Friday, April 24, 2009

They came in ships . . .

From the time a first ancestor is identified out of the mists, it is the placing him into a culture and era that begins our rootedness, even if it is true that the relation stayed no longer than one generation in any particular place. This is all we have to hold on to, and to the extent that each of us is unique, it is the land and sea surrounding our home that originally make us so. If there is no longer a record or a story that ties us to a place, there is no longer a distinct genealogy. Then, we must turn to the research of geneticists and historians of human migrations. Perhaps even narrowing down our "haplotype" through the new tool of tracing mitochondrial DNA.

My ancestry begins with the record that says my Dresser name comes from Gotland, which doesn't surprise me too much, since the English that I knew as my true ancestors were overwhelmed for many centuries by Vikings, northern seafaring peoples who came from lands now called Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and other Baltic areas. They came in their ships, looking for land to farm, booty to sell and trade, and women with whom to mate. The Vikings, it is known, got to the North American continent long before the English and Spanish, and they traveled as far south from their homelands to trade with those in the Middle East for their arts and crafts have been found in archaeological digs there. "Russia" itself is named for Vikings, the "red" people, for they were fair and light-haired and they came down Russia's rivers and land byways.

At the time that English record-keeping made note of Viking invasions, when the great sagas recounted the exploits of heroes and monsters, the other strains of my ancestry (those further to the north and west of England, in Scotland and Ireland) relied on the oral tradition. Oral tradition is all well and good, rich in its music and poetry, but it is not reliable for recounting any particular family's story, unless it is of the king or chieftain. Oral tradition holds that the MacAfee name of my maternal grandmother probably referred to the "dark people of peace" who came from Colonsay in the Hebrides of Scotland, possibly from the seals themselves as half-seal/ half-human creatures known as "selkies," but with this we have stepped out of specific genealogy and into ancestral myth. Still, it was beyond odd and chilling when I watched my youngest sister bodysurfing in the Pacific Ocean for hours, playing with seals; dressed in her dark wetsuit, splashing and diving with the crew of seals around her, I wondered about where we might have come from.

The pictures are, at top, Gotland, a small island off the southeastern tip of Sweden; the island of Colonsay, and an image at bottom depicting the selkie.


  1. Do you know the Joan Baez sad, haunting song about the selkie who has a human child?

    I am a man upon the land
    I am a selkie on the sea
    But where ere I go, and far frei I,

  2. I love that song. It has the air of something very old.