A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 12 December 2008


What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find. HERMANN HESSE

There is no reality except the one contained within us. That's why so many people live an unreal life. They take images outside them for reality and never allow the world within them to assert itself. HERMANN HESSE

The truth is lived, not taught. HERMANN HESSE

Not long ago I posted a few thoughts about the walking and travel books which had most stimulated my own interest in walking and travel. I mentioned Patrick Leigh Fermor and Robert Louis Stevenson, John Hillaby and Eric Newby, Laurie Lee and Hilaire Belloc. Other bloggers suggested some of their own favourites: Wilfred Thesiger and Robert Byron, Hamish Brown and Nicholas Crane, W. H. Murray and Thomas Firbank. Recently I remembered another delightful, short book about a walk from southern Germany into northern Italy - probably the book that influenced me most of all during my adolescent years: Hermann Hesse's Wandering.

At that time I used to read a lot of Hesse. I suppose he's the natural choice of the (male?) 'sensitive teenager'. I think I must have read everything he ever wrote - except, surprisingly, The Glass Bead Game, his last major work - for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1946. I used to devour him. Siddhartha, The Journey to the East, Steppenwolf, Narziss and Goldmund - once started I couldn't put these books down until I'd read every single word. I've mainly avoided revisiting Hesse - I instinctively felt it would be disappointing. Adolescent crushes usually are when you attempt to re-experience them in later life.

Wandering. Subtitle: Notes and Sketches by Hermann Hesse. Published in paperback by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux of New York in 1972. At a price of $1.95. My own copy - which I have here beside me as I write - has the same cover design as the image above. Like much of Hesse it's romantic and poetic, full of adolescent dreaming and German Sehnsucht. The book is arranged as a series of brief meditations - 23 in all. Each meditation is prefaced by a naif watercolour sketch and ends with a poem.

I daren't reread it. I don't want to deflate in any way my strongly idealized, young man's impression of this book. What was important then may not be so important now. And yet - haven't we all still got some of that youthful yearning, that romantic longing, that impossible idealism, that teenage melancholy somewhere deep within us? I hope so. I think so. I know so...

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail. A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one's suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

From Wandering by Hermann Hesse 1918


The Weaver of Grass said...

Oh Robert, I know that feeling of not daring to re-read a book you read when you were in your teens in case it destroys your illusions.
I read a book called "Kurun around the world" by Maurice le Toumelin when I was eighteen - it made a profound impression. Dare not read it now because it may well destroy that feeling, which has never left me.

forest wisdom said...

This is some powerful stuff. Thank you for sharing it with us. I have long thought I should read more of Hesse, but have just never gotten around to it. I have only read Siddhartha from his works.

As for the destruction of youthful, perhaps naive, idealisms...maybe I'll be considered some sort of emotional masochist for this, but I actually somewhat actively seek to expose them to the light of the present reality as I know it...and if they die, they die, and I consider it a largely positive, if sometimes painful, thing for them to do so. I don't want to be carrying around illusions within.... I will continue to seek to see more clearly...even if I don't always like what I see. A cold, clear, face-slapping reality is preferable to me to walking around in any delusion no matter how happy.

Anyway, that's just me. :)
I hope that all made some sense.

I continue to enjoy good stuff here, SW. Thanks for making me think with this one.

Suzanne McDermott said...

Well, I'm a girl, and in high school, I read everything by Hesse that I could get my hands on. Wandering may have been my first book or maybe Journey to the East. Profoundly influential on my thinking and the rest of my life. Though, that being said, I remember understanding what he wrote and feeling a great affinity as if, finally, someone else thought as I did. But that's great art for you. I'd forgotten all about Hesse so many thanks for reminding me.

In fact, I wrote a song about a tree you may enjoy - it's called Golden Needles, is on my Ephemera CD and you can find it on iTunes. (You can read the lyrics on my main website) I'll bet that passage by Hesse on trees was lurking somewhere in my subconscious when I wrote it.

I loved opening your post to that Milton Glazer book cover. Glazer was a very influential graphic designer whose work really captures a particular era and mindset. Thanks.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thomas Merton (an avid reader of HH apparently) said, in his terms, something very similar:
"A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him…."
(from "New Seeds of Contemplation"(1961)).

am said...

"Trees are sanctuaries."

In 1967, when I was 18, I began reading Hermann Hesse's books. I read most of them but don't recall WANDERINGS. Thanks so much for the excerpt.

In the past few years, I re-read SIDDHARTHA. Almost didn't, fearing that it would be a disappointment. It wasn't.

When I think of walking books, I immediately think of TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES. No book before or after has given me such vivid images of walking alone for long distances.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much everyone for these comments. I didn't realise Hesse would strike such a chord!

Tess - My favourite Hardy novel. I know what you mean about the walking in it, am.

Mister Roy said...

Great to be reminded of these. I loved Journey to the East and still recall a line about not passing temples and shrines without honouring them. I too foundered on the Glass Bead Game.

The Solitary Walker said...

I love that about not passing temples and shrines without honouring them. I did a lot of this on the Camino. I suppose it's Asda and PC World which are the temples we honour now (though perhaps not Woolies).

Mister Roy said...

Maybe so (Asda etc) - the modern marketplace does try to colonise the numinous, though when that is all the light and warmth there is perhaps it shouldn't be dismissed. And one sees plenty of roadside flower-shrines, sadly.

Jay said...

I've never read any Hesse. He sounds interesting. I've often felt a vast peace, myself, in the company of trees, they seem to have a quality of silence which has nothing to do with noise.

John Hillaby was a friend of my Dad's - they were fellow naturalists. Dad was a coleopterist, John Hillaby a bird man, if I remember rightly.

The Solitary Walker said...

That's a wonderful passage from Hese, isn't it, Jay? If you like this I think you'd probably enjoy a lot more of his work.

John Hillaby's 'Walking Through Britain' was the 1st book which turned me on to the possibility of long-distance walking, of appreciating in a profound way a country by connecting the bits together with one's feet alone.

Though it must be said I've spent most of my life dreaming about it rather than doing it - apart from my recent 2 Camino treks and a few multi-week trails in England.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I read some Hesse in my younger years, but not the piece about Trees... so wonderful, thank you.

I recently read The Wind in the Willows for the first time, and for me this contains some amazingly powerful expressions of the numinous, in landscape and woodland. The juxtaposition of depth and light-hearted humour is effective, and keeps one grounded, maybe.

ALFREDO said...


Myself said...

this is so beautiful! thank you very much for sharing it. I haven't read Hesse at all, but I really feel close to his meaning. I sit and stand by my tree friends most days and have learned a lot from them. They are kind teachers, loving and patient. They speak in images and feelings and sensations and movement, in impressions and sharings, and they call to me when they have something they wish to share... like, love for instance, or a message that I need at that time. They are eminently helpful beings and I am honoured and so thankful to be their friends!

ഗുരുവായൂരിലെ സായാഹ്നസഞ്ചാരങ്ങള്‍ said...

It is a poetic personification of trees by Hesse. I have translated this one to my language, Malayalam around 20 years ago. It is inspiringly great.

Clara said...

I love this book.
I've read in German and in Spanish.

I've been doing a photo work with the poem "The Wanderer Speaks to Death", but I can't find the English translate of the poem. Do you have it?

If you want, you can see my work about that here: http://foto.missatgerebut.com/fotografiando-un-poema-el-caminante-a-la-muerte

Thank you.

Great bloc!