Source: The Living Fire(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)
Source: The Living Fire(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)
Camp Widjiwagan counselors have been known to tell young campers (including this author) certain tall tales as they ventured up through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota. Crossing into Canada, for instance, they would say that if you squint hard, you can see a “border chain” hanging in the lake below. Some kids laughed it off — others were convinced they could spot it. This mythical divider was an inside joke, but the actual border is more marked than many realize.
From Arctic Village, Alaska to Houlton, Maine, the border between Canada and the United States is the longest in the world. Much of the surrounding landscape is relatively wild and untouched. But extending out ten feet from the line on either side along much of its length is what’s known as “the Slash.”
Stripped of trees, this slice runs through national forests and over mountains. It is too long and remote to be continuously cut down, but every few years (longer on the Western sections, where growth is slower) workers freshly deforest the greenery that grows back.
It might seem unnecessary, but there is a reason for this intervention: a person on either side wandering close to the border can see it and recognize they’re approaching the line. So each year, American taxpayers pay around half a cent each to the International Boundary Commission (IBC) to help periodically maintain this dividing void.
The work is split between countries. Per Julia Shipley, “U.S. and Canadian divisions of the IBC both have their own staff, equipment and budget. The two groups meet once a year to divvy up their work.” Crews of five to ten people are sent out to various locations. To the east, many of the crews stay in motels — in the west, they camp out.
“It all started in the 1800s, when the US-Canada border line was set at the 49th parallel,” writes Lew Blank. “The Slash was cut and over 8,000 original border markers were laid down, most of which are still standing along The Slash to this day.” But without GPS systems, the markers strayed by hundreds of feet in many places. Other mapping errors led to the creation of things like the Northwest Angle.
“Seeing the Slash can be as simple as going to Google Maps,” explains Blank, “zooming towards the US-Canada border, and switching to satellite view. Those looking for a more up close view can travel to Newport, Vermont and hop aboard Northern Star Cruises, which will take you right alongside the Slash. Another way to see the slash is in Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail to Canada, or the Long Trail in Vermont.”
The Slash also seems like a unique opportunity to travel from coast to coast — an intrepid hiker and paddler could perhaps portage and kayak through otherwise overgrown sections, forever following the thin line.
In 2012 I began referring to myself, in jest, as a man of letters. (I was in graduate school studying English.) My wife was quick to tell me that if I call myself a man of letters, I should be sending letters. Oh no, I assured her, a man of letters just reads and writes; he doesn’t necessarily have to send letters. But she was insistent that a man of letters should send letters, and so I resolved to send a postcard every Friday. I called it Postcard Friday.
Worried I’d write the same thing to the same people multiple times, I picked up a Moleskine to keep a log what I said and to whom. As I look at that log now, five and a half years into Postcard Friday, it tells me I’ve sent 880 postcards. What started as one a week has grown into three, four, five. Whenever I am in a gas station, a bookstore, a museum, an airport newsstand, I buy postcards. They vary in quality—pen smears on the cheap ones—and my aesthetics have changed. I used to prefer the chintzy, tacky postcards with glitter and neon, the uglier the better. I saw them as ironic. I am now more discerning: only good cardstock, only good pictures, preferably of maps or whales or bigfoot.
Just as formal poetry shapes what the poet can say, the space on the back of the card constrains how I write. There’s room for four or five good sentences, maybe six if I write small. (One friend solved the space problem by sending me two postcards, labeled “Part 1” and “Part 2.”) Since the back of a postcard is open to all, I figure my mail carrier may read it, as could anyone along its way, and once it reaches its destination, I can only assume the intended recipient won’t be the only one to read it. Other family members might; if it’s out on the coffee table, house guests too. This creates another problem writing a postcard: how to write something personal enough so the postcard isn’t fluff but not so personal as to be embarrassing when read by prying eyes.
My postcard writing has evolved from asking a series of questions to what I now think of as the snapshot postcard—a paragraph about the local barbershop, a few sentences about tasting aquavit at a Norwegian distillery, a story about sitting on the beach over the weekend. The snapshot shares a bit of life with the “wish you were here” implied. These snapshots are, of course, a fiction. They are constructed representations of life, not unlike a Facebook status update. I think of Stanley Fish, who says that sentences “organize the world into manageable, and in some sense, artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated.” These postcards do just that: they construct a world out of a few deliberate sentences, a world the writer inhabits, a world the writer manipulates. In that construction, they narrate a life.
Recipients respond a variety of ways. I’ve seen my postcards hung on the fridge or placed in a frame. My neighbor from Pittsburgh emails every time he receives a postcard. Some friends text in response. My parents will call. I find these responses fascinating because of the shift in medium: pen and paper get a response in pixels or over the phone, which then gets a response in pen and paper, and so on. On my desk, I have a shoebox of postcards received in response to the ones I’ve sent. In them, I can see the growing literacy of my cousin, who at first sent sentences transcribed by his mother. He soon was writing his sentences himself, though they’d only respond to the questions I’d asked him. Within a few years, he was proposing new topics of conversation in his responses, propelling our discussion forward himself. In the responses from my friends, my grandmother, my brothers, I read moments of great joy (“Today, Emily gave me a daughter. They are both sleeping for the moment. Her name is Lucienne”), moments of fear (“I got your news today. It makes a lot of other things seem smaller. Not unimportant, just smaller”), moments of rest (“I needed a little break from real life after the terrible election so I am taking a few days off and spending them in Cleveland”), and moments of inspiration (“I had the idea to write a children’s book called ‘Turk Moves to NYC’”). I receive envelopes stuffed with drawings from my nieces, notes written on the back of sheet music, a letter tied to a book the sender wants me to read. There’s a materiality in these responses. These objects have been put in an envelope by a set of hands, that envelope licked and carried to the mailbox and then carried across the country, thousands of miles, and set in my mailbox by another set of hands to then be opened by my hands. Even though the postcards and letters I receive and send say the same thing an email or text could, the physicality of the mail—the dirt on the postcard, the stamp from the post office, the waterlogged letter, the delay between correspondences—carries with it something that the digital simply can’t.
Last year, one of my students wrote a paper on Oona Frawley’s novel Flight, which tells of a Zimbabwean coming to Ireland in 2004. The main character, Sandrine, writes a lot of letters. My student explains: “Sandrine uses letters to explore her own feelings on immigration and to bridge the distance between her current and former lives.” There’s a sense, here, that writing a letter is way to maintain connections, a means to not lose touch. But there’s more; my student continues: “By writing physical letters that are able to travel where she no longer can, Sandrine’s letters—whether sent or unsent—become an embodied hope of return.” The letter travels where the writer cannot, and because of this, its physicality matters. The postcard traverses a distance, however far, and by traveling that distance, it embodies a hope of return. By reaching from the present to a shared past, the postcard points to the future.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Kate Tempest at Maison de la Poésie, 1/17/18
Among the myriad English-language travel blogs, you’re likely to come across two specific words of German origin. The first, more common word is “wanderlust.” Though the German origins of the word are more concerned specifically with traveling by foot/walking in nature, the word has lost its specificity and is now more or less associated with a “strong desire to travel.” The second word is “fernweh,” the antonym of the German word heimweh (homesickness). It implies a longing for far-off places, literally a “farsickness.” In his essay Far Away From Here for The New York Times, writer and photographer Teju Cole attempts to distinguish between the two with the following: “Fernweh is similar to wanderlust but, like heimweh, has a sickish, melancholy tinge. Wanderlust is rooted in the German Romantic tradition and is strongly tied to walking out in nature. […] Fernweh is a bit more imprecise. One simply wishes to be far away.”
If you Google fernweh, the first result is grouped together with wanderlust—that fernweh is only a more dramatic form of wanderlust, that it “elevates an urge to a need.” Sometimes, fernweh is simply translated as wanderlust. Wanderlust becomes in English becomes what the Germans meant by fernweh, and fernweh is only an intensified version of wanderlust (this means that wanderlust’s specific connection to walking on foot is all but lost).
If you continue to poke around the Internet, you’ll also find that legitimate definitions of fernweh also diverge slightly from the original German meaning of the word (setting aside the fact that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Google images where people have created their own definitions for both fernweh and wanderlust that seem to seem more loyal to their view of the world rather than to the words themselves; haphazard definitions of wanderlust are often edited together with attractive, impeccably-dressed young people in front of sprawling mountainscapes and seem better-served as the cover of a self-help book). For his word of the day series on Twitter, English New Nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s definition of fernweh is “‘far-sickness,’ a painful longing for distant places, a consuming compulsion to travel or escape home.”
Macfarlane’s definition seems to be saying two different (albeit obviously related) things: a “painful longing for distant places” and “a consuming compulsion to…escape home” are two definitions crammed into one word: feeling compelled to escape from one’s heimat (a German word that roughly translates to home, but implies a more profound sense of belonging and social rootedness) and feeling compelled to go out into the world. But the means to this end are distinct from one another. Does the traveller inflicted with fernweh travel because she wants to see distant places and be out in the world, or because she simply can’t bear the thought of being home? If the answer is the latter, is it her home specifically or the notion of home (rootedness) in general that she finds repellent?
If fernweh is indeed the opposite of heimweh, it’s important, I think, to understand the implications of heimweh. Heimweh is not the generalized, low-level homesickness that an exchange student feels for her friends and family around Christmas time, but as Cole calls it, sickish. When the term was introduced in German, it was thought to be an “intense psychosomatic disorder.” The term homesickness no longer carries such weight, but there is still something explicitly psychological about the term fernweh, something that supersedes adventurous and creeps towards compulsive. Francesco Petrarch, one of the early Renaissance’s key early figures and a self-described “citizen of nowhere” was one of history’s earliest compulsive wanderers. Fernweh’s compulsive nature, I think, is best captured in a conversation between Petrarch and his secretary. “What is this strange madness? This mania for sleeping each night in a different bed?”
Perhaps this is why (sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly) we assume that drifters are fundamentally unhappy, that there exists some past trauma they cannot shake themselves of. At best, they are restless. At worst, they are psychologically in shambles. Regardless, I return back to my question: Is “home” fernweh’s collateral damage, or the reason for wanting to be away in the first place? How long before a new place becomes deserving of the title of “home,” and becomes repellent purely because of its label? If heimweh is a longing for home, then fernweh must be the opposite. As Cole is reflecting on his time in Switzerland months after leaving, he writes, “I wasn’t homesick for Switzerland, I was homesick for the feeling of being far away that Switzerland elicited in me.”
It is this feeling, I think, that’s at the heart of fernweh, the mix of jumbled anxiety, wonder, and exaltation that can only be felt when one is thousands of miles away from home.
Cole later states that the term “at home” describes both a location and a state of being. You can stay at home or feel at home, and often those two notions coincide. But what about when they don’t? When home as a location and state of being begin to diverge, I think the culprit is temporal rather than topographical. One may feel aversion towards their topographical (i.e. literal) home because for the last, say, five years it has been an imposter, geographically one’s home but emotionally devoid of what home means to them. Perhaps this is where Petrarch’s fernweh-induced mania comes from; an itching, feverish desire not to flee from home, but to flee from what is no longer home in order to preserve what remains of one’s memories of home.
This is why travellers generally resolve themselves to leave a place before it begins to feel stale, before it has become temporally displaced. In my home state of California, I left too late—I went to university in a nearby city. By the time I was 21, home was no longer my childhood, but something I associated with my undergraduate years. Positive years, to be sure, but devoid of the emotional charge that childhood has, that heimat has. When I came back to California for six months to do a fellowship after having lived in Edinburgh and New York, I felt this sort of temporal disconnect even more. When I think of home, it’s hard for me to not think of those six months rather than my childhood years: my childhood is continually being painted over and replaced with somewhere (or rather, somewhen a point in time) that has little of the emotional resonance that my formative years had.
In every place I’ve lived, I’ve made an effort to return there at least once and see my flat/apartment/house. What was a place of personal significance is now just a place, a physical dwelling next to the other physical dwellings that surround it. Perhaps the door has finally been replaced; perhaps the grass has been replaced with a particularly lifelike kind of AstroTurf. In any case, the building in question is both the site of important memories and emphatically no longer a memory-making site. It is utterly familiar but clearly different, and as a result, capable of provoking the same kind of revulsion that the uncanny valley provokes in us upon seeing something lifelike but clearly inhuman. As robots can be humanoid but never human, home half a lifetime after the fact can only be a dwelling and not evocative of heimat.
To those who have been displaced against their will, who are involuntary migrants or economic migrants or no longer have a home to go back to, homesickness is more real and more acute than any abstracted sort of fernweh can be. To those who have chosen to travel, however, who, in the words of Bruce Chatwin, have the luxury of wandering with a base, there is always as sense of rapture about being away from home. At the end of Cole’s piece, he writes about himself in the third person: “This is a man in a room […], far away from home, not completely happy, but happier perhaps than he would be elsewhere.” The elsewhere that Cole refers to, I think, is home. This is the consequence of fernweh, the extension of a particular type of feeling that only arises in a state of absence.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.