Over the course of the last two months, while I have spent every single day, 16 to 18 hours of it, up to my ears in this project, I’ve made some silly discoveries that I think are worth sharing. But first I have to give you a bit of background concerning my rather strange spiritual, chemical, and biological “philosophications”. (Yes. That is a new word. I just invented it. Somebody notify Webster’s, Please!)
Here’s the thing. It is my most ardent, indisputable belief that genetics determine far more about us than the color of our eyes, our hair, our height, build, etc. So what? You say. That’s nothing new. The bio-smart-type-PhD-people are making that fact more and more obvious every day.
Not the way I see it.
I believe that our genetics include far more than a digital on-off switch for predisposition to disease, right or left-handedness, or an ability to dunk a basketball. I’m going way farther than that. I think our genes include (encode) actual memories, and emotions.
Let me tell you why I believe this. (It’ll take me a minute. Be patient I’m a story-teller. Don’t rush me.)
The first time I ever traveled abroad was 1997. I had to go to Sweden for several weeks for something related to my job. My flight was an American Airlines jet out of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. The route used to be called “The Nokia Breakfast Club”, because it left at some silly hour like 7:45 in the evening, and flew all night into an early morning arrival at Gatwick before we changed planes for the “All-Seats-Smoking-All-the-Time”, SAS Airlines leg into Stockholm (arrival about 10:00 a.m.)
Most of the flights’ occupants were employees of Nokia Telecom; the company then having headquarters in Raleigh and in Stockholm. They drank copious quantities of alcohol all night long, then woke up rearing to go to work, probably still a bit drunk, with just a few hours’ sleep. (You have to know a few Swedes to fully appreciate this. They are amazing drinkers. And they get up way too early, and are happy about it. But I digress.)
So I’d never been anywhere except California, Mexico and Hawaii before that trip. (All of them excellent vacations, by the way.) I was a little apprehensive and excited to finally get a chance to head off to an exotic, European destination like Stockholm, Sweden. In prep for the trip I boned up on my tourist Swedish, planned a few hoped-for side trips (assuming the work schedule permitted them – it didn’t) and boarded my plane with too much baggage in-tow (newbie mistake.)
We encountered some weather late in the flight and the pilot had to change our course a bit. Not long after sunrise, he came on the intercom and announced that we were about to fly over the west coast of Wales – across Snowdonia (a place I had never heard of before) – and if I looked to my right I would be able to see Cader Idris rising up, still capped with snow even though it was already April.
I lifted the shade on my tiny porthole window (I had been trying to sleep, despite the snoring Swede next to me), and I leaned forward to see what I could see. At first all I saw was blue water beneath us. Then a coastline and a small city near the shore… we were flying lower that I thought we should have been… and then a river a valley below and lovely rolling hills, and green, green pastures, and Oh-My-God!… look at those mountains… I can see little thatched-roof houses down there… and churches with graveyards… and garden patches… oh, look at the sheep… there’s a black one!…look at that mound… that’s an ancient burial site… and there… there… that house. That little town there… the streets look so familiar the way they are laid out…. the chapel there, with the little wall around it…
And suddenly my stomach was in my throat and my chest was heaving and my eyes were full of tears – and I didn’t want my eyes to be full of tears because I wanted to see what was below because I missed it so much and it was home and then… it was gone.. behind us. I could breath again… as the mountains flattened out and the hills receded… and we were over England. My breathing returned to normal. The tears withdrew from my eyes. My pulse slowed and I recovered myself… and I shook my head and I laughed and I said to myself, “What in the hell was that?”
That was ten years before I had even an inkling of a clue about my Welsh ancestors and their absolutely passionate attachment to their homeland. More specifically their native attachment to the Mawddach Valley that I had just flown over, and the tiny hamlet of Dolgellau with it’s little houses and odd streets, and its little chapel and it’s little wall all around. My ancestral home. Going back at least a thousand years.
That was genetic memory. When I saw that landscape, that snow-capped peak, those tiny little villages down in the winding Mawddach Valley; some gene inside me suddenly clicked on and I knew I was home. If only – unfortunately – 15,000 feet above it and passing over within minutes. Something in my body recognized it – reacted to it viscerally– with a pulsing energy and power that still moves me to tears to this very day.
Scientists and psychologists can tell me any stories they want to tell me (they used to treat menstrual cramps with electro-shock therapy, you’ll recall) – but I know this was ancestral memory. A memory encoded into my DNA as clearly and as unmistakable as my height, my build, the cut of my jawline; and my inexplicable predilection for books.
But there is more. There is more than one weird gene in this family of ours. I’ll let you in on all of them if you care to follow along.
Next stop; the “Wanderlust Gene“.