There is a word in Portuguese that describes the feeling of longing better than any word in the English language.

Saudade. (Pronounced Saw-dahd-gee)

There is no direct translation. It is a feeling of longing that is so intense and so great that it consumes my being.

According to Wikipedia, “Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone or something that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. It brings sad and happy feelings all together, sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling.”

This is why I can’t read John Muir or David Abram very quickly. I have to put the book down constantly and feel my own longing to disappear into the wilderness.

Labyrinth Canyon, Green River, Utah

This is what I feel in this moment, in anticipation of my first river trip of the season in the desert canyons of the Green River.

This is what sinks me deep into myself every single fall, when I put my paddle away for the season.

Saudade. It’s the feeling of longing, of joy, of nostalgia, of yearning, of belonging, of dreaming, of desire.

Saudade for the wilderness. It’s what drew Thoreau to his solitary cabin on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. It’s what drew Muir to wander the Sierra Nevadas. It’s what drew Ed Abbey to wander the desert throughout his life. It’s what draws me to the river.

It’s the feeling that consumes me at inopportune moments such as this one where I sit in the Denver Airport, surrounded by people talking about fancy cars and expensive clothing. It’s the feeling that consumes me when I visit the Grand Tetons- the home of great naturalist Olaus J. Murie, who felt a similar longing for this place.

It’s also the feeling I get thinking of my childhood camp near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I have felt saudade for Camp Takahano since childhood. Takahano held my heart long before I went to Brazil in college and finally learned the word that describes the ineffable feeling of sadness and joy that I felt within my longing for the place.

lauren in the river. wilderness close to home

Lauren in the St. Vrain River. Longmont, Colorado

Those childhood feelings of longing were always directed toward the camp where I first took my shoes off and waded in the creeks, searching for wild blackberries and mint.

Saudade isn’t a sad feeling, exactly, although it brings me to tears as often as it brings me to joy. It’s the feeling of home. Of belonging.

It’s the feeling that brings me back to the river. It’s the feeling that brings me to tears as I sit on this airplane next to my amazing husband. Belonging. Longing. I belong on a wild river in a canoe with a paddle in my hand.

The season is about to begin, and that longing will become belonging. Saudade will become the feeling of coming home.

  • Lauren Bond Kovsky, MA