Words Beyond Translation: Waldeinsamkeit
Colorado, United States
I recently came to learn of a German word that perfectly captures one’s deep and intimate connection with nature.
Waldeinsamkeit roughly translates to “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” The structure of the word says it all: “wald” means woods/forest, and “einsamkeit” means loneliness or solitude.
This word is about creating a connection with nature and cherishing one’s time spent alone in the woods. Waldeinsamkeit evokes feelings of contemplation, calm, and even meditation.
Due to my busy work and travel lifestyle, true moments of waldeinsamkeit are difficult to come across. I’m so used to being in the company of others that I don’t quite know what to do with myself during my spare moments of alone time… except when I’m in nature. There, the answers I need always come.
Of the moments I’ve experienced waldeinsamkeit, one stands out in particular.
I was hiking up Rabbit Mountain in Boulder, Colorado, on a chilly spring morning a few years ago. I was in a particularly painful period of my life, and my mind was storming with thoughts about my stressful corporate job, a family death, and the lack of time I had to take care of myself.
I was almost at the top of the mountain when I stumbled upon the remains of a charred tree on the side of the trail. It stood there in quiet contemplation, as if patiently waiting for a passerby to notice it. Perhaps once beautiful and teeming with lush emerald leaves, it was now shriveled and gnarled, its charcoal flesh leaving a sooty residue at the slightest touch.
Upon closer examination, I realized the blackened tree was not alone. Rather, it was at the forefront of a clearing full of similar-looking trees, likely damaged as the result of a lightning strike or forest fire. Those that lived to tell the tale proudly bared their scorched branches, while the less fortunate lay defeated, their wooden skeletons strewn across the tired patch of land.
The scene gave me a distinct feeling of melancholy, yet I strangely found comfort in what I saw. The battlefield before me radiated with the resolved sadness of someone that underwent trauma but emerged from it with a sense of unshakeable peace and strength. In just a few weeks, the surviving trees that had overcome an event that threatened to damage them would be blooming with flowers. I found solace in the understanding that these trees would be born again.
In that moment, I felt waldeinsamkeit. The encounter with the gnarled tree felt like an invitation to reconnect with myself, to come to peace with and draw strength from my pain. In a world that often brings us difficulties and struggle, there is always opportunity for rebirth.
Upon hearing this story, my German friend – who introduced me to the word – told me that waldeinsamkeit is a catalyst for self-reflection. More than a word, it is a philosophy and can even be considered a spiritual practice.
“Waldeinsamkeit is not a one-day thing. It’s the search of a spiritual attitude. It’s about changing your life with solitude, of finding yourself and your spirit in nature… to find that awareness, you have to get away from everything and everybody.”
It is completely normal, he explained, to feel both melancholy and comfort when in that state of awareness. The forest acts as a container, in which we are free to unleash the full spectrum of our emotions without judgment or self-consciousness.
Nature has always been a haven for me, a place where I can safely reflect on my deepest emotions and darkest secrets. There is a sense of liberation in being completely alone in a space and basking in both the pain and pleasure of our own company. Freed from societal pressures, the true self is safe to crawl out and let itself be known.
As insignificant as it may have seemed to the outside eye, that charred tree was exactly what I needed to see that day. But, that singular moment was only part of waldeinsamkeit. The real waldeinsamkeit is the collection of the moments in which introducing solitude to my life helped me find a piece of myself.
These moments alone with nature pave a gateway to our soul, where at the door we may find that the battlefield scars that reside within – which we may have initially deemed ugly and unworthy of examination – are in fact strikingly beautiful for their resilience and ability to shape us.
In other words, waldeinsamkeit brings us back to ourselves. But first, we have to seek it.
Originally published on Rosetta Stone