Where, what and who were my roots?
Amy Dakin Harris, who has been working as a mentee with Curious on Wild Longings, a performance for gardens, and Uproot, a creative community workshop, writes about her experience on the projects. On the first day of the Uproot workshop, Helen asked: ‘Where do you come from?’
Three things I knew: I come from labourers, the labour movement and gardeners.
Through the family history I already knew, I could place my Mum’s ancestors in London – Whitechapel Workhouse, Euston and Lambeth Walk – and my Dad’s along the Thames and in the West Country. I knew they were woodsmen and shipbuilders and that my Grandma would spend her summers swimming the ferry boat back and forth across the River Tamar.
On the second day, we turned to rooting. To start, I was given the task to ‘find something to propagate a pathway to a new and exciting adventure’. After trawling the delights of Columbia Road, I settled with a big bag of good compost and some scavenged sycamore seeds from the local park. I pledged to plant a tree that could accompany me into my future. I was taken by the thought of a tree’s experience of time being so much longer, so much deeper, so much thicker than my own. They come into being and continue to become, endlessly. This is a philosophy that I want to live out more, so why not keep a tree as a reminding companion? In fact, I planted three trees, saplings I found at my local London Wildlife Centre. They are a rowan, a hazel and a hawthorn, three trees rich in folklore and uses that I am very excited to explore more.
In this season, there is so much rooting happening in nature, and in my job as a gardener I am interacting with it constantly: planting up new beds, potting on new seedlings, trying to dislodge the unwanted rooting that is happening with annual weeds. This job is an absolute dream for me, it always has been, and I’ve felt this desire and pull to be out in green and open air ever since I was a child. So it was interesting for me to learn that my paternal Great-great-grandad was a woodsman, and a market gardener on another census. My maternal Grandma has often talked about her Dad’s vegetable garden that flourished through the war and beyond, along the train tracks in Barnet, and I clung to that as an explanation as to why all my knowledge comes from my Mum and her Mum. Then I found a photo of my Grandma’s Grandad gardening and that my 4 times Great-Grandad was a gardener too.
I’ve always wanted to map my family tree, but the Uproot workshop and all this thought about trees and deep time gave me the kick to actually start searching. I had written a lot about soil health and rooting and that unseen but all-important growth that happens down in the darkness of loam, but where and what and who were my roots? If I am the shooting bud, the newest tip of my ancestral tree, then I am held up and anchored in by my ancestors. Can it help me become more like myself if I know more about who came before?
Well, that remains to be seen, but my research so far has mesmerised me for days! What has been amazing to me is how it’s deepened my roots in London. Whilst London has always been my home town, my parents both migrated in at 18, so I didn’t think we had a particular familial connection to this place. In fact, I can trace my Mum’s line in the East End and Camden until at least the late 1700s. The East End side has been particularly fascinating because my Mum’s Dad died when she was young and she lost contact with those relatives, meaning we only had a vague idea of what his parents’ lives were like. So I have been able to uncover the East End heritage that Grandma Lily apparently tried to reject all her life. I come from:
Locations of my family’s births, deaths and marriages as marked on censuses 1782 – 1909. Some roads have been changed and renamed, but seeing the locations clustered like this shows Whitechapel and Bow as particular hotspots and helps refine my research in seeing what their lives might have looked like. For example, I’ve already found that the poor ‘ghettos’ around Whitechapel started to be cleared and re-built in the late Victorian times, which matches the time when my family started to move further out to Bow.
I had no idea when I started this mentorship and Uproot that I would become immersed in the role of historian, or that I would dig up so many treasures for my family of today. Somehow, to know that my 4th Great-Grandad was a ‘Professor of Dance’ or that my 3rd Great-Grandma died in Bedlam adds a richness to the life I have in the present. Maybe it’s that thing of knowing where you’ve come from to know where you going. Ultimately, I feel certain that I need to keep rooting down in order to shoot up.
Book tickets to see the performance Wild Longings in the City of London on 14-15 September.