East Frisian Ancient Grandmother

Holle_Sand_-_07

Holle Sand in East Frisia: a nature preserve on the duneland forest, near where my ancestors lived.

Are there any European ancestors who might help us to find a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth in our time? Today I was remembering that this was my original motivation for reaching back to these ancestors. Oh, it has also been helpful to gain a better understanding of how my ancestors fit into the larger story of the colonization of this continent in which I live.

But on a spiritual level, why would I reach for a true connection, if not to ask for help in the struggles we are facing in our time? Much of Australia is burning right now, fascism is running rampant over our country, hurting the plants and animals, and the people of our land, leaders plot for power and violence, and so much is being destroyed.

And I remembered what sparked my heart last spring about my patrilineal East Frisian ancestors. It was a line in a letter, a mocking recounting of a piece of old wives’ advice: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”   I wanted to reach out to those “old wives” to see if they might help me, help us.  During our Ancestor Wounds and Healing workshop in October, I introduced the group to the East Frisian tea ceremony, as part of our ritual of gratitude for the gifts of the ancestors.  We were short on time, and I considered leaving out the tea ceremony, but felt an unmistakable tug from spirit–“No! You must do the tea.”  And so I did.

Two days later I led our group on a trance journey with the intention for each of us to find an ancient ancestor–maybe from centuries ago–for each of us to meet someone who was at one with their land, in harmony with their land and people. So we traveled through time and out of time to make a connection. In that journey, I met my East Frisian ancient many-greats-grandmother, the same one who called for the tea.

When she arrives, I burst into tears and suddenly feel how wounded I am, we are. She is whole, she can traverse deep time and be called upon in any time. I burst into tears and she is loving me, with healing hands, and she knows how all of us have been broken. I felt the holding power of her love to contain the pain of centuries.  She is a healing presence, a witness to it all. She touches my heart, she says, “I can teach you how to laugh, even though the later Germans in your family lost how to feel.” She has a joy deeper than I know. She wants to continue our connection. She says, “Drink the tea ceremony to call me.”  

I was profoundly moved. I didn’t have a name for her that day, but later, a name came to me.  The German/Frisian affectionate name for grandma is Oma or Ooma. But a great-grandmother would be, in German, Ur-grossmutter and I am moved to call this ancient great-grandmother Ur-ma, or Oor-ma. The word also reminds me of the rune Uruz, which represents the aurochs, an ancient wild cattle species, now extinct, that was the symbol of wild strength, persistence, healing, and courage.

At the end of December, Margy and I shared in a rune reading. I used the runes to reach out to Ur-ma, and the first rune I pulled was Uruz.  Sweet.  Then came Nauthiz–which means Need, or difficulty, or struggle. How we are.  Finally I pulled Gebo, which means Gift, and the power of reciprocity which is love.

And so when I reach out to Ur-ma, I drink the tea and I pray: “You have wholeness, we are so broken. Bring your healing energies to our time. We have lost the connection to all beings and the land. We have forgotten our kinship. Help us heal. Help us to love the land, to love the spirit.” And I keep remembering those words, which somehow came down the centuries even so: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”

 

At Home

Picture by Arla Patch, James Francis

With these last few quiet days at home, Margy and I were finally (after almost four years) able to take down from the attic all of our wall pictures, and decide how we wanted to decorate the walls of our living room and kitchen. It was especially wonderful to place over our fireplace hearth this print, Stewardship of the Earth, by James E. Francis and Arla Patch. We had purchased it several years ago in a fundraiser for Maine Wabanaki REACH.  Here is more information about it from an article in the Friends Journal.

This work of art is a collaboration between James E. Francis, Penobscot artist and director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation, and Arla Patch, artist, teacher, and [at that time] member of the communications subcommittee of the Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It was made for a western Maine community celebration of the native woman Molly Ockett (c. 1740–1816, Abenaki nation, Pequawket band). The theme of 2013’s MollyOckett Days Festival was “Stewardship of the Earth.” James created the central image of the tree that becomes the earth. Arla created the context based on the European American tradition of quilts. James provided the symbols, which represent the four remaining tribes in the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, and the Micmac.

A theme of the four directions, which comes from both Native American spirituality and ancient Celtic tradition, is depicted as the night sky for the north; the sun rising over “second island” next to the Passamaquoddy land of Sipayik; the midday sky for the south; and the sun setting over the White Mountains for the west. “Agiocochook” (home of the Great Spirit), also known as Mt. Washington, is included in the western sky.

Blueberries are included for the role they have played in sustaining Maine native peoples historically and to this day. Maple leaves are in the upper corners to honor the development of maple syrup by the Wabanaki.

When we put this picture on the wall, along with a few others around the room, I found myself feeling rooted and joyful, at home in a deeper way than before. It was as if some mysterious magic had created a circle around us, and we were aligning into harmony and beauty.

May that beauty bring us hope and strength as we enter a new decade, a decade that will be pivotal in our collective stewardship of the Earth. May we human beings find a way to live in harmony with all of our relatives on this planet that is our home.

Mothers and Grandmothers

In the early days of my feminist awakening, I began to trace the ancestry of my mother line, to learn who my grandmothers might be, and what land we originally came from. I learned this: my matrilineal great-great-great-grandmother was an Innu woman, identified in the records as Marie Madeleine, Montagnaise. She married a Scottish trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Quebec. His name was Peter Macleod, and he called her Marie de Terres Rompues, after the place where they came to live on the Saguenay River. Her name might be translated, Marie of Broken Lands, which resonates with what came later.

When I have been able to travel to Quebec, to the place the Innu call Nitasinnan [our land], I have felt the presence of the ghosts of my ancestors in the land. The very first time I drove into Chicoutimi on the Saguenay River, I came upon a book on the shelves of the Welcome Center in the rest area—it was about my ancestor Peter Macleod and his family. There have been other encounters over the years, a feeling of my ancestors reaching out to me as I reach out to them.

Learning about their stories has been an important part of my journey. I discovered many dislocations and relocations that occurred for my grandmothers, ways they were separated daughter from mother, separated from the land and the people from which they came. Marie de Terres Rompues bore several children with Peter MacLeod. Her daughter, Angele, was only twelve when her mother died, and Peter married another wife; Angele’s stepmother was a white woman. I wonder if Angele kept a connection to her Innu relatives? She was married at the age of twenty to a French Quebecois farmer, Joseph Tremblay, and they lived in the area of Peribonka near Lac St. Jean. I only know one story about them, from a census report. One year, all their grain burned in May, and they replanted with fresh grain but all of it was frozen and “not fit to be threshed.”

Her daughter Claudia was only eighteen when Angele died. At twenty-two, Claudia married Ferdinand, and during an economic downturn in their region, they moved over four hundred miles away to the town of Hull in the suburbs of Ottawa. Later, they traveled over seventeen hundred miles to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Ferdinand worked in the mica mines for five years, during the boom years when Westinghouse Electric was producing over $100,000 per year in mica. Then the mines closed.

Their daughter, my grandmother Yvonne, was born in Hull in 1897; she was nine when they moved to the Black Hills, and fourteen when they returned to Quebec. She became a chamber maid in a hotel in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, where she met Johann, an Austrian immigrant working as a waiter. At seventeen, she followed him five hundred miles to the United States, marrying at the border in Detroit Michigan.

My mother tells me Yvonne and her sisters worried that someone might think they looked Indian. Did she fear prejudice learned in Quebec, or in South Dakota? In Detroit, she became fully assimilated into the white and English-speaking world. Most of the stories were lost, but she did tell my mother they were part-Indian, and my mom grew up feeling proud of that heritage. There were occasional visits to family in Canada. When my mother was a four years old, the news came of Claudia’s death at the age of seventy-three.

Claudia Tremblay

My great-grandmother, Claudia Tremblay, age/date unknown

My mother was not quite twenty-one when her mother, Yvonne, died. I was a baby then. I have a picture [below] of my grandmother holding me in her arms. When I ponder this story of my mothers and grandmothers, I am struck by how most of these women lost their mothers before, or just as they were entering, adulthood. None of them had a chance to be with their grandmothers. They each turned to the life and the culture of their husbands. And I am struck by the many miles each generation traveled away from the place in which they might have felt a sense of belonging to the land. My mother, too, followed her husband on his travels across the United States. I grew up during those travels and none of those places ever truly felt like home. I didn’t know any other way.

Grandmother Yvonne with Myke

My grandmother Yvonne holding me as a baby.

It has been a long and important process for me to reclaim these stories and reweave a connection to my grandmothers.

[This story first appeared in my book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community.]

Little Land Spirits

Sunrise after Solstice

Sunrise, the morning after Winter Solstice.

In Scandinavia, there is a Solstice Eve tradition to leave a bowl of porridge outside for the Nisse, the little land spirit person who helps out with the work on the farm and serves as a guardian to the family and the animals. According to what I learned, it was very important to put a pat of butter on top.  The Nisse can be troublesome if not properly respected.

There are little guardian spirit people traditions in many other places, too.  Scots and English call them Brownies, there is the German Kobold, and I have learned about Wabanaki little people called Wonakomehsisok who were said to be spirit helpers who lived among rocks. The Wolastoqiyik spoke of Kiwolatomuhsisok, who were said to help people secretly at night, and have a breath that smells like mold.

All that said, on Solstice Eve, I put out a bowl of porridge in the back yard, with a big pat of butter on top, (which by the way is how I like my own porridge) as an offering for any little land spirits on our land that might appreciate it.  Perhaps it might be one more way to deepen our relationship with this land, to make friends with the spirits who protect and cherish the land.

Sadly, the next morning, it was still there, and frozen–but I moved it from the middle of the yard to the way back, where more wild creatures tend to go by. (We’ve put other food offerings out there in a similar way, and they disappear.) When I returned from my walk, I was happy to see a crow back there at the bowl, pecking at it with their beak.  They are also guardians of this land.

Crow eating butter – Version 2

Later, I discovered that the crow flew off with the pat of butter but left the porridge.  So I guess that our land spirits might not like porridge–which is after all a very European food tradition.  We’ll have to keep experimenting with other foods, to see what they prefer.  Still, I was happy to give a gift to the crow.

Where are the birds?

Bird Feeder no birds

We have always had birds in our back yard in the winter, coming to our feeder, or rooting around on the ground. But this year, we’ve seen almost none at all. We didn’t fill the feeder over the summer–but many birds visited during that time, in the orchard and in the nearby trees and all over the place. So we expected that filling it up again would bring the usual winter birds. But I can count on one hand the birds I’ve seen. And no cardinals.

In trying to comprehend this, I noticed that only one other thing has changed. The lot behind our neighbor’s house–not visible in this photo–had been overgrown with bittersweet, and then the vines took down part of a big maple tree. Plus Margy had been cutting a lot of the invasive bittersweet.  So that field has less tree and vine cover, which some birds may have preferred.  More ominously, I’ve read that in North America the total number of birds has declined by 25% in the last fifty years.  Is it finally affecting our own yard?

I have seen a few birds here and there on my walk in the neighborhood, and there have been a few in the crabapples in the front yard. But despite our full feeder, plus a thistle feeder, and even a suet cake, no one is around.  It seems so strange and empty.  Have you noticed fewer birds where you live?

All of this got me thinking sadly about extinction, and I happened to see a documentary about the early Neanderthal humans, who lived in Europe and Asia for several hundred thousand years, before becoming extinct about 40,000 years ago. According to the DNA testing company “23 and Me”, all modern humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have between 1 and 4 % Neanderthal DNA, from interbreeding of the two related species. So the Neanderthals can be counted among my ancestors too. By the way, they were much smarter and more cultured than the myths that were taught about them early on.

There are a lot of theories about why they went extinct. But this particular documentary, Neanderthal Apocalypse, made the hypothesis that one factor was the eruption of a super-volcano near present day Naples 39,000 years ago. However that might have effected the Neanderthals, I found myself more focused on what it might do to us today. If a super-volcano were to erupt in our time, ash and debris would cover miles and miles of land, and kill all vegetation, crops, and the animals who rely on them (including us.)  Ashes and toxic gases would rise up into the upper atmosphere and block out sunlight, plunging a large portion of the earth into a volcanic winter. Civilization over.

Now this might be a depressing thing to think about, but for some reason, I didn’t feel depressed. Instead, I was reminded of how very powerful the Earth really is.  We are so small, and so reliant on all of the Earth’s interwoven life.  So, in a funny way, I felt less afraid. We humans know some things, and the activity of our species is causing damage to the climate, and wreaking havoc everywhere. But so much is beyond our control and even our understanding. It is profoundly humbling and reminds me to be grateful for how the earth provides everything we need.

So I come round to this Winter Solstice holiday, today, and say thanks to the Earth for birthing us, for feeding us, for fire that warms us in winter, for so much beauty that inspires our lives.  And I say a prayer for the birds: please come back to once again feast with us in this little patch of land we call home.

 

Empires in the Rhineland

As I explore my Germanic ancestors,  I have been struck by the repeated rise and fall of empires in Europe, somehow timely during these days in the United States when it seems that the impulse to empire is battling the impulse to democracy.  I didn’t study much European history during my educational exploits, so much of this has been new information. But most important to me, it seemed that the places where my ancestors lived were deeply shaped by the struggles of empires.

My grandfather Hochreiter’s birthplace, Linz, Austria, for example, was first named “Lentia” during the Roman Empire, one of the many frontier fortifications along the Danube River.  The Rhine River was also pivotal to the Roman frontier, and the Gerling’s town of Osterath was near the old Roman frontier settlement of Novaeseum, now Neuss.

The fall of the Roman Empire saw the rise of the Frankish Empire, the center of which was in the Rhineland. From Wikipedia:

Julius Caesar conquered the Celtic tribes on the West bank, and Augustus established numerous fortified posts on the Rhine, but the Romans never succeeded in gaining a firm footing on the East bank. As the power of the Roman empire declined the Franks pushed forward along both banks of the Rhine, and by the end of the 5th century had conquered all the lands that had formerly been under Roman influence. The Frankish conquerors of the Rhenish districts were singularly little affected by the culture of the Roman provincials they subdued, and all traces of Roman civilization were submerged. By the 8th century, the Frankish dominion was firmly established in western Germania and northern Gaul.

On the map below, the dark green area of “Austrasia” is centered in the Lower Rhineland. (Note that the city of Cologne is just south of where my ancestors were from many centuries later. They lived on the west/left bank of the Rhine.)

Frankish_empire

I somehow had always thought of Charlemagne as French, but he was actually Frankish, and likely born in the lower Rhineland area as well. The center of his court was in Aachen. The Franks were precursors to both modern France and Germany. Perhaps this explains something that my grandmother Johnson said about her family being both German and French. The Rhineland where they were from was Frankish, and went back and forth in later days between Germanic and French rule.

Soon after Charlemagne, his empire was divided into three parts.  I will skip right over the “Holy Roman Empire,” which was mostly a Germanic coalition of many kingdoms and cities that persisted through to the time of Napoleon. (My apologies to all true historians!)  But moving closer to the time before my own Gerling ancestors emigrated, the whole of the left bank of the Rhine was taken by Napoleon’s empire for France in 1795. I found out more about this time from a very helpful website describing the Rhineland Under the French.

The “Rhineland” only emerged as a united political entity in the first half of the 19th century. Before 1794 the area on both sides of the Rhine, between the river Moselle and the Dutch border, comprised a patchwork “rag-rug”, made up of many different territories and princedoms. …The French Revolution of 1789 was the event which influenced the political landscape in that epoch, beyond the borders of France and also in the longer term. …In 1794 revolutionary France conquered the regions left of the Rhine, which Napoleon subsequently annexed in 1801. They were systematically brought into line with the legal, administrative and political conditions in France. In 1802 the French constitution, le Code Civil, was introduced. The achievements of the revolution enacted in the Code Civil included the equality of all people before the law, an independent judiciary and the universal right to vote. However, “people” were still only defined as men; women were regarded as the chattels of men and were not recognized as independent persons.

It seems that the forces of empire and the forces of democratic ideals were beginning to wrestle with each other in those times, and I am very curious what my Gerling ancestors might have made of it all. Gerhard Gerling is described as a “hotel meister” (manager?) so he would have fit into the newly emerging class of small business people–whether by owning or working in a hotel.

In 1815, Prussia gained control of the area, and it became the new Prussian Rhine Province, but it had been irrevocably shaped by the prior years.

In 1815 the time of French influence was over, but had left behind far-reaching changes, which had been appreciated as a change for the better, especially in the areas of commercial law and administration. Therefore the population also resisted having to sacrifice such achievements for the sake of Prussian citizenship.

One thing that I wonder about. When sources say, “France took control,” or “Prussia took control”–they don’t mention the armies or the battles or what human cost might have been part of these shifts of power. It must have been difficult to live on the edges of these empires. In 1840, France threatened once more to claim the west bank, but it did not materialize. That was the year that the Gerlings, and many in their town of Osterath left it all behind to come to Missouri.

 

Life and Death in the 1800s

(Content warning-tragic deaths)

Theresa Gerling Heisler

Theresa (Gerling) Heisler 1886, the year of her marriage.

Continuing with my study of ancestors, I want to talk about the family of my great grandmother, my dad’s mother’s mother, Maria Theresia (called Theresa) Gerling. Earlier, I spoke of her marriage to Thomas Heisler in 1886 in St. Thomas, Missouri. Her parents were Heinrich (Henry) Gerling and Sibella Agnes Hahn. They were both born in what is now part of Germany, but came to Missouri before they met and married. They were devout Catholics.

Heinrich Gerling was born 18 April 1824, in Osterath, in the Lower Rhine region (in German, Niederrhine).  Osterath is now part of the town of Meerbusch, west across the Rhine River from the city of Dusseldorf.  His parents were Gerhard Gerling and his first wife Anna Christina Wilms (or Wilmes), who were married Oct 23, 1821 in Osterath. They had three children: Wilhelm (1822), Heinrich (1824), and Maria Catharina (1830).

When Heinrich was five, his 7 year old brother died.  When he was nine, his mother died, and some months later, on 22 Oct 1833, his father married Maria Christina Kronen (b. 1800-1805?). Heinrich’s sister also died the next year, but three more children were born to Gerhard and Christina: Joseph Herman (1834), Ludovicus (1836), and Michael (1839).  I am moved by how many children died at such a young age, in the stories of these families of the 1800s. This was also true for the Heisler family during a similar time frame.

Gerhard Gerling was identified as a “hotelmeister/hotel master” in Osterath.  In any case, they decided to leave, apparently along with several other families from their town. I found a great story of another family from Osterath who came over on the same ship at the same time.  They left from Havre, on the ship Edmund Perkins, and arrived in New Orleans on November 7, 1840.  They came with their children, Heinrich, who was 16 1/2, Herman, 6, Ludwig, 4, & Michael, 1.  One source said they were “early Niederrhine settlers in the Loose Creek area.” Another source said, “They were the second group of settlers that arrived in the St. Thomas area.”

Perhaps they started in Loose Creek, but they did end up in St. Thomas, where both Gerhard and Christina eventually died (Gerhard about 1852 and Christina 1885-6) and were buried.  Heinrich, it is said, had red hair! He married Agnes Hahn October 21, 1851, at St. Joseph Church in Westphalia, MO, but all their children were born in St. Thomas.  (All of these small rural towns are within 30 miles of each other.)

Agnes was born in July of 1833, but I don’t have much more information about where in Germany it was, or when she came to Missouri.  Her parents were Mathias Hahn (1778) and Margaret Durst (1788) and they remained in Germany, but her brother Philip also came to Missouri. It might be most likely that she was also from the Rhineland/Westphalia region, since people tended to congregate with those from similar regions.

Agnes apparently had an earlier marriage to a John Peter Loethen, but he must have died quite soon, since she was only 18 when she married Heinrich (26). She and Heinrich had nine children together, three of whom had died in childhood, when another tragedy struck, just a few months after baby Theresa was born. We have a letter from Heinrich’s second cousin Heinrich Koersches to family in Germany, loosely translated:

May 24 1868

I received your letter on April 20th. I’m so late in answering your letter because on the following Sunday an accident happened to Heinrich Gerling when we had divine service. In the afternoon after the divine service he wanted to mount his horse. Having one foot in the stirrup, he went to swing his other foot over the saddle. As he did so the horse jumped and threw him off so that his right leg hit on a tree stump that was cut about one foot above the ground and broke his shin, so that the bone could be seen from the outside. There lives in St. Thomas a German physician who was close to the church where the accident happened. They carried Gerling to a house where the bone was set. In the evening eight men took him to his home. There they had to put cold water and compresses on the leg every five minutes. The leg wound didn’t bleed.

Heinrich was a big, thick and heavy man. The compresses and water were put on as long as the doctor ordered it to be done. The doctor came on horseback every day. One day Heinrich would complain of backache, on another he would complain of chest pains. He had to cough up what looked like pus. He asked the doctor for medicine. The chest pains were increasing. The doctor ordered more medicine. On the ninth day it got so bad that the doctor said that he did not think that Heinrich would live another 48 hours. Then they asked for the priest to give him the Last Sacraments. Heinrich lived until the 15 of May.

Heinrich’s accident happened on April 26, 1868.  The following year, the 35 year old widow Agnes married his cousin Heinrich Koersches. They had four more children together, two of whom died in infancy. Then two more of her children died of illness in 1872, leaving only six of 13 to survive to adulthood.  Heinrich Koersches died at the age of 45 sometime after 1877.  I wonder how Agnes carried all of the grief she must have felt from so many deaths, and whether she found a balance to appreciate the joyous moments of life.

I also wonder what life was like for her daughter Theresa Gerling, my great-grandmother? Her father died when she was just a baby, and her step-father died when she was still a young girl. She never knew her grandparents, though her step-grandmother was alive until she was about 17. She married just before her 18th birthday, and had twelve children of her own, my grandmother the sixth of those twelve.  Perhaps the strength and sternness of my grandmother was somehow the inheritance of the grief and survival of those who came before?

Great-great grandmother Agnes herself died on Sept 14, 1901, at the age of 68. I want to close with this photo of Agnes from the 1890s.

Agnes Hahn Gerling-g-g-grandmother

Agnes Hahn Gerling Koersches

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