“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
By the shore of the Minas Basin, Nova Scotia I’m walking a classic, seven-circuit labyrinth. In Tangled Garden, outside of Grand Pre, I circle through lavender, mint, thyme, blue stem, heather, rosemary, ferns, and other herbs I don’t recognize. Each breath I take is scented. Monarch butterflies flitter between plants.
I’m starting to appreciate walking labyrinths, learning to recognize their pattern in my daily life. The spiral, mystics say, is sacred. Their geometry (sometimes called the Fibonacci sequence) recurs at every scale of existence, from the arrangement of DNA to the coils of the brain to fingerprints to plants to the formation of stars in their nebulae. Walking a labyrinth is fraught with twists and turns, as is life.
As has been the morning.
Leaving Halifax, I thought Mary Lee and I would stop to see my great-grandfather’s grave on our way to Wolfville. I knew that Enoch Wile’s stone was in the East Gore Cemetery. I knew where East Gore was. I knew what the cemetery looked like. I knew how to get there. But apparently, I missed a turnoff, and labyrinth-like, we drove up to Maitlin on the Bay of Fundy, circled over to Noel, and back down again through West Gore, and then Gore, and finally to East Gore, which consisted of a meeting hall, a grain silo, and a former church now serving as a food pantry. Figuring a church would be in close proximity to a graveyard, I stopped the car and walked around the building, seeing nothing. I got back in the car and started driving in circles past the occasional farm and one hell of a lot of trees. Eventually, I came to a dirt road marked “Settlement” which I remembered seeing when I stopped at the church. This must be the other end, I thought, so I took it, thinking maybe an old cemetery would be on an old road. The road narrowed and curved and narrowed some more, then dipped down over a bridge marked “Road Floods” before coming out back at the church. Still no cemetery.
“Now where?” I asked my wife. As I looked to her for advice, I saw over her shoulder, across the road and up a hill, an arched gate reading “East Gore Cemetery.” We had passed it three times without noticing.
In the center of the labyrinth of Tangled Garden is a large upright circle of woven herbs, through which I gaze across the historic dyke lands of Grand Pre to the Minas Basin, which, at low tide, looks like an expanse of desert. In 1755, this area was the site of the British expulsion of French Catholic Acadians who refused to swear loyalty to England. Families were broken up. People were pulled from their roots.
I think of finally finding the center of my labyrinthian drive this morning, standing in front of Enoch Wile’s gravestone, discovering roots I never knew I had.
As I wrote in the last blog, one of the reasons for coming to Nova Scotia was to try to find out more about my Grandfather Lyman Wile, whom no one in my family ever talked about because my grandmother left him when my father was four years old. With the help of my sister, who’s become interested in genealogy, I learned that Lyman’s father was Enoch, and that Lyman had fifteen brothers and sisters. I found that south central Nova Scotia is filled with Wiles: there’s a Wileville, a Wile Settlement, a Wile Lake, and several Wile roads. I discovered yesterday in Halifax that all of these Wiles go back to one Johann Frederich Weil from Germany, who was one of several thousand “Foreign Protestants,” brought over by the British (whose King, George II, had grown up in Germany) in 1750 to settle Nova Scotia, and to take the place of the Acadians they were deporting.
My mind goes back to Enoch’s grave, which looks out past the church steeple and the grain silo toward the rolling, forested hills of East Gore, and I realize that after my grandmother had left Lyman Wile, she put her son, my father—who’d been named for Lyman’s brother who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19—into what was called “a Home for Wayward Boys” for eight years. Dad, then, grew up without any sense of what I’ve discovered was a huge family, and I find myself understanding for the first time some of his character traits that used to drive me foolish: his negativity, his gluttony, his alcoholism. Dr. Sharon Deloz Parks writes that people typically have two major support sources in their early lives—what she calls “threshold people,” who help us cross into another stage of life, and “hospitable spaces,” that provide a sense of home. My father, as far as I can tell, had neither. He was, in the words of theologian Denise Starkey, “spiritually homeless,” which, she notes, is often connected with addiction.
I think of how important my family has been to me, even though I’ve often tried to ignore them. I’ve spent a lot of time, especially since starting to attend Al Anon meetings, aware of how growing up in an alcoholic family has scarred me, but I realize that at some level I’ve always known my family would be there if I needed them. After I told my first wife I was moving out of our house, the first thing I did was call my parents to ask if I could stay with them for a while. When Mary Lee traveled from Colorado to be with me, I knew we could stay with my parents until we found a place to live. And after my daughter died, it was buying my grandmother’s house in the town in which I’d grown up that provided an anchor in what felt like a tsunami of grief. I’ve always known where the center of my internal labyrinth was, even though it’s taken a long circular journey through what bell hooks calls the “geography of the heart” to get there.
Before leaving the labyrinth, I stop to take a picture of three monarch butterflies. Every year monarch butterflies from all over North American are driven by forces we still don’t understand to make a two-thousand-mile trip home to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Michoacan, some hundred miles north of Mexico City, spending the winter together, becoming so many that their collective weight bends the trees. Then they make their separate ways north again in the spring. Not only are butterflies metaphors of the power of family and the journey home, they are symbols of the cycle of life—growing from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly—i.e. life, death, and rebirth.
I’m not sure I feel reborn, but finding the heritage that I never knew I had, feeling a closer connection with my father, has made me feel more rooted. More whole. Healed in some way.
As Mary Lee and I leave Tangled Garden for our B&B in Wolfville, I see the Minas Basin filling with water.
4 thoughts on “Rooting Around”
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Another well-told life story with beautiful pictures…Reminds me of the pilgrimage I made with my mother to be in contact with my family roots in St. John, NB…A real spiritual experience.