Listener Essay - Roots

Feb 8, 2018

Elisabeth Grace is a retired clinical social worker with English and Scottish roots, who shares her home in Columbia County with a demanding blue-eyed cat and a newcomer, a little brown dog named Lilah.


Anyone who has ever planted a garden, chopped down a tree or walked in the woods knows a lot about roots. I believed I did, until I began to consider the prompt our writing group had agreed to write on, and thought about one among other uses of the word roots. It was the meaning which spoke to me the loudest. Then, as one does these days, I turned to Wikipedia and discovered how little I actually knew.

At the back of my mind hovered another use of the word, particularly apt for anyone who aspires to write memoir; what are our roots, the source of our physical appearance, intelligence, personality traits, psychological make-up?  In recent years, particularly since the popularity of DNA testing, another element has become eminently discoverable; what country or countries did our forbears inhabit, contributing unsuspected ethnic strains to our 21st century beings?

I wondered if the tangled masses I dig out of a garden bed, the sculpture-like framework of the roots of an upended tree or the ankle-bruising, half-hidden root which trips the unwary on a forest path had anything in common with the roots explored by the genealogist, amateur or professional.

The first kind of root has four main functions: absorption of water and inorganic nutrients from the soil, anchoring a plant to the ground, storing food and nutrients, and reproduction as well as competition with other plants. A plant's root system is the source of a lifeline which transports nutrients upwards into its leaves, where they interact with sunlight to produce sugars, flavors and energy. Different hormones serve different functions. Roots may protect plants from disease. They sense obstacles in their path and may choose to go round them or barrel ahead, displacing earth or cracking pavement. The direction in which they proceed is dictated by their perception of the most favorable or the most hostile environment. In sum, roots do everything they can to ensure that a plant will survive and flourish. Current research even suggests that trees communicate with each other, react when one of their kind dies. Do the smaller roots branching off the main,or tap, root act like subterranean arboreal telephone wires?

While roots are often hidden, some plants allow a portion of their roots to be seen: think of the stilt-like roots at the base of a corn stalk, the mass of visible roots anchoring mangrove trees in a southern swamp, or the tentacles of a parasite like mistletoe, attaching it to its host plant. When we graft one variety of apple onto a tree of a different species, we are using the ability of one piece of a plant-- a stem-- to grow another-- roots. We use some roots for food-- carrots, beets and rutabagas, for example-- some as nitrogen-fixing cover crops, some to stabilize hill-sides or prevent erosion on sand-dunes. Some roots are, or have been, used as a source of medicine. The root of one plant, the mandrake, was believed to have powerful magical properties, both beneficial and destructive; its uses are described in the Bible and in medieval literature. With potentially dangerous narcotic and hallucinogenic properties, it is used in modern witchcraft and features in the Harry Potter stories.

So-- how many of these attributes of plant roots are relevant when we think about the other kind of roots, our human origins? They too are often hidden, and it may take years of research to uncover some of them, to discover that we had ancestors of a race, an ethnicity or nationality which we never suspected. But in more obvious ways there are also parallels: roots absorb nutrients which nourish not only the plant they support but also future generations by supplying the genetic material which is passed on to their offspring. If roots were not involved in reproduction and competition for survival, neither the crops and flowers in our farms and gardens nor we ourselves would be here.

If roots did not anchor plants to the earth, or were not planted at sufficient depth, the plants can be washed away by floods or blown away by winds, as they may indeed be in extreme conditions like hurricanes. If our forbears, the human “roots” from which we are descended, could not resist adversity, or adapt to change, they would have been extinguished before they had a chance to reproduce. There are many lost tribes, people whose roots could not sustain them as the world around them changed.

The genetic material which determines who I am had its origins eons ago, modified in each generation by the environment with which it has interacted. I inherited my mother's dark hair and her features, and her steadfastness in the face of adversity, and my father's blue eyes and his curiosity about the world. I wish I could trace some of those physical or psychological traits to their more distant roots. Who and what might I discover?