Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Land of Your Ancestors (part 1)

"When you go to the land of your ancestors," he said, "you will feel you have come home. Something deep inside you resonates, as if it recognizes the place."

A friend told me this nearly two years ago, when he went to Copenhagen and Scotland, the two lands of his ancestors. This made sense to me. If for centuries, my people had lived in the same small village in the verdant greens of Scotland, farming sheep, adapting to the sodden weather, I can easily believe certain elements of that lifestyle would imprint themselves on their genes, the same genes they'd pass down to their children, grandchildren, and 10x great grandchildren. Even if the genetic imprint is simply a gentle comfort, a familiarity, with that sort of landscape.

A special kind of resonance with a place, that's what I set my sights on. I heard years ago that the ancient Celts believed in something they called thin places: actual physical locations on this green earth where the curtain between this life and the next is thin. They were sacred places, places where you could catch glimpses of greater truth that exists beyond what our mortal experience knows. Places where your presence connects you to the past, to your ancestors, and where that connection feels more tangible, more visceral, more actual than any other place on earth.

With these words pulsing in my heart, I planned a trip to Norway. At the time, I knew the majority of my heritage was British, but had discovered that way way in the distant past, circa 850 A.D., I have a little group of ancestors from those Northern fjords and searoads. When you learn that you can claim a place as mystical as Norway, well, I quickly became fascinated by Norse mythology, by the art of Norwegian woodcarving, by my grandfather’s mission stories of Oslo... And I was certain that should I go there, it was be a thin place for me, a place where I'd feel the kind of homeland resonance I'd heard about.

Grandpa (right) on his mission to Oslo 

I planned the trip with my brother, who independently but simultaneously had had his own surge of Norway interest. Further proof our Norwegian ancestors were calling to us! Months before our trip, I printed out the Norwegian section of our family tree for us to study. We read stories of Rollo son of Rognvald, Snae son of Frost, and Thrond the Old. --All real names, all from my family tree.-- I downloaded Neil Gaiman's book on Norse Mythology for us to listen to while driving across that ancestral homeland, touching the metaphorical fingertips of our ancestors via what I could only imagine would be a wonderland of thin places.

Well a funny thing happened. We started the trip in France and Switzerland, where we had a couple extra days before our flight to Oslo. We spent those days wandering the Swiss Berner Oberland. We stayed in a small village on the shores of a giant turquoise lake, rode a cable car up to high alps, and drove through some of the most breathtaking farmland I’ve ever seen.

Here's a map of our route in Switzerland:

It was a quick couple of days. And just a quick 46 minute drive from one end of our trekking to the other. A tiny blip on the map of Switzerland, of Europe.

Then we flew to Oslo.

It was a funny experience in Norway. We saw the glaciers, we traveled the fjords. We drove from farmland to snowy wilderness to seaport. And all the while, not a single spark of the resonance of home I’d been promised. In fact, of all the places I’ve traveled, nothing has felt so foreign, so unfamiliar to me as Norway.

But the funny thing was that all the while in that Norwegian ancestral land of mine, I was achingly homesick for Switzerland.

Everywhere we went in Norway--the fjords, the seaport, the mountain tunnels--I felt tugs inside to go back to the Alps and Swiss farmland we'd left just days before. I could still feel the alpine air in my lungs. I could still feel the afterimage of its mountains around me.

It felt like a yawn—like a big part of myself that I hadn’t known existed was opening up, waking up. Or like hearing a melody from long in the past, one you knew as a child maybe? Or when was it? Like echoes from some far distant memories that are part of you, but not your own.

It all sounds so corny when written out, but I just don't know any other words for it.

So the night before flying back to the States, on a whim, I searched through my family tree of ancestors to see if any came from Switzerland. I hoped that maybe one or two would give me claim to that beautiful country, and maybe give some sort of explanation to the homesickness I’d felt as soon as I'd left it.

Imagine my delight when I found that night, scanning my family tree, that my great great grandmother was 100% Swiss. Her parents, her grandparents, her great-grandparents, all the way back to 1470 when the Swiss first started keeping church records, are Swiss, from a tiny town in that beautiful farmland my brother and I had driven through just a week before.

Here's that map again, this time circled with all the villages where my thousands of Swiss ancestors lived out their lives.

Little did I know, but our little route through Switzerland while waiting to go to our supposed Norwegian homeland, was actually right through the heart of my heritage.

I know what thin places feel like now.

I know what it is to be homesick for a place that you yourself have only just met, but where your genes have been for hundreds and hundreds of years.

This find was so much more than an intellectual discovery--it was emotional and heartwarming and felt tied to who I am.

When I got back to the States, I set out to research this line of my ancestry. For the next year, I read all I could about Switzerland. I took a course online to learn to read German Kunstschrift. I picked my way through birth records and marriage records in church books from the 1800s, the 1700s, the 1600s…

I didn't find much in the way of new information that hadn't already been recorded in the online genealogies, but I did find their names, written by hand, hundreds of years ago. Schenk. Burkhalter. Locher. Gerber. I saw who stood as witnesses at their christenings. I found tiny details about their lives: one a cobbler, one a choir director. I saw the dates of their weddings, and which of their village neighbors were also married that same day. I saw their ages when they passed away, written beside the date they died, the date they were buried.

And I grew in love for these people I’ve never met but whose genes I carry with me everywhere I go.


For the last year I’ve also been studying swallows... (to be continued)


  1. I know the feeling you speak of.

    In March 2016, as I was flying into Erbil, Iraq (region of Kurdistan), I had this overwhelming sense I was returning home. I was almost immediately homesick for this place I'd never been. I still feel it. That place felt more like home to me than almost any place I'd been before. It came from deep within me, it almost felt primal.

    Anyway, I am glad you experienced it, and that you discovered your ancestors are from a town you visited.

  2. Well now that you know that I am one of your biggest fans, just know that I was so excited when I saw that you posted again! And it was everything! I love this. I love how you make me think. I feel a deep call to get to Germany where I have strong roots. I will now think of it as a "thin place" and I feel certain it will be that way.

    But how would you explain that feeling in places that you have no ancestral ties to? I feel deeply at home in Hawaii, which sounds like something anyone could claim haha but it went beyond beaches and palm trees and I could go on about the "why's" but maybe another time. ;) But I am PRETTY sure I haven't an ounce of Polynesian in me. ha But maybe I need to look back harder in my history. Maybe there is something there.

    I did hear a theory once. That maybe we all got to help build the earth in some ways. And maybe the places you are drawn to are that way because that's where you helped out. So, if that had any truth to it, maybe I helped with the south pacific. ;)

    I can't wait to read about swallows!