Inside this issue
A yearning for the lost places of our past
I am an amateur photographer from Germany who is into landscapes and stories. I like to discover both on my daily walks through the woods with my sighthounds and on occasional vacations.
Words have power, and it is language that makes complex thought and precise awareness possible. But sometimes there are concepts and ideas swirling through our minds that we cannot name.
It is very satisfying to find a new word for a feeling that is so very familiar, but which I could never explain with the languages known to me. I was accordingly pleased when I stumbled upon the word 'Hiraeth' in Sally Mann's 'Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs' [Read Joe Cornish's article on the book here: https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2018/07/sally-mann]
Welsh is spoken by barely 20 percent of the population, so we can only hope that the evocative Welsh word hiraeth will somehow be preserved. It means “distance pain,” and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation (mine never got quite that bad).
Just like us southerners, the Welsh are often depicted as nostalgic and melancholic, their heads stuck in the past while pining for hopelessly lost causes. This attribution was conceived in the eighteenth century, and right from the beginning it was tied to a representation of landscapes: the blind bards of eighteenth-century fables are inseparable from the misty mountains in which they were imagined to strum their harps while giving voice to their hiraeth. Contemporary Welsh-speakers have continued that expression, linking memory and landscape most vividly in R. W. Parry’s sonnet in which the longed-for landscape communicates to the human heart, “the echo of an echo… the memory of a memory past.”
Distance pain is a real thing; hiraeth is not just a made-up neurasthenic disorder to which the Welsh and oversensitive, displaced southerners are susceptible. Looking through my long photographic and literary relationship with my own native soil I can perceive a definite kinship with those fokelorish bards wailing away about their place-pain. And similarly, after months of research in my mother’s archive, I am reasonably sure that some aspects of that sentimental Welshman, my mother’s father, are woven through my psyche and have emerged in my own landscapes as “the memory of a memory past.”
In the German language we have the words 'Heimweh' and 'Fernweh'. The English language has 'Wanderlust', which interestingly is also derived from German, but is not used in the same way anymore. In German, it is literally just the desire for walking/hiking, if at all used these days. There is 'Homesickness', which, as far as I understand, is used in a very specific way to describe the longing for the literal place of home while travelling.
So it seems that in either language, there is no word like the Welsh 'Hiraeth', which is 'Heimweh' and 'Fernweh' combined in one word, as well as the mournful longing for places that don't exist anymore, that maybe never existed, a place to belong, to call home. It's a beautiful word that in itself almost tells a story of loss and seeking.
I have known this feeling since my teenage years and the places I long for most and miss are not the same as the actual home areas where I was born and raised, even though I moved away from there almost 20 years ago.
The British Isles are one place that I have felt a special connection to since before I even travelled there for the first time. The feeling I had, when I first journeyed through the Kentish hills on a bus to London at the age of 14 is well remembered and still hard to describe. I have since often wondered where it’s coming from. Is it rooted somewhere deep in my DNA? I don't know… the earliest ancestors I can trace are from regions that are now Poland.
One answer is likely culture. The music I listened to and the books I read as a teenager originated mostly from Britain. I have always liked literature in which the landscape plays a major part, almost like a character itself… like the Moors in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Even Tolkien's Middle Earth is deeply rooted in British landscapes.
It is likely that this landscape that I now think of is largely idealised in my imagination, but nonetheless my actual journeys to Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales haven't disappointed so far. On the contrary, they always feed the longing to return which only grows with time and is accompanied by a certain unspecific ache - that is what Hiraeth means, I think.
I have been to many areas which look similar to some places of the British Isles like Brittany (Cornwall) and other areas in Central France. I liked them well enough, but the emotional connection is not the same, even though Brittany came quite close.
There are some other places for me that cannot be limited to a specific location on a map, which evoke similar emotions of longing. These are certain coastal regions, mountain areas (1000-3000 m altitude) and green valleys, rivers and forests. There seem to be certain types of landscapes, where I feel most at home. When I think of coastal areas, I see those of Central to Northern Europe in my mind's eye, whereas an exotic beach with palm trees doesn't do much for me. Even the Mediterranean coasts don't tickle me in the same way as the view of a rough rocky shoreline in Scotland.
I guess these kinds of landscapes are the ones that resonate most with my internal, spiritual landscape. It's where I feel most at ease and therefore at home. The question of why that is and why I have that strange attraction to the British Isles in particular, is likely one that will accompany me for the rest of my life.
Interestingly, when I am in one of these places it is still possible to feel that same longing while actually being there and looking at it. Sometimes it seems such an intense sense of place that it actually hurts.
So the emotion I feel when I look at images of mountains, the sea and deep forests is not only a longing to travel, but also longing for home - Hiraeth.
The photos I've chosen are those that express this concept most clearly for me and which cause this particular kind of ache most strongly. While looking through my photos I found that ‘Hiraeth’ is definitely one important reason why I am interested in landscape photography at all.
When I looked up the word I also found this wonderful poem which the author kindly allowed me to quote in this article. It also inspired me to write about this at all, because it made me see that I am not alone with these feelings that don’t seem to make much sense intellectually.
The most beautiful word I had ever heard
I hold it close to my chest like it is mine to keep
It is not, but still it feels as if it is a word just for me
To heal an aching heart
Its definition swirls in my mind and leaves me dumbfounded
Mouth ajar as the words echo in my memory
Hiraeth, a Welsh word
“Untranslatable deep nostalgia for a place or time that will never be again”
Or a place and time that never really was
A longing for home
There is a word for everything but who knew
There would even be a word floating to the precipice
Catching me before I fall
It whispers “you are not alone”
There is a word for this
A way to explain how I am feeling
And the word that means longing for home
Feels like home to me
Yes, this is it, the word I have been searching for
The word that rolls off of the tongue
And makes me feel like I am normal
Finally, there are words to describe how I am feeling
One word, I treasure it so
And as you hear its meaning maybe you too will feel held
In the space where you know something should be
From a time long forgotten
A time that never was
Ours to keep, ours to hold
You are home