September 30, 2003

Ancestors: The Grafted Roots

The roots of my family tree run shallow and short. Someone gave me the "First" coat of arms as a gift when we were married; I appreciated the thought but it connected me only to the lineage of a biological stranger and a name not my own. Any meaningful connection with my father's paternal lineage was severed by divorce in the 1930's; my surname by true inheritance should have be Strickland. This is a twig of our small tree I have not been able to trace with the little information that I know. My mother is an only child. I never knew her father who died in a hunting accident when she was very young. Her father's Dillons go back in remote history to Ireland (Henri of Lion migrated to Ireland in the 1100s'-- du Leon becoming O'Doullin, then Dillon over the centuries). Mom's mother's Harrisons disappear in the genealogies earlier than the mid 1850's when my granny's grandparents moved to Mufreesboro, Tennessee.

I can walk the same dark high school hallways and over the summer camp trails that my mother walked; and I can visit neighborhoods where we lived in Birmingham as I was growing up. Beyond that, I cannot stand in hallowed places known to known ancestors. I cannot conceive what it must be like to have relatives spreading across the hollers and back through time for five or more generations as many of my neighbors here in the southern Appalachians do. For me, there will be no retracing ancestral footsteps to the places from which, in some sense, my true roots arise. Nevertheless, with the quick passing of decades, I do feel some need to find roots. If I am to know ancestral places, lacking any of the old-fashioned kind, I will be happy to adopt them: this old house, this patch of land, the Blue Ridge Mountains... and the people who have loved them long before I did. If they will have me, my belonging will be here to these places, these hills, these people.

Image copyright Fred First
Since we've been married, eight places have been "home" for us. It was not until a year ago that it dawned on me that, even after both Ann and I had marketable careers that would pretty much let us find work anywhere, we have consistently chosen to find our place in the southern Appalachians. This must be our home, as warm a hearth as we are likely to find in this life. We've adopted its traditional music as our own. The particulars of the language have settled in comfortably along the margins of our speech, modulating the rhythm of our neighborly conversations with snatches of the Elizabethan English that our geographical ancestors brought into these mountains two centuries ago. The gentle grandeur of the Blue Ridge seems to appeal to us as if we had known these broad ridges and gentle valleys in a lifetime long ago. Yes, I've adopted all of this, but there seem to be unknown lines of pull that make the Appalachian hills lay a deeper claim on me.

But what of my children? They suffer the same rootlessness and lack of history I have known; they cannot go back 'home' unless they are content to visit a half dozen houses in which others now live. This patch of earth I look out on, lying peacefully in a natural bowl between two little creeks; an old farmhouse that comes with a history and kindly ghosts of its own going back a hundred and thirty years, full of memories; the rugged hillsides and slender pasture bordered by the old stone wall, and the crude field-rock foundation of a little barn where ash trees are growing from it's center-- all of this recently claimed ancestral ground can become 'the old homeplace' to my children's children. Perhaps here we can lay down a soil in which future roots can grow, where unborn feet can walk and hearts can feel with deep certainty that "those from whom I come walked here, they sat on this old wall, saw these same high ridges swept by west winds that sounded just like this wind today, and I belong here".

My children and theirs may have these buildings and creeks and ridges to hold their history. But having this daily journal as a record of the everyday details of life here on Goose Creek, I'd have to hope that it too can become part of the ancestral roots of those who come after me and from me, though I will never know them. Those dear ones, as they age and wonder about the infinite regression of generations past and future, as I do, will not be ignorant of the peculiar lives of ancestors at the turn of the twenty-first century who adopted a region, then birthed a homeplace in the flesh-- one that will carry on, perhaps, into future generations of Southern Highlanders.

The topic this week at the Ecotone:Writing About Place is "Ancestral Place".
Read the posts, join the discussion.

Posted by fred1st at September 30, 2003 08:40 PM | TrackBack

When I saw Holli last month, I told her that we were "Stricklands, really," and that baffled the two of us, as we both tried to dig back and inward, to see how much that changes things. I guess it's still settling in, really. Rootlessness is something that most of this generation has inherited. I usually wear it as a badge, but, then, I do the same with bruises. Still, we DO have roots, Papa. Your chilluns have grown up with one more generation of ancestors than you had, and better, we've had your farms, your Wendell Berry, your hot buttered rum and parties on porches and Prairie Home Saturdays, and our own kids will have Goose Creek, Grannie Annie, and Dumpa Dumpy. Thanks for them roots, Parentals. They stretch to BC.

Posted by: Nathan at October 1, 2003 02:46 AM

There you go!

Posted by: Coup de Vent at October 1, 2003 04:50 PM

Wow, there's a testimonial if I ever saw one! Your Nathan must warm your heart as your post warms mine (at a particularly salubrious moment). Plus which, this post seems to me to contain the kernel of a preface to your book. Nice going. Fan request: write about smells? What are the scents of Appalachian autumn? I long to know!

Posted by: Doc Rock at October 1, 2003 09:54 PM

"Perhaps here we can lay down a soil in which future roots can grow. . . " Fred, your essay struck a deep chord in me re what we're trying to do with the pine trees (the 100 acre wood) in northwest Florida. I want each grandchild to have their own small grove where they can have a bench if they wish or make some art to mark their area, and mostly to know those quiet interior dirt roads will always, always be there for them. There's only a very small house there now, so Buck is working right now on the design for the "old home place" expansion.It will include a kind of funky observation tower sort of place where we can all watch the little trees grow and the abundant wildlife. Thanks for helping me pinpoint part of why it's so important to me (who has been bootless and unhorsed for much of my life) to do this. Beth

Posted by: Beth at October 2, 2003 07:43 AM

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