Sometimes I will pick up a book in a bookstore and the first thing I see inside will do something visceral enough for me to buy the book on the spot. That happened with a book called Origins: A Memoir, by Lebanese writer and journalist Amin Maalouf. These are the words that caught me, the opening of the book:
“Someone other than I might have used the word ‘roots’. It is not part of my vocabulary. I don’t like the word, and I like even less the image it conveys. Roots burrow into the ground, twist n the mud, and thrive in darkness; they hold trees in captivity from their inception and nourish them at the price of blackmail: Free yourself and you’ll die!
Trees are forced into resignation; they need their roots. Men do not. We breathe light and covet the heavens. When we sink into the ground, we decompose. The sap of our native soil does not flow upwards from our feet to our heads; we use our feet only to walk. What matters to us are roads. Roads convey us from poverty to wealth or back to poverty, from bondage to freedom or to a violent death. Roads hold our promises, bear our weight, urge us on, and then abandon us. And we die, just as we were born, at the edge of a road not of our choosing.”
I fell in love with the rhythm of it all, with the imagery, with the sheer power of languages – and the book came home with me.
But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself disagreeing with those two paragraphs. At least in the way they are juxtaposed with each other – implying that “roots”, in whatever sense they are understood, will trammel, suffocate and kill a human being – and that a tree does not breathe light and covet the heavens.
I don’t think either of those is true.
Saying that a tree does not breathe light and covet the heavens might be literally correct – but take just one small step sideways and both things become utterly and completely inevitable. The tree does breathe light – photosynthesis is what makes the tree live and grow, and photosynthesis is a function of sunlight on the leaves. Sure, the roots writhe in mud and keep a tree anchored, but that tree, from the spot at which it is anchored deep into the ground from which it draws sustenance, is “coveting the heavens” and constantly growing higher and higher trying to touch the sky
Trees don’t go traveling, and men do. That’s a valid position to take. Men have the roads that the trees have never taken.
But a man without a sense of his roots is a tumbleweed without aim or purpose. This is a man without convictions, or ideals, or beliefs, or a faith in anything at all – a man capable of simply squatting on a desert plain and living for nothing but the moment in which he is holding a piece of bread in one hand and a cup of water in the other. Which is another wonderful image, but I find myself recoiling from the human being with no past and therefore no future. Living in the present is all very well – carpe diem and all that – but without a knowledge of where we have come from, we cannot possibly know where we are going.
Man needs his roots just as much as the tree does. Even if we shake the dust of this planet off our feet one day and go roaming in the stars, our roots will still be here, on this particular mudball, in the memory of this particular yellow sun. Even when the sun passes into its inevitable death throes, and grows huge and red and molten, and gobbles up the planet once known as Earth or melts it to a piece of iron slag – even then, if any human souls survive, the place of origin will be remembered, if only in story and in legend. The Roots were there first, and the Roots remain.
I mentioned convictions, ideals, beliefs, faith. I am very aware that these very things, when taken to extremes, are what can be so destructive to our species, especially when different convictions or beliefs or faiths clash to the point that blood is spilled in defence of ideas and hatred is planted in the human spirit, hatred of anything that is not-us. But like many things – like fire, for instance – an ability to sincerely believe, an ability to have convictions based on those beliefs, an ability to remember what one’s forebears thought or believed and to revere their ideas, these are good servants, but bad masters. The fact that there may be an altar to somebody’s ancestors in their house, like many Eastern households do, is a testament to the reverence that those peoples hold for the men and women who walked this Earth before them. They are not – or at least should not be – used as incitements to go to war against anybody whose ancestors happen to like a different scent of incense.
I have known both – roots, and roads.
My first childhood roots were strong, and they are still deep. I can still read about the Pannonian Plain, the rich black earth of the fields I knew when I was young, the bright heads of scarlet poppies in oceans of wheat, the leisurely slow meanders of whirlpool-laden Danube flowing slowly and lazily across the plain that once used to be an ocean bed – about the dandelions by the side of the road, the old gates in the villages, the sound of church bells on winter mornings, the old-fashioned street lamps in the streets whose houses bear centuries in their beams – about the sound of crickets in hot summers, and the buzz of bees, and the honking of irate geese when I rode my bike into the midst of a flock and then pedalled for my life when some ornery gander took it upon himself to chase me up the street, and the cooing of invisible birds somewhere beyond the thick dark shadow of the walnut tree under which I am lying in the grass – the taste of ripe sweet watermelon and yellow peaches with their juices running down my chin, or my grandmother’s chocolate cake, or my beekeeper grandfather’s particular rich-tasting acacia honey, or the taste of milk fresh-milked from the cow, rich and warm and foamy – the texture of viscous riverine mud, or the fine, fine, fine dust from the road before they paved it, the kind of dust that you could pick up in your hand and it would pour out through your fingers like water.
These are part of my roots. So are the books that I was handed by my grandfather, and by the library, and by the antiquarian bookstore where we’d often go and where I would lose myself for an hour or more in the stacks full of books that smelled of the past and were bound in ancient cloth and leather and had gilt-edged pages and were sometimes graced with inscriptions dated a hundred years before I was born. So are the things I was taught to live by as I grew – my roots included grace, and beauty, and tolerance, and love, and the obligation to at least try to understand a point of view that was not my own because it was somebody else’s and it was valid to them just as mine was to me. I grew up to believe that there was justice and fairness and generosity, because I had them in my life all my days.
These are my roots. The past I cannot renounce. The memories that tie me to one particular piece of this Earth where I was born and where some small part of me still remains, will always remain.
My roads… took me far from there.
My roads showed me lions, and African sunsets, and tear gas in the streets, and guns, and fear, and exhilaration, and many flights across many skies – I saw thunderstorms below me in the clouds from the window of a plane, with lightning searing through the dark mounds as though I was looking down into the jaws of hell; I also saw the pale full moon hanging low over the bleached shore of the Skeleton Coast of Africa, also from a plane, and I might have been looking at a different world. I have swum with dolphins, and I have loved and lost family members who happened to walk on four feet and have soft fur and cold noses and huge hearts they gave to me whole and who were no less mourned for the fact that they were not “human”. I’ve seen both the Southern Cross rise in the sky, and the Big Dipper. I’ve had my heart broken, and my mind blown, and my spirit filled to overflowing. I have known triumph, and disaster.
I need them both. Roads and roots. Without either, I am only half me.
Where am I headed? I don’t know. It is given to none of us to know this ahead of time. All I know is this – I have to continue to draw sustenance from the depths of the earth, where the bones of my ancestors are buried, while also continuing to covet the heavens, and trying to take my first steps amongst the stars. I don’t know where I am going to – but I do know where I came from. And that, for now, has to be enough.