Rootless No More

Rootless No More

You have to see where you came from to know where you are going.

–Movie A Wrinkle in Time

When I asked Scott to come and look at a few ailing beech trees on our wooded property, he came with an Internet print-out in hand. “Yes,” he said, “It’s as I suspected. These trees have Beech Bark Disease. It’s come from the east and is working its way westward. It’s getting more common here now.” I’d never heard of Beech Bark disease before but I saw the signs: tiny white spots from scale bugs; the real disease was caused by a fungus that inveigled its way into the tree through these tiny scars. The disease was migrating its way across Canada. Sort of like Dutch elm disease that had actually come from Europe and migrated across Canada destroying most elms.

Like my dad, I loved trees and treasured them. I once brought a walnut from Holland, from a tree my dad had planted, and protected the young sapling in the winter from the aristocratic appetites of native rabbits and deer for tender twigs. I had planted Carolinian forest trees such as the Cucumber Magnolia, the Kentucky Coffee-Bean, and several varieties of oaks. My one desire yet was to have a young red beech just like the enormous red beech that stood at the corner of my dad’s birthplace in Holland, a small 200-year old red brick farmhouse called—ironically from my point of view—the Steenderbult, the Stone Bulge.

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There was hardly a rock to be found in the soil, except for the two-foot “boulder” at the end of the short driveway with the name “Steenderbult” painted on it: the family boundary marker! On this rock, the family was built! In this sandy soil, its roots had been put down. Diane and I had tried to import a young red beech sapling from Holland but had it confiscated at Canada Customs because we had no certificate of health and no import permit. Can’t let just any foreigners into our country, you know.

I was three years old when I had been let into Canada, cut out of my family tree and my homeland and with no one with me but my parents and two siblings (a third was born in Canada). No longer rooted in the family tree, I grew up a stranger in the forest of Canadians. There was nothing under me, no ground on which to stand, no trunk to which I was attached and no roots to hold me in place. How could I move forward and find my roots here in this strange place? The new home also had aliens living in it: “Daddy, when are these people going out of our house,” I asked my father in that first week. Before our kist, our crate, came with all our furniture, we were living in with the farmer and his family. When the kist came, my Mom chose to live in the old clapboard farmhouse in the abandoned orchard, where we were welcomed by the friendly cows who came to eat our potato peels and watched us eat dinner through the windows.

I was a solitary child growing up, spending long summer days in the fields, fishing and looking at bugs. Through the years, my mother read us letters from Oma and from various aunts: Tante Mienje, Tante Driesje, Tante Ans, Tante Anna, and more. Who were these people, these strangers to me, who wrote my Mom letters? How did I belong to them? I had a restless longing to see them, to find them, to find my place back home. After all, “you have to see where you came from to know where you are going.[1]” After my third year of university, during the summer I would turn twenty-one, the age of adulthood, I decided to visit my family in Holland to get to know them and become an adult among them. I discovered that I had a past, that it was much older than I had thought, and that it was not past.

The way back to find the trunk of my family tree was to retrace my steps. We had come from Holland by ship so I decided to return by ship and—this time—experience the voyage and remember it and make it my own. Would I get sea-sick? Would I measure up? In some sense, the sea voyage was an analogy for my trip. Did I have sea legs and would I find family; would I learn to stand on my sea legs and on my own? During the voyage, whenever my stomach felt queasy, I would eat more at the next meal (It worked!); similarly, if I was unsure of who my family was, I would spend more time with them. Seven days later, my cousin and her boyfriend picked me up in Rotterdam and took me to the fabled garden Keukenhof. I learned to know the Holland world-famous for its tulips. That night they took me to my family at the Steenderbult where I was lodging. It was the family homestead where my Dad was born, built under squatter’s rights two hundred years ago by my ancestor Proper. It was now a thatched, red brick house set on the edge of a large beech forest.

On Monday, they took me by bicycle to see Tante Anna. When she saw me out of her kitchen window, her little brother’s oldest son whom she had not seen since he was a toddler, she flew outside and threw herself at me, knocking the bike between my legs to the ground. So it went that summer as I travelled from one family to the next. I came to know all my cousins and aunts and uncles. I threw cousin Hermien into the canal in front of their house with her Mom’s help. My step-Opa gave me a book dated 1763 of fifty-three sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism. I saw the gravesites of family. I traced my Dad’s family name in the records of community Epe and found a line of seven Propers before him in my family tree: a long and sturdy trunk. So I found a huge network of branches, trunks, and roots that I knew must have been there, but did not know before this trip. Now I knew. Now I know.

I flew back by air, a return much quicker than my leaving. It was time to go ahead to my last year of university studies. Now I knew who I was and where I was going—at least in a preliminary way. Someday I will know fully as I am fully known. Until then, I keep learning who I am, for that is not a state, but a journey, a pilgrimage. My cousin in Holland had a friend, Geertje, of whom I became quite fond, as did she of me. But I already had a Canadian girl (whose name in Dutch was also Geertje) and I returned to her. I came back carrying my family and my homeland in my heart, in my guts, and they are now a part of me that helps me know my place and my path. I know I was cut out of the family tree in Holland and planted here in Canada. Was I grafted into a trunk here? Was I planted in soil to become a brand new tree? In my beech woods, there are very large trunks, some still trees, others left as mere stumps. Around them lies a network of roots that spread out through all the woods. Among these roots, new saplings grow, some already quite large. Some saplings have grown from seeds; they are brand new trees. Some saplings have sprung up from the roots of big trees, some of them long gone. It’s impossible to tell which sapling is brand new and which is really a continuation of the life of the old. So it is with us. My family in both Holland and Canada contains members who are my full-blood relations, half-blood relations, and no-blood relations. They’re all family. I love trees and I love my family tree. Whether planted by seed or engrafted, I’m now part of the forest of Canada which has its roots around the world.

How a tree grows depends on its heredity and its environment: its future is determined by these two factors. Humans are different. We become mature by choice as well as genes and environment. A human has choices, a tree does not. Trees will become what they must; humans cannot know what they may become until they know who they are. Some people try desperately to leave their past behind;[2] others try to find the past they were cut out of, as did I. I have found my place in the tree that is my family and is Canada. My future is to work for the healing of the diseases that afflict us all. We all came from the one trunk long, long ago, and Lord willing we will at our end all be engrafted into the one vine, the first tree in the greenwood.

[1] From the Disney movie, A Wrinkle in Time, based on the book of the same title by Madeleine L’Engle.

[2] Adapted from a caption on a book review written by Tara Henley published in The Hamilton Spectator, January 25, 2016, page G9. The book was My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Trout.

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