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Posted on Jan 17, 2012

Border Crossings | Forthcoming Feb 2012

On February 24th we will be releasing our first offering of 2012. Starting the year off strong, we will be bringing to you, Border Crossings: Walking the Haiku Path on the International Appalachian Trail by Ian Marshall.

Border Crossings centers on a personal narrative of a hike on the recently developed International Appalachian Trail, which runs from Mt. Katahdin in Maine up through New Brunswick and out to the tip of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. It includes travel writing focused on a hike of the International Appalachian Trail, haiku that emerge from that journey, and critical inquiry into the aesthetics of haiku!

As our first preview, we thought we would give you an excerpt from the introduction—let you start down the path of this journey a little early rather than make you wait until February. We hope you enjoy!



Consulting the Map, Finding the Path


There comes a moment on a backpacking trip—not on the first day, but maybe on the second or third—when, for just a moment, the weight on your back disappears. You start out walking fully aware of the pack at every step and your internal monologue fully preoccupied with it and other similarly weighty matters. Geez, that’s heavy, you think—what do I have in there? Anything I don’t need? Ought to loosen the shoulder strap some, so it doesn’t pull so hard. How far have I gone? How much farther to go? Geez, that’s heavy. But eventually there comes that moment when you’ve found a rhythm beyond the litany of complaint, when you’ve been gliding along, taking in whatever lies along the trail—a nameless flower blooming and not seeming to miss the name—the intricate pattern of bark on a pine—a cloud sliding out from behind a tree, as if the tree’s canopy had detached and drifted away—another one of those flowers—and you are caught up in the rhythm of the walk, unaware not only of the weight of the pack on your back or the thud of each step on the trail but of any conscious thought at all. In that moment the boundaries between self and world dissolve. The cloud and the flower, and your movement and the cloud’s are all part of the same flow. We call it oneness, but it could just as easily be called nothingness for there is suddenly no you that exists separate from the world around you. Maybe it’s everythingness.

That is the moment of what I call “packlessness.” Of course, as soon as you realize that it has arrived, as soon as you say to yourself, hey, for a moment there I forgot about the weight of the pack, I forgot about everything in fact, even about me, myself, and I . . . well, in that moment the weight is back.

And you walk on. You walk on thinking about the metaphoric implications of the pack, that it is all the things that weigh you down, an unfinished task at work, an unsatisfying exchange with a colleague, the things you should have said but didn’t, the things you did say but shouldn’t have. Deadlines. Things to do. And then in the middle of thinking of all that, there’s another one of those flowers, five petals, yellow, darker yellow in the middle, you’ll have to look it up later in the field guide, and then the weight is gone again, but then you realize it’s gone so it’s back.  And you walk on.

In the spring of 1689 the poet Matsuo Bashō set out, pack on his back, notebook in his pack, on a hike of Japan’s northern provinces. Starting from Edo (now Tokyo), he traveled for five months, covering over twelve hundred miles. He crossed mountains, followed the northern coastline, and visited sites of literary and historical significance. Bashō’s account of the journey, Oku no Hosomichi, was published five years later, the year he died. Its various titles in translation—Narrow Road to Oku, Narrow Road to the Deep North, Narrow Road to the Interior—together suggest that his journey was to a place remote, wild, and little known, and at the same time was a spiritual quest. Featuring fifty hokku, a term which usually refers to the starting verse of a linked-poem form called renga, and written in a colloquial style called haikai no renga (the term “haiku” would not exist for another two hundred years), Bashō’s Narrow Road has no narrative center or unifying perspective or continuous plot line other than the journey itself. It remains one of the masterpieces of Japanese literature, combining travel journal with haiku (as we now call the form), poetic and meditative prose, literary criticism and cultural meditation all melded together in a blended form called haibun.

The journey I describe in the pages that follow is in part an imitation of Bashō as I conduct my own exploration into northern provinces. My path lies along the IAT, the International Appalachian Trail (or, en francais, the SIA, Le Sentier Internationale des Appalaches), a newly developed trail that picks up where the AT, the Appalachian Trail, leaves off, at the top of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin. The “long green tunnel” of the AT follows the crest of the Appalachians some two thousand miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, and ends on Katahdin. But the Appalachians themselves do not end there. The IAT continues to follow the mountains north through Baxter State Park, east across Maine to the New Brunswick border, north along the border cut for a day’s walk, then heads northeast through New Brunswick along the Aroostook and Tobique Rivers, to Mts. Carleton, Head, and Sagamore, west to the town of Kedgwick River, then northeast again along (or on) the Restigouche River to Quebec. There the IAT runs northward through the Matapedia Valley and east into the rugged Chic-Choc Mountains, through the Matane Wildlife Reserve and Parc de la Gaspésie up to the coast, along the northern edge of the Gaspé Peninsula where it juts into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and out to land’s end at Cap Gaspé. There the Appalachian Mountains, after their long northeasterly rise, descend to sea level. The IAT is a spectacular trail, utterly gorgeous, and in places (the Chic-Chocs) offers more wild country than you are likely to find anywhere else in eastern North America.

When Bashō set out on his journey to the north, he was already a veteran traveler of trips that had led to his books Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones, Sarashina Travelogue, and Knapsack Notes. I too have turned my travels into prose—my own set of foot prints of sorts, or at least a few lengthy foot notes. My first book, Story Line, followed the Appalachian Trail north to Katahdin, considering what we can learn about places along the way from the literary works set there—Henry Thoreau’s essay “Ktaadn,” for instance. My second book, Peak Experiences, was about mountains, and how literature can serve as guidebooks to show us the way upslope to psychological satisfaction in the natural world. My third book, Walden by Haiku, was my first venture into learning how to haiku, as I converted some of Thoreau’s more imagistic prose in Walden into haiku form and explored the parallels between haiku aesthetics and Thoreau’s writing and lifestyle.

On his travels, Bashō was accompanied by Sora, a friend and fellow poet and traveler. I too had a companion, M (the first letter of both her given name and Mooseless, her trail name), colleague, partner, fellow traveler, scholar, poet, and significant other. Bashō had to say goodbye to Sora partway through his journey, but M and I made it together all the way from Katahdin to Cap Gaspé. Our travels, though, unlike Bashō and Sora’s, were not contiguous. Given the demands of teaching and parenting schedules, we were unable to get away for two or three months straight, and we had to content ourselves with a series of two-week trips over the course of six summers.

Bashō’s Narrow Road is organized in journal form, in the Japanese tradition of literary diaries known as nikki bungaku—a form not altogether alien to readers of the North American nature writing tradition, given the examples of Thoreau’s journals and nature writing classics like Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. I have followed suit, offering daily trail notes and contemplations, but I have broken the narrative into six parts, reflecting the six different trips we took. The piecemeal approach to the trail had its advantages, mainly that we could do a lot of reading between trips, and we could make the anticipation of planning and the contentment of reminiscence last that much longer. We also deviated from Bashō in our means of locomotion. Besides using a car to get to the trailhead each year, we didn’t always walk the trail. Since the IAT is new, there are stretches, mainly through eastern Maine and New Brunswick, that follow roads and rail trails. We didn’t look forward to lugging backpacks along roadsides, so we arranged to cover that part of the trail on bikes. In northern New Brunswick, we opted to canoe sixty miles on the Restigouche River, which is considered a valid alternate route for the IAT. Our version of Bashō’s “Narrow Road,” then, was not always a hiking path.

Shared wandering aside, I am well aware that I am no Bashō. (My friends and colleagues can attest that I don’t imagine that I’m another Bashō. Far from it—I think I’m Henry Thoreau!) But I turn to Bashō and the way of haiku because I believe we in our time and place, so far from Bashō’s, stand to learn something from haiku and haibun. Something about those moments of packlessness, perhaps, which are akin to haiku moments. Haiku is the attempt to hold on to those moments of egoless belonging to the world, to catch part of the flow, and an attempt to describe those moments and make them available for contemplation. We can learn from haiku something about a right relationship with the natural world, about selflessness and the integration of self and world. And so I mean to proselytize here, helping to spread the word about haiku. (OK, it’ll be more than one word, but they’ll be simple ones, and mostly adding up to something less than seventeen syllables.) In haiku we find a literary model for ecocentric thought, moving beyond a solely human perspective in order to see clearly the “more-than-human world” (as David Abram calls it) on its own terms—but without erasing the human perceiver that is part of that world.


Ian Marshall is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona and a former president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, he is the author of Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail (Virginia, 1998), Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need (Virginia, 2003), and Walden by Haiku (Georgia, 2009).