In a previous commentary, we explored the Portuguese word saudade, which expresses a feeling of nostalgia for something or someone that is no longer accessible. There is another expression, this time German, that is much more comfortable with aloneness: waldeinsamkeit. It is not simply the state of being alone, but the kind that comes most readily when one is in a woodland. In certain English-language appropriations, waldeinsamkeit has come to mean the solitude or aloneness in between the “spaces” of one’s life, where one is able to step outside of one’s river of experiences to observe and contemplate.
With an increase in moderate winters in the northern hemisphere and more intense summers sweeping across the south, reflections on the primal forces of nature can no longer be divorced from a heightened awareness of the Earth’s environmental crises, particularly climate change and mass extinctions. With this qualifier, we can nevertheless continue to celebrate the fact that nature continues to nourish us with inspiration as it has for millions of years. Reflecting on nature’s awe-inspiring phenomena, both nurturing and terrifying, has been part of the human condition since our distant ancestors first stared in self-reflective awe at the northern celestial pole, the stars, and the breathtaking landscapes around them, from massive fjords, to endless deserts, and vast shorelines.
There are plenty of natural entities that have left deep imprints on the human psyche: the Sun, wind, rivers, and high mountains . . . but in German, waldeinsamkeit invokes a feeling of a special aloneness that is not borne of alienation (which is more common in big urban centers where one is surrounded by people, but can feel lonely). One does not feel literally “by oneself” in the woods, since there are trees everywhere. If we approach the forest respectfully we are simply navigating the “spaces” between the trees, allowing ourselves to listen to their primeval silence. Silence, not noise, allows us access and insight into our interior being.
The new poem by New England-based poet George Cassidy Payne on our Tea House blog vividly explores how the magical forces of the forest have a way of settling one’s mind into a zone of contemplative, pleasant solitude. He writes: “There is a forest that I return to when I can’t get away from the pulsations of thinking . . . In this forest, I am not alive like I usually am. Stepping in mink tracks, I know this place in my tendons like a ghost knows the temperature of fog . . . In this forest, my arms, as I meander, wave like prayer flags hung out to the ragged border between life and death—a place where I can survive outside the womb.”
Waldeinsamkeit evokes a certain kind of solitude. It is expressed particularly beautifully in an essay by Ariel Goldberg, who describes the specific inner experience as such: “The moments I was meant to be asleep were the ones in which I felt that peculiar belonging. It was the resolution of a world—in those seconds that life was temporarily suspended from it—preparing itself for life. . . . These are the things one must consider on trains somewhere in the cracks of a valley, lost in the miniature spaces between the Czech Republic and Austria at four in the morning, cramped between friends I had, in some distant existence, enjoyed the company of.” (Thought Catalog)
This kind of solitude does not feel lonely at all. On the contrary, it is refreshing, much like an unexpected and welcome surprise, and allows us time to make sense of our personal condition. Goldberg continues: “It was the gaps between haste that always made sense— the contentment of finding home, alone, on a train to the Netherlands after being left behind by my friends in Berlin’s main Hauptbahnhof station, or the stare of an old Hungarian man watching my barely conscious stumbles past the only open bar on a street corner in Budapest at dawn.” (Thought Catalog)
Many of us may have experienced similar feelings outlined here at some point while traveling, in transition from one life situation to another, or in a stressful or busy time of our lives (even if we were not able to articulate it easily). We do not speak merely of a physical forest, but a woodland of intertwining events and emotions that we find ourselves “walking between,” navigating.
In other words, waldeinsamkeit is a wonderful stimulation of the mindful state, a gate to meditation or at least to contemplative thought that allows us to discover ourselves. It is fitting that the folk memory of the forest, an ancient landscape of life, growth, and regeneration, has become imprinted on our psyche as an archetype, a mental location, for personal renewal in solitude.
Waldeinsamkeit, Or: How I Fell In Love With Being Alone (Thought Catalog)