Ian Marshall | Ripples Blog Series

To conclude our exploration of hiraeth, we offer you a piece by Ian Marshall, author of Border Crossings: Walking the Haiku Path on the International Appalachian Trail. This is the final post in this chapter of the Ripples Blog Series.  Border Crossings is set to be Hiraeth Press’ first book of 2012; it will be released in just a few short weeks on February 24th.


 by Ian Marshall

Hiraeth: “longing”; “homesickness.” To long for something means that it is not present; to be homesick means you are away from home. The notion puts us in the position of Odysseus, the hero whose name has become synonymous with wandering—all in the name of trying to get back home. We have a bit of a fetish for home, don’t we? Especially those of us who care about the natural world. We want to restore landscapes, return them to the way they once were. We speak of the natural world as our home, the setting in which, for which, our senses, our whole beings have evolved. I think of a project I did with a class this past semester, where we read Henry Thoreau’s Walden and as an experiment in experiential learned built a replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. And what is a cabin but a home and a symbol of a grounded life?

But I wonder if the wandering isn’t just as much a part of our genetic make-up as the desire to be settled and at home is. Our ancestors, prior to the Agricultural Revolution, were likely nomadic, wandering from place to place, following the migrations, heading out for the spot where they knew the berries were ripening, or where the water source was reliable during a dry season.

The truth is we like to wander just as much as we like to return home. The exercise of the muscles as you walk along the path, the rhythms of the road, the excitement of encountering the unfamiliar—we respond to that. And doesn’t the accompanying longing for home add a certain poignancy to the travelling? That element of something absent—the knowledge that at the end of the road lie the comforts of home—doesn’t that add some emotional depth to the journey?

Ah, but here’s the rub—the blister on the hiker’s heel. We can’t do both at once, can we? We can’t be at home and on the road at the same time. We can yearn for home when we’re on the road, and we can feel the itch to be on the road again when we’re at home—but we can never have it all. There’s a law of nature inherent in all this—maybe it’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which says that in the realm of subatomic particles we can measure the position of a particle, and we can measure its velocity, but when we find one we lose the other.

Maybe now I’m leaving the realm of science and entering the realm of philosophy—specifically Buddhist thought, with its sense that existence is marked by suffering, dissatisfaction, and desire. Always, it seems, there is the longing for where you are not at the moment. Is it too quirky to believe that there is something to savor in the longing for that which is absent? Part of the joy of a journey is the planning beforehand (when you’re still at home), the reflection afterward (when you’ve gotten back home), just as part of the thrill of the road comes from the anticipation of the return home.

Our nomadic ancestors, it occurs to me now, may not have been much angst-ridden while they were out wandering. For while they may well have travelled a great deal, they likely did so in circuits repeated annually—a trip to the seacoast for salt, a trip to the mountains for berries, to a sheltered valley for the winter. It was all home, and every long, longing step was a return.


 We will be starting up the series again later on in the year with a fresh theme and new perspectives. Until then, we would love to hear your feedback on the series and perhaps suggestions for the next theme. Tell us your thoughts by clicking here >>



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, Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need and Walden by Haiku. On February 24th Ian will release his fourth book, Border Crossings: Walking the Haiku Path on the International Appalachian Trail.