Roots nourish, anchor, prevent things like trees, and even you and I, from being washed away. Without roots, one becomes a nomadic tumbleweed. With healthy roots, life is grounded, and flourishes. While in Richmond Virginia, a little adventure revealed my own roots.
And those natural, biological, and genealogical tendrils lead to an even greater reality.
Once upon a time, my family began with Dad and Mom in Florida. Dad was a born and bred Floridan. My mom lived there too, but she was primarly a nomadic navy brat, as we would soon become. When Dad joined the navy, we too were moved all over the southeast coast. Yet I always felt like the south was home.
When you say The South, I think of tall swaying pine trees carpeting the forest, historical colonial-style brick neighborhoods with quiet orange pine straw beds, a more temperate climate, occasional palm trees, boiled peanuts, grits, sweet potatoes, and green beans, the nearby Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic, rich history, and friendly, hospitable people. Wow, a litany, eh?
This is sounding quite nostalgic isn’t it?
Years later, one of my younger sisters started doing a lot of geneology.
She located a lot of our family ancestors from Down South, and then from over across The Great Pond. I also had begun to ask my grandparents to tell me their stories, and some of the most vivid family history comes from south Georgia.
Fast forward back to the present moment.
While working in Richmond, Virginia, and visiting the Confederate section of Hollywood Cemetery (named for the incredible Holly trees dotting the hilly landscape overlooking the James River), I remembered that one of our ancestors had died in the Civil War.
Could he be buried there?
A text to my sister started a one-of-a-kind scavenger hunt.
Pacing back and forth by the graves of Jefferson Davis and his family, I discovered that great-great-great-uncle Almon Bryan, from Georgia, did in fact die at Chimborazo Military Hospital in 1862. His father Jesse had also served in the war but he made it back home alive, without his son. 😔
“Now you have to go find where he’s buried,” texted a friend, understanding the deep significance of this discovery.
Yes, to find where his bones were laid to rest and say hello to him felt just as important as gravity or the pull of food and local beer and good company.
Turns out, Chimborazo Hospital, the largest military hospital in the world (even though it was Confederate, was just a few miles away.
It still existed -though it had been converted into Chimborazo Park and was a slice of its original size.
I scurried away to that hill, driving through all the historic streets of Richmond, past St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” from 1775 still resounds within its walls.
With only a few minutes to spare till the park office closed, I bit into a wealth of information after sharing with the park ranger all the information I had gathered feverishly thanks to my research assistant, Google.
Upon hearing that 2nd Sgt Almon Bryan was from Company F of the 35th Georgia Infantry, the aged and knowledgeable park historian, delighted to have a young person interested in the past, talked the dust off himself as he burbled forth how the Georgia boys had greatly helped out the Virginians, and how Almon would have been in the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek on June 26, 1862.
There his group was the only Confederate company to break through Union lines. I must admit, I swelled a little with pride at my ancestor having something to boast of.
The remaining 7.28 minutes were spent hurriedly perusing photos, the vast model of the hospital, and gathering other contextual clues that would aid in building a story around the simple facts of Almon’s life.
But where would he have been buried?
The dead soldiers were almost always taken to Oakwood Cemetery, the old historian shared, just another few winding miles up the road. Jumping in the car again, I made it out to another quiet but less vast cemetery that had several thousand Confederate dead.
No records actually show where Almon was buried, but many plaques did reveal other boys from Georgia being buried there. Maybe Almon was buried in an unmarked grave?
I took some dirt from near a grave that also shared a plaque with a soldier from Georgia, and then dug up some wild ivy growing nearby. I went back to Chamburizo and dug up more soil from the place where Almon had died. Then I got some local beer and had a picnic at the park where Almon had died and watched the sun set over Richmond.
The soil and ivy are now in a potted home back here in Kansas…one plant has died, but we’ll see how the other one does.
The anchoring satisfaction and security of knowing that my dad’s great-great uncle died in the town I was working in and the state I felt so at home in grounded me.
It made me realize that this whole love of The South was more than something sentimental -it really was part of me and my other siblings who love the land of our childhood.
It doesn’t mean I must go back there and stay there, necessarily.
Life’s pilgrimage has many twists and turns.
But roots are something that must be acknowledged and understood.
“If you don’t know where you came from, you won’t know where you’re going,” said Fr. John Bourbeau to his summer campers as he took them on a wild adventure bringing alive and ingraining in the boys the history of America via the wild west.
Consider for a moment that we are like moveable trees.
Picture trees on a steep hill. Underneath each tree is a massive root structure. The roots draw nutrients and oxygen from the soil to nourish the tree.
Healthy roots also help the tree to stand upright, from babyhood to old age. The underground tendrils also hold down loose soil, preventing not only the tree from being washed away, but maintaining stability in its shifting world.
Mankind in general, and each individual, are like these trees.
Understanding where one comes from, even from one’s family background, determines how one travels forward on the journey of life.
It’s part of our primordial story too: We are mere particles of primordial slime: “Out of the slime of the earth God created him.” “Man thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.“
And yet, we are of the divine: “In the beginning was God...(Genesis 1:1)” is where our story begins and hopefully ends: “This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).“
Why are roots important? Can we understand our heavenly home, if we have never experienced a real, loving connection to an earthly home?
Can we freely choose the path of the pilgrim, become “the poor wayfaring stranger” seeking to come back to our eternal, supernatural home?
How can we do so if we have not examined our natural roots?
Thanks for reading this, friends! Hope you enjoyed this first post back from my break, y’all!
The movie Blood Diamond [not for children] sparked a lot of conversation about roots and soil between me and a friend, and we traded the following two songs that also connect directly to the topic. (Note: when you click the below photo links, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you. Click, and you’re the best! )
“Roots,” by Show of Handshttps://amzn.to/3cPMy0P
“Buy Dirt,” by Jordan Davishttps://amzn.to/3PGErSU