Fernweh

I am part of a small group of creative friends who convene to share and refine our impulses and hold ourselves to account. We encourage each other and cheer accomplishments. At the beginning of 2020, we each selected a theme word to keep in mind for the year. It wasn’t a goal per se, and certainly not a resolution, but a theme — a concept meant to pervade our thoughts and our work. My theme word for 2020 was fernweh. It was a prescient choice for a year when the world would become locked in at home, or least confined to our home landscapes. 

Sometimes when traveling we experience homesickness. A longing for the place we call home. This can beset a tourist or a migrant. We can long for a place we left two weeks earlier or one not seen in decades. At the core of this longing is an attachment that is deeply personal. Home can mean a house, but more commonly homesickness is for a landscape and community where your sense of identity and security are embedded. It is a comfort, like your favorite meal. The affliction need not imply a plan to get home; rather it’s a yearning desire for the place itself. 

The Horse Fair, 1882-1885. Rosa Bonheur. The horse market on the Boulevard de l’Hôpital in Paris. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access

Fernweh is the desire for a place far away, a place which is not home. It could be a place you visited once that left an impression, or it could be a place you learned about — maybe from a book or image. Fernweh is a loan word from German, a compound noun constructed from fern, meaning remote or distant, and Weh, meaning woe. It is a sense of loss or concern for a landscape far away. Perhaps it is the remoteness and inaccessibility that enhances the woe in fernweh. 

In English, the word is sometimes defined as synonymous with wanderlust, another loan from German, but that misses the mark. Wanderlust is a desire to travel; it is about the experience of travel and exploring new places. Fernweh is about an attachment to a place. The closest we could come to it in English would be farsickness — if that were a word. Fernweh was my theme for the year because I wanted to embrace my concern for many landscapes of the world and my feeling of loss for many landscapes of the past. 

As I have noted before, I am a landscape scholar and I absorb their narratives whenever I can. I learn about specific landscapes from stories, books, images, personal travels, even blog posts. Oftentimes a brief introduction entices me to learn about the deeper culture and nature of a place. Books bring these landscapes to me, especially ones from the past. Not only can a book reveal a landscape which no longer exists, but also it speaks through a different voice than mine. 

Raftsmen Playing Cards, 1847. George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879). A scene on the Missouri River. Saint Louis Museum of Art.

In his 1949 memoir A Sand County Almanac, the American ecologist Aldo Leopold described the Colorado River Delta he found in a canoe with his brother in 1922. Every time I read the passage or see reports of the delta today, I long for the green lagoons and the sand bars where wild melons grew and the deer were so fat the water puddled on their backs — where the jaguar was always a presence but never seen. This was a healthy, functioning whole landscape before human progress removed natural predators and engineers diverted water from desert rivers. It was a landscape two brothers could cross for weeks, relying on their own knowledge and skills for survival because there was no other communication. But even Leopold, writing 25 years later, knew the landscape was lost and revisiting it was impossible. We’ve gone even farther down that road to its absurd end. Today the Colorado River is bone dry before the Sea of Cortez.

I have fernweh for the landscape described in Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s memoir of 1930s Central Florida, where wooded hammocks and orange groves sat alongside slow-moving water. Magnolias and coral snakes were part of the beauty and danger which defined the place. It is where generations of people lived deeply connected to the land and, unavoidably, to each other. 

There are endless landscapes to be found in books, from Mardy Murie’s description of life over decades in the Alaskan wilderness from Two in the Far North to Archie Carr’s turtle beaches in the Caribbean during the 1950s from The Windward Road

Giant Turtle in the Sea. Charles R. Knight (1874-1953). Restoration painting in the American Museum of Natural History Digital Collection.

You can be introduced to landscapes through visual media as well. Painting is the most venerable medium to do this. In the 16th century, Dutch artists turned their eyes to the landschap and not only created the landscape school of painting but also gave us the modern English word, landscape.  The documentary movie Honeyland, directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, shows us the Lozovo landscape in North Macedonian through the work of beekeeper Hatidže Muratova. The feature film Lamb, directed by Yared Zeleke, is both a visual and ethnographic portrait of the Ethiopean highlands. Photographs reveal a landscape through an artist’s eye. Alejandro Chaskielberg’s series La Creciente documents and interprets life in the Paraná Delta in Argentina.

Fernweh is not all about nostalgia and longing; imagining lost landscapes can also be instructional. In its most optimistic form, fernweh is a means of connecting past and future landscapes, a way of envisioning and evaluating future scenarios. Woe and desire are two sides of the same stone. 

The Harvesters, 1565. Pieter Bruegel, the Elder (ca. 1525-1569). Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access

For me, fernweh translates in wanting to see landscapes become more abundant, healthier, and just. I do wonder: how is my own personal fernweh informed by my privilege? I have to assume it is. Surely there are multiple perspectives to consider when cultural landscapes were built on colonialism and racism. It is a question I will explore as I study landscapes further. 

Although fernweh may have nothing to do with travel, this was a year I had hoped to unite a yearning for faraway places with the experience of seeing some of them. I aimed to know the landscapes by immersing myself in their sights and smells and engaging with the people that are both from the place and form the place. My wife and I had planned a full itinerary–starting with a long-awaited cross-country expedition to find the Pacific. We would have provisioned in Saint Louis before making a deep stop to explore the long-inhabited Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Then we would have encamped in the canyonlands of southern Utah, taking time to marvel at geology as the preeminent force shaping landscapes. Leaving the Great Basin we would have headed for a long sojourn in Carmel-by-the-Sea. For years I have wanted to study the Monterey Peninsula and Salinas Valley, landscapes that are foreign to my experience. 

Later in the year there would have been a two-month residence in Abruzzo, an ancestral Italian landscape I have never seen. We would have hiked Gran Sasso and settled into the rhythms of a countryside that is both foreign and in my blood. I had been scheduled to lead a group of graduate students to Argentina in November. This is what might have been. This was how I was going to actualize my fernweh in 2020. I was going to embrace my longing, my woe, for remote landscapes and feed it with experience and knowledge. 

I was traveling in Patagonia last March when the global spread of the novel coronavirus was becoming evident. I left Buenos Aires with a sense of urgency. The airport lounge in Panama City was packed with home-bound travelers who had curtailed their itineraries. One man had abandoned his plans to spend ski season in the Andes in order to get home to Austria. If borders were closing he wanted to be on the right side of his. We were travelers, briefly passing, having deferred our search of the far away to return to our respective homes. Lockdowns, it seems, are best done with our own families in familiar landscapes. I entered through Dulles Airport hours before it was shut down completely.

Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, c. 1885. Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). The White House Collection

Thus, 2020 turned into a year of being homebound, where all but the most essential travel was suspended for fear of inadvertently transporting a microscopic virus. It was a good year for fernweh — for time spent at home imagining distant landscapes and for a sense of woe about the plights of faraway communities. I am cautiously optimistic about news of vaccines.

My word for 2021 is adventure

Title image: Italian Field Laborers, Abruzzo, 1880. Peder Severin Krøyer (1851-1909). Funen’s Art Musuem.

© 2021

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