them is heroic. Untethering ourselves from a familiar picture of “home” to venture into a new way of being takes great courage. Setting our foundation on the deepest meaning for our life, rather than on familiar titles, takes great faith.
Whether Port William of 1941 or Scottsbluff of 2018, we all carry with us pictures of how “home” should be. When pieces of these pictures inevitably go missing, we are all susceptible to embarking on heartfelt but futile searches to replace what is irreplaceable. Perhaps more accurately, we cling to old ways of being and delay the real innerwork of self-transformation. But if I were to take a lesson from my friend, and from Berry, it would be that at some point we must let the passers through pass on and let the rockslides fall. Home may be found again in the courage to face this estranged terrain at last with an open heart, in faith that belonging is our birthright, which through our gifts we are called to reclaim.