"Hiraeth" in Welsh means: A spiritual longing for a home which maybe never was. Nostalgia for ancient places to which we cannot return. The echo of the lost places of our soul’s past and our grief for them. It is in the wind, and the rocks, and the waves. It is nowhere and it is everywhere.
November always hits me with a wallop. The orange glow of Halloween is over and Christmas seems too far away to contemplate. The days are grey, and the daylight leaves earlier and earlier. The leaves have fallen and the plants in the garden have died off, leaving brown and brittle stems. The garden I call mine, the garden I have carefully tended all summer retreats into itself; it is done with me for a season.
It is the time of year when I feel most homesick. I tell myself it’s because it feels like winter in the UK: damp, muddy, dark, and miserable. This year there have been many days of sun, and many delights on my early morning (and evening) walks with the dog. Nonetheless, as usual, for November, there is a hollow at the core of my being that I cannot fill.
It is just over two years since I have been back to visit my family in the UK and over six years since I was last in Wales. I can’t deny the heart-longing for the Welsh hills, for the grey slate roofs of the cottages, even the damp seeping into the bones. I never actually lived in Wales, so this longing is not for a place I have ever called home. And yet, it lives in me.
1939, Blackwood, Monmouthshire, South Wales
My father runs down the narrow street to the butcher’s shop in the centre of town. He picks up the parcels, carefully wrapped in brown paper and string, and places them in the basket in the front of the bicycle. Off he pedals, fast as he can, delivering the weekend meat to those households that can afford it. It’s a coal-mining town, little by little the green valley is being overshadowed by slag heaps, the spoil left behind once the coal has been extracted from the pits.
Some men have already signed up to fight in the war, some have been left behind to hew coal from the depths. Other 18-year-olds will soon be conscripted to keep the coal mines running. They are winched up from the pits at the end of their shifts, to emerge blinking in the daylight, covered head to toe in black dust. It’s hard-earned dirt, black gold, but it never leaves their bodies. Even soaking in the tin bath in the back scullery, night after night, they are left with black embedded in the cracks in their hands and nails, black eyeliner rimming their bloodshot eyes.
My grandfather is unable to work. I’ve heard him called idle, no good, a drunk. Sitting cross-legged at his feet as a little girl I heard the rasp of his breathing and wonder now if it was emphysema that drove him out of the mines and forced him to relocate the family to a different part of the UK. The colliery owned his very life until he could no longer breathe. Then it threw him back to the surface, and onto the slag heap. The black dust lodged in his lungs, a painful life-long reminder of the coal face; his lilting accent forever rooting him in the South Wales’ valleys.
1962, Forsbrook, Staffordshire, England
I’m following in my father’s footsteps planting potatoes. Patiently, he’s showing me how to drop them into the double dug trenches, eyes up. These are early potatoes, ones that we’ll harvest late spring. I “helped” him dig the ground in November, mulching in rotting leaves and manure, his version of black gold. I watch him straighten up after bending over and lean heavily on the garden fork. He spent two years in hospital as a boy with tuberculosis of the spine, due I’m sure to the unsanitary conditions of the miners’ houses. But the way he stands and surveys the vegetable plot says, this is his land. In time I will appreciate what that means to him, coming from a place where the colliery owned your house, where there was no land and no energy left for gardening. I will understand his pride in being able to afford to buy a house with a garden, to have a piece of property to call his own.
2021, Wakefield, Quebec, Canada
As I put my own garden to bed this fall, I found myself brooding about my own spiritual longing for a home, my own “Hiraeth”. I grub in the soil and it finds its way under my nails, in my hair and nostrils. I spread the compost pile that I’ve built during the year over the vegetable plots, my version of black gold.
And then, as often happens, just the right poem appears.
The moment The moment when, after many years of hard work and a long voyage you stand in the centre of your room, house, half-acre, square mile, island, country knowing at last how you got there, and say, I own this is the same moment the trees unloose their soft arms from around you, the birds take back their language, the cliffs fissure and collapse, the air moves back from you like a wave and you can’t breathe. No, they whisper. You own nothing. You were a visitor, time after time Climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming. We never belonged to you. You never found us. It was always the other way round. Margaret Atwood, 1998
The places where I’ve stepped leave their imprint in my DNA, and year by year this land increasingly lays its claim on my heart. It is not mine to own. Rather, my soul continues to long for home, for those lost places that may never have actually existed. Hiraeth, my continued search for those ancient connections to the wind, the waves, and the earth.
Gillie Griffin November 2021
With thanks to Irene Halang whose FB share reminded me about “Hiraeth” and to Michelle April for helpful feedback on an early draft.