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The wandering man
Herman Hesse's essay on the unfaithful and fantastic, and the inability to leave his heart in one place.
This made me think:
The wandering man becomes a primitive man in so many ways, in the same way that the nomad is more primitive than the farmer.
That’s from a short and sweet Herman Hesse essay (found via) that hits all kinds of notes about almost all the things I’ve been thinking about for the past few years: the search for home, wandering, investment in place, identity, the inability to leave one’s heart in just one place.
I can count 10+ years now that I have been location-independent but not nomadic (Just because you can work from anywhere it does not necessarily follow that you should).
To be a nomad is to be lonely, rootless, a wanderer. And as Hesse would say, the nomad is more primitive than the farmer. This is probably contrary to the way most nomads think about themselves. They can be quite smug about their rootless existence: I’m speaking of course of the endless pics of their laptop by the beach, at the pool, the commitment to Instagramming their life, and the endless recounting of new countries seen, new experiences ticked.
(Here I must admit, I once did Instagram a photo of my laptop with the Sea of Cortez in the background… the scene was just too pleasant to ignore).
But though the photos we may share, perhaps it’s worth considering whether a remote worker on their laptop bouncing from country to country isn’t more primitive than we’d like to admit.
Hesse is a nomad himself, but he is ambivalent about the repercussions. He knows that those who stay in place, the farmers, are the ones who invest and build. They are the ones who actually create civilization. Yet Hesse himself can’t quite bring himself to do it:
I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic. I don’t care to secure my love to one bare place on this earth.
So it was with me in Washington D.C. In the beginning, I quite liked the city. It was the time of my professional youth, my time of carer ambition and political advocacy, and so no surprise that I enjoyed being in the center of it all, with others who were there for the same reasons.
I do have good memories of those late nights in my 20s stumbling back from Adams Morgan to my studio apartment in Columbia Heights. There was making out against the wall outside, then gunshots in the night, the sound of sirens, and the next morning, the chalked outline of a body on the pavement outside my bay window.
Of course, I fell out of love. But it wasn’t the chalked outlines or gunshots—it was just age. And parenthood. And a shifting of career ambition toward a desire for more social connection and more time in the outdoors. More climbing and travel and fewer long hours and late night work crises.
Really, my heart needed to wander.
I don’t care to secure my love to one bare place on this earth. I believe that what we love is only a symbol. Whenever our love becomes too attached to one thing, one faith, one virtue, then I become suspicious. Good luck to the farmer! Good luck to the man who owns this place, the man who works it, the faithful, the virtuous! I can love him, I can revere him, I can envy him. But I have wasted half my life trying to live his life.
But I did find that life. The one of the man who owns his place and works it.
In New Hampshire, I found the first place that felt like home since New Mexico. It was the sky and the mountains, the climbing community and the swimming hole across the street, and the apple tree in my front yard that dropped enough apples every Fall for 100 apple pies. How could it not feel like home?
When not working, I climbed, and when not climbing I hiked, and when I was done with all that I built things. There is always something to build or work on or fix in that house, and I love it for that.
Still, I have always empathized with the digital nomads, especially with the wanderlust. Covid forced me to be settled in New Hampshire, at least for a while, and I found I loved it. But in an open world, would I ever be truly settled? Could I ever truly be satisfied with just the garden and the apple tree?
Here in Barcelona, there is wanderlust writ large across an entire city. There is so much to do. So many people to meet—even the options for outdoor adventures seem endless. One could go a decade here and still not feel settled.
But then, all big cities feel like that. There is an emptiness to them, no matter how full they are.
Here, I am feeling both more and less settled. No more traveling on the one hand, but on the other: I miss the country. Also, I am ambivalent about being a person of somewhere vs. a person of anywhere, and this too Hesse captures, though he appears somewhat further along the path than me (or further behind, one can never be sure):
I wanted to be something that I was not. I even wanted to be a poet and a middleclass person at the same time. I wanted to be an artist and a man of fantasy, but I also wanted to be a good man, a man at home. It all went on for a long time, till I knew that a man cannot be both and have both, that I am a nomad and not a farmer, a man who searches and not a man who keeps.
A good man and a man at home.
An artist and a man of fantasy.
A faithful partner and a passionate lover.
A climber and explorer, a father and a citizen, a nomad, and a builder.
Sometimes I feel homesick for the U.S. This week marks the longest I’ve ever been out of the country at once. I am starting to miss small things—the green chile from New Mexico, the view out my back porch in New Hampshire—but also bigger things: friends, and family. But all will be well: I will have family visiting next week, and they will come bearing chile.
Anyway, it is okay to feel homesickness and also continue on:
A damp mountain wind drifts across me, beyond me blue islands of heaven gaze down on other countries. Beneath those heavens I will be happy sometimes, and sometimes I will be homesick beneath them. The complete man that I am, the pure wanderer, mustn’t think about homesickness. But I know it, I am not complete, and I do not even strive to be complete. I want to taste my homesickness, as I taste my joy.
Can a pure wanderer also be a “complete man?” I do wonder.