In his book, The Stars, The Snow, The Fire, Alaskan poet and essayist John Haines said: “The trails I made led outward into the hills and swamps, but they led inward also. And from the study of things underfoot, and from reading and thinking, came a kind of exploration, myself and the land. …to take the trail and not look back.”

On February 24, 2012 Hiraeth Press will be releasing its first title of 2012, Border Crossings: Walking the Haiku Path on the International Appalachian Trail  by Ian Marshall. This book follows Ian Marshall on his journey over the International Appalachian Trail, which runs from Mt. Katahdin in Maine up through New Brunswick and out to the tip of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. Countless books have been done to chronicle humanity’s communion with nature, from the classics written by naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau or John Muir, to the more contemporary offerings such as Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson; however Border Crossings stands out as unique among its fellows. Composed of Haiku and contemplative prose, Border Crossings is book of braided styles: poetry, prose and travel writing. This style, as the author explains, is akin to that of haibun—a style of writing made popular by such wandering Japanese poets as Matsuo Bashō that merges poetic and meditative prose, literary criticism and cultural meditation.

Ian Marshall is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona and a former president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. Border Crossings is Mr. Marshall’s fourth book. He is the author of Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail [1998,] Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need [2003,] and Walden by Haiku [2009.]

L.M. : Ian, when did the thought to hike the International Appalachian Trail first come into your mind?

Ian: Probably the first moment I heard of it, which was sometime around the turn of the century. I had finished hiking the Appalachian Trail as a section hiker in 1998, and I was looking for another sort of long-term hiking project—to give me something to look forward to each summer. That, and a reason to get in shape at least once a year. My partner Megan and I could only get away for two weeks at a time each summer, so we did the trail in pieces over six consecutive summers. That’s not a bad way to hike a long trail, since it’s a part of your life for a long time, and every year the afterglow from one year’s hike flows into the anticipation and excitement of planning and preparation for the next stretch.

L.M.: Did you set out on the trail intending to write a book about your experiences or did the book evolve organically from your own travel journal?

Ian: Because I had done a book on the Appalachian Trail that combined my hiking experiences with my reading pleasures, called Story Line, I had the book in mind from the start. The plan to hike the IAT was taking shape just when I was starting to learn about haiku, and reading about the history and practice of haiku, so the plan took shape early—to combine the two experiences, hiking the trail and along the way learning about haiku. Something to keep both body and mind busy!

L.M.: In your introduction you state that the style of writing in Border Crossings is haibun. Could you expand on the term for those unfamiliar with it?

Ian: In my scholarly writing I have long been a practitioner of what’s called “narrative scholarship” or “autobiographical criticism,” which means to incorporate your own stories and personal experiences with your scholarly grappling with the text. I chose to do that because it made the writing more personal and engaging and accessible to readers who weren’t necessarily scholars. Plus it was more fun to write. In scholarly circles that sort of hybrid writing is considered daring, but when I started learning about haiku I found that narrative scholars like me were really reinventing the wheel. Haibun, as practiced most famously by Bashō in Narrow Road to the Deep North, is also a hybrid of genres, blending haiku with prose. Often that prose is poetically charged, but at times it’s travel writing, and at times Bashō comments on his poetic predecessors and the art of haiku—so it’s literary criticism of sorts as well. The book is called Border Crossings, then, not only because it crosses a national border from the US to Canada and a linguistic and cultural border from English to French, but genre borders as well.

L.M.: The Transcendentalist author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau and Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, while separated by an ocean and several hundred years, certainly were kindred-minds. Their philosophies converge in the modern day in your unique perspective. When did you first encounter the works of these respective writer/journeyers who would come to play such a central role in defining your philosophies?

Ian: Thoreau has always been a particular hero of mine, and it seems that in my writing I keep coming back to Thoreau. I tell my students that Walden is a life-changing book, and I illustrate that with my own experience—from not really getting it at first read in high school, to valuing it as a manifesto challenging conformity when I was in college, to appreciating it as nature writing when I carried it in my backpack while I was hiking the AT, to seeing how Thoreau challenges us to think about what our life is about when I was working at an unfulfilling job. Thoreau tells us to “live the life we have imagined” and build “castles in the air”—but also to put good foundations under those castles in the air. When I was working retail many years ago, I’d come home at night and read that stuff and just know that I wasn’t doing work that was spiritually or intellectually satisfying. I wanted to find a job where I could get paid to do the things that mattered to me—that would be hiking and reading books—and I figured the foundation under that dream, at least the reading books part, would be graduate school. That started me on my career path. So Thoreau has long been part of my life. Then a few years back a colleague asked me to present a conference paper on the topic of Thoreau and metaphor, and at first I begged off by saying, nah, these days I’m thinking about haiku. But while I was thinking about haiku, I started leafing through Walden and noticing all these images that could be converted into haiku. I did the conference paper, and then it grew into a book, Walden by Haiku. In the course of looking at what’s haiku-like about Thoreau’s writing and life philosophy, I inevitably started making comparisons to Bashō, whose most famous haiku is about a transformative moment of perception at an old pond. Sounds just like Henry, living on the shores of Walden Pond. In Border Crossings I make a joke at one point that even though my journey on the IAT is an imitation of Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, I’m not under any illusions that I’m another Bashō—because I think I’m Henry Thoreau! That’s a joke, of course. But I’ve sure been influenced by him.

L.M.: If you had to choose one moment of the trail that was the most impacting, what would it be?

Ian: There were so many high points, from the first day when we crossed the Katahdin Knife Edge on a spectacular day, to the last day in Parc Forillon, when we could look to our right and see whales in the bay, and in the forest to our left we saw a moose. There was a day on Mont Albert when there was mist swirling around the tableland on top, and we saw a couple of caribou when the mist lifted. There were lots of quiet moments of just plain satisfaction sitting around a campfire after a hard day’s walking. But if I had to pick just one moment, it might be the evening at Lac Tombereau in the Matane Wildlife Reserve. A subtext of our hike had become a quest to see a moose—and we’d been disappointed for a long while even though we saw plenty of sign through Maine and New Brunswick and Quebec. But at Lac Tombereau we finally saw one—several actually—which made us giddy with excitement. That night we saw a black-crowned night heron at sunset, and we heard a serenade of coyotes. There were plenty of lovely quiet moments—making biscuits on our camp stove at dinner, pumping water by rushing streams. Oh, and gobbling handfuls of trailside raspberries in the Matepedia Valley! And in terms of spectacular hiking the whole of the Chic-Choc Mountains in Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula were a revelation. I guess I didn’t do a very good job picking just one moment in answer to your question, did I? There were a lot of best and most impactful moments.

L.M.: By the same hand, what was the worst moment of the journey? Did you ever consider quitting the trail?

Ian: There were some frustrating moments—or hours, actually—where logging crews had thoroughly torn up the trail and we couldn’t find our way. Those were times when I thought maybe we should postpone this whole trip till the trail is better established. On another day the trail had been relocated away from a lake where we were planning to stop for lunch and water; we ended up running out of water and getting pretty badly dehydrated—and very cranky—that day. But the worst was the day when my hiking partner (and now my wife) Megan and I got separated. I had thought she was right behind me, and when she never caught up I retraced steps all the way back up a mountain—no sign of her. I couldn’t figure out what could have happened and was imagining all sorts of horrible things. Then on the way back down the mountain I heard her emergency whistle as she was backtracking to find me; there had been a side trail also marked with IAT signs, and she had gone one way and I had gone the other. Actually, that was the same day we ended up at Lac Tombereau and saw the moose, so it turned out, after that panicky hour or so, to be a great day.

L.M.: On journeys such as these—when hiking a long trail through the untouched places—we have a great deal of time to reassess our life and re-center our priorities. As a hiker myself I know that, when sitting around the fire at night or laying in my sleeping bag at night surrounded by the dark wild, my thoughts are never clearer. Stepping out of the grueling daily grind that keeps us semi-conscious and into the calm, removed landscape, we step into our Selves. What self-realization gleaned on the trail stands out as the strongest in your mind?

Ian: Probably the biggest realization is that Megan and I are a really good team, which is why we’re now married! But anything that’s hard, like a long hike or the ongoing attempt to learn how to write a decent haiku, is also a lesson in humility. There’s no one step that’s going to get you to the end of the trail all by itself, and there’s no one magic incantation that will suddenly make you a wonderful poet—or a wonderful anything, for that matter. It’s a matter of just keep plugging away, a step at a time, and with patience maybe you’ll get there. And if the path turns out to be steep and not very well-marked, well, there’s no sense getting angry about it—just do your best and during the tough sections realize that tomorrow is bound to be a better day.

I suppose I also learned that I really like the rhythms of combining physical exertion with the contemplative work (or play) of reading and writing. When you’re hiking, all the clutter of your life and your mind falls away, because on the uphill you really have to focus your energies on the task at hand (or foot), and the rest of the time you’re just caught up in this soothing rhythm and noticing what’s going on all around you. And then your mind seems more receptive to fresh ways of seeing things or of putting words together. I’d notice something along the trail—the slant of light through balsam fir, the boldness of a spruce grouse, the taste of a berry—and I’d chew on it all for a while, placing images and words together in my mind, then pause to scribble something down. It wasn’t really emptying the mind—just focusing it and reducing the clutter. It wasn’t quite the Zen state of no-mind, but at least it was narrowing it all down to one thing at a time.

Ultimately, then, the spiritually-satisfying part of the hike was not so much any sort of self-realization as it was absorption in the world around us. Haiku is really good at cultivating that, because it’s about looking outward rather than inward at the soul or psyche. Actually, there’s another sort of border crossing involved in all that, trying to get beyond that dividing line between self and world.

L.M.: What are your current projects?

Ian: I just finished a project with a class at my college, where we built a replica of Henry Thoreau’s cabin—that kept me busy through last semester. I do have some writing projects underway, but I don’t think I want to talk about them until I get further along—some sort of weird superstition, I suppose, where I don’t want to jinx things. Or maybe it’s that I don’t want to put a label on it until it’s taken more definitive shape! But I’m always looking for ways to make my work and my play merge, so maybe I should find a writing project that incorporates biking, canoeing, learning guitar, and drinking good craft beer.


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