Updated: Jul 19
By Molly Murfee
I have recently travelled to one of my ancestral homelands—the one that grows magnolia trees and backyard crawfish, the one where my family eventually landed, nine generations following the departure of one certain William Murphy, who with his wife Eleonor, left my other ancestral homeland of Ireland in the early 1700s. After journeying through Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, this family has oscillated, migrated and settled throughout Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana since 1802.
Flipping through a book tracing one branch of this family tree, I pause on a picture of a family reunion. The descendants of the brother of my great-great grandfather fill the front porch, spill down the stairs, and pool at least nine layers deep out onto the spring green lawn. All from a single man, and a single woman.
I look at a different branch of my family tree amazingly dating back to 500 CE, all the limbs and twigs angling off of this single origin point. The genealogical map was as big as an architectural drawing, and yet I knew—this wasn’t it. At any given point, were I creating the chart, I could have chosen a different relative to follow, chased a matrilineal line instead of a patrilineal one. I lay the chart back down across my lap and stared into space, imagining all the ancestors not reflected here, as large as this chart was, branching and branching and branching into infinity. I imagined all the millions of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren spinning off, marrying, bringing in other lines of people.
“We are all related,” I thought.
Let’s take it further. Geneticists speak of a “Mitochondrial Eve,” the most recent female genetic ancestor we’ve been able to identify. Recent studies believe she originated from Southern Africa, Botswana to be exact, in the Makgadikgadi basin over 200,000 years ago. All existing humans can trace our DNA back to her. Another ancestral homeland.
But it goes deeper still. Evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin postulated the “ancestor theory,” one that modern scientists have verified, that all life evolved from one primordial form. In the deepest of our ancestral history, a single organism engulfed another bacteria and the two created a symbiotic relationship. This became the first mitochondria. And here we are. We share genetic information with all other life forms on this earth. For the ancient Greeks, Gaia, the Earth, was the first to emerge from the creative Void. It was then she that bore the heavens, mountains and seas. Everything else tumbled out from there.
When I look at a phylogenetic tree that traces the course of evolution, I stare at that single origin point branching and branching and branching, each nook in the tree indicating a species that made a different choice, found a different way, altered themselves just a little here, just a little there, and down the different path they went, splitting and splitting and splitting into a canopy of diversity.
The most predominant elements of this earth—carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium and phosphorus—make up at least 97% of our own bodies. Annie Dillard writes, “All the green in the planted world consists of these whole, rounded chloroplasts winding their ways in water. If you analyze a molecule of chlorophyll itself, what you get is 136 atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring. At the ring’s center is a single atom of magnesium. Now: if you remove the atom of magnesium and in its exact place put an atom of iron, you get a molecule of hemoglobin. The iron atom combines with all the other atoms to make red blood.”
We are so interested, these days, in putting everyone into their little boxes so we can identify, make sense, find our own spot in the world. We are so nervous in our insecurity. We categorize people into good or bad, this political party or that, this religion or that, in the club or out of the club, those we love or those we hate. And so on, and so on, and so …
But the truth is ...
We are this earth. We are our ancestors. We are each other.
Swirling and swirling and swirling around ad infinitum. Our genes darting in and through. Mixing. Intermingling. Evolving.
Our ancestral homeland is here. All of it. Each of us.
Which branch, which future, now from the blooming new growth of spring, will we choose?
Place-based author Molly Murfee is the 2023 Local Writer-in-Residence for the Mountain Words Literary Festival; a 2022 finalist of the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction; and a 2022 contributor to the Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s Conference. Molly teaches nature writing, literature and ethics with the Clark Family School of Environment & Sustainability at Western Colorado University. She is hard at work on her creative nonfiction book, The Adventure of Home, re-membering our indigeneity to this Earth by unraveling the destructive foundations of colonialism, and reweaving mythologies of a sacred wild. Sign up for Molly’s Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her book and field-based writing and nature connection workshops at www.mollymurfee.com.