52 Ancestors: Land

This week’s prompt by Amy Johnson Crow for 52 Ancestors got me thinking. Like the vast majority of people, I don’t have to go very far to find a cast of “ag labs” in my tree. Nor do I have to go into deep history: both my ‘English’ grandfathers (Frysol and Taplin) worked on farms, and and at least one of my American grandfathers were in the farming game at some point in their lives. But I don’t want to talk about that.

I could even talk about my mother’s amazing dedication and talent for gardening.

But I’m not going to talk about that either (sorry, mum).

Because the first thing that popped into my head was something entirely different (only … not so different). The French have this marvellous word le terroir which is often seen included in terms such as goût du terroir and is primarily used in relation to food, especially wine.

What does it mean, and what does it have to do with genealogy? Well, hopefully answering the first will have a little bearing on the second. Terroir doesn’t have a direct translation into English (not that this has stopped any number of uber-trendy wine bars and restaurants from throwing it onto their awnings). My trusty Collins French-English dictionary (or mon dictionnaire français-anglais – see, that degree wasn’t wasted!) simply says “soil, land” which is less than helpful. Wikipedia gives us “the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environment contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitat. Collectively, these contextual characteristics are said to have a character; terroir also refers to this character” and goes on to talk about it’s use in viticulture and winemaking.

Phew, ok.

In short, there are specific characteristics of a certain area that are created through the local climate, soil, geomorphology (that’s mountains, valleys, bodies of water etc). These all affect the taste and quality of certain local products. But in a more metaphorical sense, these local characteristics, this terroir can be applied to it’s people.

Local topography and climate all have a direct impact on land use and therefore on local occupations and local traditions (Sheffield vs Salisbury, for example). It also often impacted movements – whether to the local large towns and cities or further afield to brand new horizons over the ocean.

So when researching historical families remember that they existed in a dynamic and shifting landscape, where the terroir was more than physical, more than dirt and stones, but was also cultural and would have included mythologies, world-views, histories and stories that are just as worth our time to research as births, marriages and deaths.

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