Climbing Down the Family Tree

Tree of life

I cry at the sound of bagpipes. They’re pretty much the most cacaphonic instrument around, so much so that they make a lot of people’s eyes water, but in my case, they bring tears of joy…or longing..or something else I can’t put my finger on. Years ago, at Hogmanay in Edinburgh, I heard a band of fifty bagpipes (some of them from Canada), and I thought my heart would burst from my rib cage and ooze Scottish pride all over the pavement. It’s been almost a century since anyone in my family lived in Scotland. I don’t drink, I don’t eat haggis, and the thought of an itchy wool kilt makes me cringe. In every way that matters, I feel Canadian (and proudly so), but somewhere in my cells, there lingers a hint of the old country, and the squeak and squawk of a bagpipe makes it light up.

What is it about our genealogical roots that’s so fascinating? Why should our lives be coloured by the experiences of people from centuries ago, in another place, in very different circumstances? Why do we swoon to find out we’re genetically linked to someone important, be it a hero or a scoundrel? There are entire industries built on our desire to dig through the past, along with television shows and tourist destinations. Why, even after several lifetimes of change, do I still get misty over something as strange as the whine of bagpipes? Is this some sort of bizarre muscle memory, or a set of semi-dormant genes?

I wonder if our human compulsion to look behind us like this is what makes us different from other species. Animals show signs of using tools, having language, forming communities, even making art, just like we do. Do they look around and think things like “Great grandpa monkey swung from that tree over there.” or “Long, long ago, we gazelles grazed in a field far, far away”? Does the existence of elephant graveyards suggest a recognition of those who have gone before? Do other species identify with and draw strength from their ancestors the way we do?

And what of the possibility of life on other planets? Do interstellar travellers tell their offspring about how life was back when they lived on planet X?

For a lot of people, this time of year marks the beginning of a season of tradition after tradition. True, we do a lot of festive things out of habit, but there’s also a part of us that recognizes that these rituals connect us to our predecessors. We want to eat what they ate, sing what they sang, and feel what they felt. For a few weeks, it becomes abundantly clear that even while we sit at the top of our family trees, we’re still compelled to look down at the roots once in a while.

Happy almost holidays everyone. May we all enjoy the bagpipes.


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