What’s In A Smell?

North Devonshire, England

It is a tradition that wives and then children take on the father’s surname. While we could debate why this is, the fact remains it is now and has been for most of recorded history, a common practice.

I am a Skinner because my father was a Skinner as was his, and so on.

When I began work on my genealogy, I soon realized the arbitrariness of this practice. Genetically speaking, for example, I am 50% Skinner and 50% Draper. But that’s only if I look no further back than my parents. If I look at their parents, then I am 25% Skinner, 25% Large, 25% Draper and 25% Love. And in another generation, there are eight surnames making equal offers of genetic heritage to who I am.

The revelation is inevitable: I am not just a “Skinner.”

A different approach, then, is to ask, “Where are my ancestors from?”

This, it turns out, is often much less complicated because, in the ebbs and flows of my ancestry, there are some repeated patterns.

In many of ancestral lines, for example, it is common to find that one person moved somewhere, prospered, wrote home and others then followed. And while I might think of the first as “pioneers”, the actual fact is they were simply doing what their friends and acquaintances were also doing.

They were migrating.

Many of my ancestors came from the three parts of Great Britain, and they all migrated to Canada at roughly the same time. Once there, they intermarried and, in succeeding generations, connected with family-lines already well established in North America.

But the Skinners from England and the Watsons from Scotland have a special value for the simple reason that I’ve been to where they lived, trod the same dirt, felt the same wind and smelled the same trees and plants. And while my world of jet travel, paved roads and diesel-powered tractors plowing the fields is quite different than theirs experienced on horseback along dirt paths and beside fields plowed by mule, many of the smells are the same.

They would recognize the smell of the forest in the spring and that of the dirt in late summer. They would recognize that of wet heather from the moors when the wind blows down from the northeast.

And having traipsed their neighborhoods, fields, moors and trails, I know it too.

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