Welcome the Stranger

Welcome, sibling! Have you ever contributed to a genealogy online?  I know not everyone’s into their ancestry, but there’s enough of the treasure-hunt to it, and enough mystery to keep you turning the pages.  Some time ago—it was when I was a professor, because I actually had some leisure time—I posted a bit on WikiTree.  WikiTree is a free communal effort to map the world of relationships.  Just about every week there’s a newsletter emailed around, offering how many degrees of separation you are from someone famous.  Often this is tied into the news cycle, so recently Prince Philip was among those measured.  Then Carrie Fisher.  Without fail, over the past several weeks, the family member through whom I’m connected to the famous is a great uncle.  The same great uncle.

I usually lose interest when the relationship starts to get to siblings and spouses.  There are webs everywhere.  Still, this intrigued me.  I’d never knowingly heard of this great uncle (and certainly never met him) but he was under 20 degrees of separation from several famous people.  It made me consider how you never can tell what relationships might lead to connections.  My direct ancestors, as far as I know, were all humble, work-a-day sorts.  One branch of the family had an engineer a couple generations removed, but for the most part they were farmers, laborers, truck drivers, and such.  The web of human relationships includes everyone, of course.  At some point in our family trees, we share a common ancestor, be they Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon (or a blending of the two).  When we harm or hate another person we’re harming or hurting a sibling, distant or close.

Getting along with everyone may be too much for which to hope, but at least tolerating seems worth stretching for.  I once found a long-lost cousin.  This was accompanied by a wonderful feeling of having found a family I didn’t even know.  Genealogy made that particular reunion possible.  Before that I might have passed this cousin as a stranger on the street.  It made me stop and think.  Is that stranger actually someone related?  Traveling back to the areas my ancestors lived I occasionally glimpse a face that could be a distant uncle or aunt.  My mental calculus kicks in, but there’s really no way to know just how close they might be.  Now, if I were my unknown great uncle chances might be somewhat better that I’m only a degree or two removed.  Even so, I should try to treat the stranger as though that were the case.

We’re all interconnected.

Falls Tree

The autumn trees have been absolutely transcendent the past few days. From my earliest memories fall has been my favorite time of year, and a large determinant is the trees. Some weeks back, while on the campus of Notre Dame University, I noticed the highly stylized icons of biblical tropes etched into the stone walls of the library. The marble of the walls was highly polished, making images difficult to capture, but I tried to snap one of the tree of life. The tree of life has many associations that go back even into pre-biblical times. Many people are familiar with the story from Genesis, where the tree of life is forbidden to Adam and Eve because they ate from the tree of knowledge. That tree, however, goes back to ancient Mesopotamian stories of paradise as well. Even the Sumerians considered trees foundational.


I suspect that trees are impressive partially because of their longevity. From a human perspective, they long outlast us—some of the oldest trees in the world are located in western Asia. If we don’t attack them, some species have a pretty good chance of lasting hundreds of years. With roots that run deep and crowns that reach high, trees have been a rich source of symbolism for religions for a very long while. The goddess Asherah was, in some way, connected with trees. I’ve noted in some of my more academic work that the precise nature of this relationship is never really clarified, but some have suggested that the tree of life itself is a form of the goddess. Certainly in Judaism the tree of life inspired the menorah and its gift of light, to be celebrated later this month.

Looking out my window at the brilliant reds and yellows, I am glad for the solidity of trees. Much of life is much less stable than our wooden companions. The myth of the tree of life is a reminder that even if we can hold the eons in our heads, our bodies will not last so long. It is a poignant thought, best captured by the slow falling of the leaves at this time of year. The leaves had just started to change as I strolled the campus of Notre Dame, unaware that my own fall was likely already set in place. The proverbial axe, as it were, was already laid to the root of the tree. I was perhaps too busy thinking about the tree of life to notice the changes taking place around me. A good metaphor will do that to you, and it might even live as long as the tree of life itself.