Charles Darwin, in his oft-quoted section in “Origin of Species,” employs the metaphor of the Great Tree of Life:
As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.
The concept of a family tree is a simple, ordered delusion, like a map or a table of contents. The idea that you can graph it all out neatly, that it flows uninterrupted from then to now with luminescent lines of being inexorably splayed out from a radiant locus, which is you reading these words — it’s beautiful. The metaphor of a solid, living form, with roots and branches implies a sense of, if not purpose, at least direction. Kings and emperors loved genealogical trees as a way of establishing power and authority. We use them today for a smaller but similar purpose: to give ourselves a little strength and confidence as we move through our troubled lives.
They link us back to lost worlds where everyone who walked, breathed, laughed, ate, fucked, wept, worried, smiled, dreamed, regretted, hoped, slept or ran now are an endless tree of ghosts, a stadium of vapors staring down at you, the latest production of all their toil.
When I was a kid, I had periodic bouts of interest in family history, an offshoot of my general interest in history as a whole. My parents didn’t give me much to work with, some family stories, a few scraps of paper.
For the McWhirters, the story went like this: They were stonemasons, then later bricklayers from Greenock, an industrial city on the west coast of Scotland. We were lowlanders, Presbyterians. The slogan on the family crest, probably cribbed from the church song book was “Te Deum Laudamus” — We Praise God.
The crest itself showed a type of harp, a cruitear in Gaelic, which one of our ancestors supposedly played so well for an ancient King of Scotland that the monarch gave our family some land. Mac an Chruiteir means “son of a harpist” and morphed over time to MacWhirter, and other variations including McWhirter, MacQuarter, McWherter and McCruiter. Most McWhirters lived in Ayrshire, on Scotland’s lower west coast, across the Irish Sea from northern Ireland. Many still do. Somehow whatever land the king supposedly gave to the McWhirters was long ago lost and any musical talents disappeared over the generations, at least with my line.
The story of how the McWhirters came to America is sort of a John Henry tale, except my family ultimately surrendered to the machine with a whimper, not a bang. One day in Greenock a machine showed up that cut or laid bricks (I was never sure which) much faster than any person, certainly faster than any McWhirter. So the McWhirters packed up and immigrated to Australia. That’s were my grandfather, Sydney, was born, of course, in Sydney. The family story is that they lived in Australia for about three years, until one awful day this mysterious brick-making or brick-laying machine showed up in the British colony, putting the McWhirters once again out of work. Then the family immigrated to the U.S., settling in Chicago where, alas, the machine was already there and they all set out finding other things to do to make a buck.
When I was twelve or so, I got a hold of large white sheet paper and drew out, as best I could, my first attempt at a family tree. My handwriting was awful, my spelling weak, the genealogical lines wavering. The effort quickly became a confusing mess, a writhing series of vines, all ending abruptly just a few generations back. I kept it folded in various drawers for years and took it only recently to review my work. In addition to its other failings, it was full of inaccuracies. I threw it out.