Wednesday, March 10, 2010


One of the big differences between Tim and myself is that I go after genealogy as though I were a detective exercising the “little gray cells” but he reacts the way my mother did, having been exasperated by her parents quarreling about family: Pinkerton against Cochran, their traits, their shortfalls, their failures to measure up. She imposed a taboo. But it was quickly broken. My younger cousin told me that the Pinkertons were better than the Cochrans because the Cochrans walked across the Oregon Trail behind a conestoga wagon, like proper pioneers, but the Pinkertons came on the train. To his mind the historical fact that the train line hadn’t been built yet when the Cochrans crossed the prairies and the Pinkertons could afford a train ticket, just didn’t pertain.

Both the Oregon Trail and the railroad were striations (lines) that originally began as “desire lines,” an important deleuzegattairian concept. “Desire lines” are a term from landscape architecture and allude to the muddy trails that form across the lawns after the architects have already put in their tidy concrete walkways. Some are shortcuts and some are formed because there is something that people want to walk over to that architects never anticipated. Now they’re smarter and don’t put in the cement until they’ve waited to see where people go. A snowfall helps.

When my mother was angry with my father, she would call him “You Teuton!” which would appear at first glance to be about his stoic refusal to mix it up but at second thought, if you knew the family, was a sneaking reference to his grandmother’s streak of German genes which was a problem in the first half of the 20th century. Genes were big in the Thirties when my parents were courting and both of them, farm kids, were thinking about inheritance when they married. My mother hoped we’d get my father’s teeth and eyes. Instead we got her bad teeth, plus red hair from some wild and unsuspected place like ancient visiting Vikings. If we had grown up on the prairie where the water was full of minerals, as my father did, we might have been more likely to have his teeth. As for red hair, life is full of little tricks. Suspicion of genealogy is sometimes justified.

In my own family there is a dark vein, probably a mutated gene or two, that can be exposed by erosion from environment (like tough economics). It is a susceptibility to depression, alcoholism, violence, and other sociopathies. Maybe in a rural environment it is better handled. But my Scots great-grandfather, Archibald, one of the redhead gene donors, was so irascible that in widowerhood he could not be taken in by his oldest son’s family. He just made too much trouble. Nevertheless, he was a high energy man with a lot of imagination and he was able to bring his family from Scotland to Dakota. Was that a kind of desire line?

My mother’s sisters and cousin married into the same rural Oregon family, a prosperous one. My mother held out for culture and married her way to Portland. The others desired wealth and status and got it, losing other things we won’t list here. My mother’s way of speaking of it was that “they live in the valleys and pool their ignorance.” She didn’t exactly “get” culture. But she “got” deleuzegattari.

I suppose that the two big “land clearances” that I know most about -- the one that pushed all the Scots crofters out of their small free-holdings so that the land could be fenced for raising sheep and the similar one that cleared all the indigenous people off the American prairies and fenced them onto reservations so the land could be divvied up for homesteading -- are like giant glacial or catastrophic events that changed whole economic landscapes as well as the happiness of many thousands.

Matthew Tiessen
in his Rhizome article called “Accepting Invitations” speaks of “untraceable desire lines” like the way of a canoe across a water body. Water trails web the West and the giant causeway of Mississippi/Missouri took the Euros by boat straight into Blackfeet country on the prairie where life was broad and easy on a wide land.

I take all these to be illustrations of the connections made by geology rather than geneology. Tim has traced and retraced “desire lines” across the continent, pushing Tallulah Bankhead, the motorcycle, and then Old Big Wanda, the F150 Ford pickup, from California to Florida and back, partly called and partly pushed from one ocean beach front to another, leaving behind the lake front in Michigan. Now that he’s global and mostly flies, the lines might seem untraceable through the air, but in fact follow the imposed lines of flight plans and the natural lines of jet streams that airlines try to ride.

The pushing of genealogy towards geology in order to redress the imbalance of interaction between human culture and natural terrain may not be so pressing in the Western spaces. People who live in cities have concrete grids for “desire lines” to concerts and libraries. In a place like Australia with a huge outback the humans must make “songlines” for lack of concrete, but the songlines are much closer to nomadic human desire lines.

I still like my own proposal that the past is three lines: the recorded facts; our own memories which add and subtract our desires; and the unknowable reality of forces interacting, pushing events into patterns according to time and place beneath anyone’s consciousness. And I like the idea, which is in this deleuzeguttarian thought, that the traces of all these remain. That makes me think about the North Peigan project that has been able to recover the ancient paths of nomads and their dogs as they moved among the east slope river ways and bison grounds and to find the newer paths made when horses came so it was necessary to have grass and water every night, but there could be longer intervals between camps. Some little boy in the evening, wandering from camp and finding a clump of sarvisberries, crams some in his mouth, and at the next camp, he “plants” them, so that the lives of brush are interwoven with his small life. And that’s being human.

THE FOLLOWING IS TIM BARRUS' POST AGAINST GENEALOGY. Don't read it if you're sentimental.

The fundamental problem with genealogy is that it firmly implies predeterminism and then it implies people are not really responsible for their behavior. It assigns traits where there are none. People are NOT condemned to what has come before. Fiddledeedee. Whether they are or not is not the real issue. The issue is that culturally too many people who are in awe of it any hocus pocus that lets them off the hook because they BELIEVE the rhetoric.

Go to Cambodia. Every Khmer is related to royalty so they are obligated to turn the rest of the culture into rural (where their ancestors lived so it has to be good enough for everyone) slaves. Go to Germany. The Germans will tell you over and over and over again it was not their fault because their ancestors were warlike. Genealogy is crackpot dangerous. Go to Jerusalem. The Jews will tell you they owned all of Palestine in 3,000 BC and they have the RIGHT to have it back. Because David was their king.

I am NOT kidding. Most people have NO concept of history and that makes genealogy witch's toad brew. Go to Rome. Every Roman is artistic because they are ALL related to Michaelangelo. Or so they think. Go to Moscow. Poor people in Moscow do not need fuel or heat because their ancestors withstood the cold and they are of solid stock. Go to Argentina. The aristocracy are all related to the King of Spain so they have a RIGHT to execute anyone they want. They are as ignorant as the Germans. They ARE the Germans.

So many people all over the sad planet believe this malarky. They cannot be held accountable to what is inherently nature. Go to Australia. White people are better than Aboriginals because don't know how to live in a house and their white ancestors always built homes. Aboriginals are stupid because they never made schools and the whites are all from educated stock. This is an excuse to commit genocide by separating children from families and enforcing school.

Everyone can and DOES point to their heritage. The UAE has slaves because, after all, they were never made to work. It's endless and it's misguided and it's just plain wrong. It doesn't matter what you or I believe. What matters is that the world believes these fantasies. And they are used to justify oppression and murder. That matters. Go to Mexico. Where Spanish blood that runs in the veins of people who are arguably not Spanish at all, gives them the right to take Yaqui land (for race horses who are then brutally slaughtered) because the Indians were never farmers and their Spanish ancestors need land to grow things.

Go to Bolivia. The indigenous people have no ancestral experience at managing oil fields and they should receive no profit from what is not their domain. Ask any white Bolivian. Go to Romania. Gypsy people have bad blood. That is why they are lazy and they steal. Their people have always been like that.

Tracking down someone's ancestors is the same thing. Even if assigning traits isn't obvious, it's the back story by IMPLICATION. I obliterate the history of Indians because my ancestors did. It doesn't matter if you or I can read NUANCE into anything. What matters is that we live in a world that doesn't see nuance in anything and remains mired in violence and war and poverty and starvation and we will never rise above these things if we are always looking backwards. Go to Africa. Every single war in Africa still being fought from the Sudan to the Congo to Liberia is BASED on tribal ancestral superiority that is exploited by thugs to gain power. The world literally cannot afford genealogy. We must look forward to what we can do and not back to what someone dead did. It doesn't matter if you and I know it does not exonerate anyone.

They believe it does.

"We rape the village women because our ancestors fought war this way against their villages.

But does the American media report anything with complex cultural nuance.

"Pygmy people must be forced to eat their children because that is how you halt the spells their ancestors made on our villages."

And the Congolese rebels DO make the pygmy people eat their children.

But what do Americans KNOW about the world.

Genealogy is a violence of romanticism that in its origins is NOT genetic, it's an excuse for the camouflage of hatred.

I have grown worn with tribalism and the clinging to ancestors. The Arabs hate the Berbers. When you point out to them that they are the berbers, you get enormous hostility. It doesn't matter that you and I might know the complexities. What matters is how the Arabs BEHAVE. Their behavior is directly liked to the nonsense they believe in terms of where their ancestors came from.

What matters is how people behave. These beliefs around the planet are not benign. They are the problem. We romance the dead into things they never were. And then people behave accordingly. We see nuance and complexity. Even richness. But what they see is a righteousness. I can't even avoid cultures mired in this nonsense. It keeps the status quo alive for generations. I am worn to the bone with seeing it.

But the one that is the most horrific is what is being done to the pygmies. Entire villages are being forced to cook their children alive and eat them. By human beings who believe that warfare is natural because it was what their warrior ancestors did and they prevailed. And this is how you fight a war. Just look at them; they're little people and their ancestors were bad. You can only break the spell put on the tall tribes by the little tribes by making them eat their children. It is the one reality left that makes my hair stand on end.

The tribal genocide that goes on in Africa generation after generation cannot ALL be attributed to colonialism. The repressive. murderous beliefs rooted fundamentally in ancestor worship are so close to genealogy it's scary. Take it one more inch and Americans are thusly empowered to invade, fight. bomb, and throw the Bible at anyone who is the enemy and unlike them. We are not our ancestors and it is imperative we do not use their solutions to solve the contemporary problems of the world -- we do so at our peril. t


Elaine Butler said...

Interesting essays here. I manage a historic site on the Barlow Road (near Oregon City)and often speak with people about the ways their family traveled West. You're right that the wagon-riders seem to have "royal" status. My grandfather was one of them. His wife, however, had come out by train. Clearly a "cheater." Kind of silly distinction.
I do think that genealogy gives us some clues. Our site benefits from the work of Philip Foster's descendants, and I do feel the privilege of knowing a bit more of his personality through knowing them.

prairie mary said...

Elaine, when my mother knew she only had a short time left to live (she had a blood cancer) she asked me to drive her to what I think was the Philip Foster Farm. It was funny because she got into an argument with a lady about which of their ancestors had gotten there earlier (we were Cochrans) but it was also moving because it meant so much to them both.

Prairie Mary