As I sit in my garden quietly content after checking on the upcoming bounty of fresh veg, nibbling away at a few plucked snap peas and cherry tomatoes, I wonder about my ties to soil and the urge to have my hands in the dirt. Where does this come from? Why such a strong sense of connection to this voluntary toil I do with willingness, hope, and joy every year when so often the effort is way more than the output?
I know it's partly because I want my kids to learn where food comes from and the difference between home-grown and store-bought. But also, is it just because my parents showed me the same? My father an expert farmer who knew how to make magic with seeds, soil, and water. My mom having a prolific green thumb as well.
I recently had reason to ponder this further when, out of the blue, an unserious web search looking at my family's genealogy produced some surprising but reaffirming revelations. What I found makes for a great story and ties into what this blog is all about despite the fact that I'm not talking about food this time.
I have to provide a bit of historical background along the way but stay with me, it will be worth it.
For those who've never been there and noticed that 90% of the population is blond, North Dakota is a state of primarily 2 types of peoples - Scandinavians and Germans, with the great majority of Germans then being of 2 types who arrived in America from Germany by way of Russia.
The Dakotas are full of what we call the 'Odessa or Black Sea Germans' or the 'Volga (river) Germans' depending on which body of water was closest to their point of origin in Russia. I'm from the Black Sea bunch. To give context to this story, I need to give you the cliff notes version of the historical landscape. Promise it's 200 years in just 2 paragraphs.
Many Germans moved to Russia during the Napoleonic era in the late 1700's/early 1800's from Western and Southern Germany for 2 main reasons - years of war-related hardships due to the French continually invading their territory and an open invitation to come to Russia from Catherine the Great. The Empress was herself an ethnic German and she issued a manifesto encouraging foreigners to come to Russia to settle and farm, granting them special rights to practice their religion, language, and culture independent of government interference. Importantly, they were granted exemption from military service. While there, all those folks tired of conflict who wanted to just 'make love, not war' grew grain, sunflowers, wine, vegetables, and fruits. At the peak, there were over 3,000 German settlements within Russia.
The rule of Alexander II saw the beginnings of Russian nationalism in the 1870's. German Russians started experiencing crackdowns on their independence and cultural freedoms. German sons were drafted into the Czar's army, Russians wanted immigrants to speak Russian and observe Russian culture, and many resented the special privileges and landholdings of these immigrants (p.s., does any of this sound familiar to today's events??? So many of us descended from unwanted immigrants at some point in time, right?). Thus in the late 1800's/early 1900's, waves of Germans looking for happier fields afar looked to the United States. They knew how to grow wheat and in 1897 alone, 2/3 of the world's wheat crop entering the commercial market was shipped from Eureka, South Dakota. So under the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, they came to Dakota territory, acquired property, and farmed the land.
So that in a nutshell is my father's peoples' history and the subject of my geneaologic internet wanderings...
For this story, though, I need to provide one piece of relevant more recent history.
While I am originally from North Dakota, my purposeful (really, it was!) but somewhat meandering educational path took me to colleges in Missouri to Arizona to Oregon to Utah and back to Oregon for my final pharmacy training. Sort of a weird path and so far afield of where I started.
It was at Oregon State (go Beavs!) where I met my husband, Wolfgang, who by almost a complete crapshoot ended up at OSU as well, a German foreign exchange student in Microbiology hailing from one of the most beautiful parts of Germany, the Palatinate, near the Rhine. This region in Southwest Germany is famous for its forests and vineyards - full of castles, farmland, and picturesque small villages with grapevines growing up the sides of buildings and arching across the narrow streets with one particular area called the 'Wine Street' of Germany. You've seen them - the towns in photos at the front of travel brochures for Germany.
So where is this going? Well, for the past 2 weeks, my husband and kids have been in 'Kibo' Germany visiting family on summer vacation. I unfortunately couldn't go due to work. So I was left to my own devices in an empty house trying to fill the eerily silent void 4 absent pre-teens create. With no one to cook for or nag to make beds or feed pets, I was bored. Thus also explaining moments to do things like ponder about dirt sitting in my garden (see first paragraph).
Several years back, my Dad had given me a pile of family recollections and genealogy charts someone in the family had started. From time to time, I've poked around with them trying to trace the lines back. But my subscription to Ancestry.com had lapsed years ago and I ended up just randomly Googling names and dates to see if anything interesting might turn up.
Eureka! Some kind soul who researched their family history had created an entire website of extensive information containing pages going back 5 generations for a line of my family. The amount of information available now from when I last poked around was just exponentially more. The interwebs is sometimes frickin amazing.
So guess where I'm from way back when??
Within a stone's throw of Wolfgang's family, that's where.
Specifically, my 5x great grandfather (Johann Adam Hieb) on my great grandmother's side was a farmer from Ilbesheim Pfalz - about 30 miles as the crow flies from my husband's family in Kirchheimbolanden and Kerzenheim.
There is also a village called Iblesheim literally less than 3 miles away from Kirchheimbolanden and I first thought this was the correct location (which would have been even freakier). But his family knew there was an Ilbesheim a little farther away closer to where his sister lives, right in the center of wine country. Given the other information on the family, this was much more likely the correct one.
Local city documents cited on the website revealed relatives were in nearby Annweiler, a beautiful town we actually just toured last year after taking the kids sightseeing at the nearby Castle Trifels (where Richard the Lionheart was kept in 'honorable captivity'. For trivia, in Disney translation, he's the more handsome full-maned lion king that Robin Hood defends in the movie against that mean scraggly looking lion, Prince John).
Following the generations down, the website documented that their sons and son's sons were all farmers. I also found my great grandfather's line came from around Worms, also in the area. Not much information on their occupations but very likely farmers as well.
My family has had their hands in the dirt going way back.
Isn't that crazy? My distant relatives travel across the world, my husband travels across the world, and I meander my way across the U.S. - we end up together both miles from home but from essentially the same place. I'm still processing how cool this is. [Insert cliche here about what a small world we live in.]
I've always thought his hometown area felt like home despite the day to day cultural differences and my embarassingly undeveloped use of the German language. Just a different feeling from anyplace else I had traveled to. I had hints over the years as my Dad said when visiting Germany he always had an easier time understanding dialect in the area around Stuttgart. His first language was German growing up in ND and he didn't learn English til he was ~6 years old. Maybe why Wolfgang's hometown area seemed sort of familiar to me was that it sounded similar enough to when my grandparents and older relatives spoke in German?? (usually when speaking about something they didn't want you to hear, like Christmas presents).
The dialect in the Palatinate, Pfälzisch, is shall we say 'unique'? The words in my German grammar books I study before every visit to brush up are often not even remotely close in spelling or pronunciation to words in Pfälzisch, and the locals recognize this in joke books and funny stories about its unique 'flavor'. But maybe my ears picked up that they sounded enough like my grandparents that it made the area seem more familiar?
Have you ever watched that show 'Who do you think you are?' on the TLC channel? The one where famous celebrities trace their relatives back to interesting historical times or people? I was always struck by the episode with Josh Groban, the famous singer who traced his family back like 8 generations and discovered a relative who was a musician and singing instructor. He found connection in knowing this interest was in the family. The same is true of other episodes where long family histories are in the military. How much of that is just doing what your parents did? How much is maybe built into our DNA in ways we just don't understand yet? Makes me wonder.
My next job is to track back my mother's family. She comes from generations of teachers who settled in South Dakota. She's a retired English teacher who has directed theater, written amazing and personal poetry, and is a prolific bookaphile. I wonder if there is a similar theme running back in her family? Especially considering the desire to write or teach runs strong in several of her daughters (case in point this blog and my unrealized desire to write a book about Frances Kelsey, my hero of the FDA, for which I am perpetually in the "research" stage of writing (sigh). I want to find how far back that 'teacher/writer' thing might go.
As they say, family is the soil in which we grow the next generation.
I wonder what will grow next in ours?