It has been a long three years since my last trip to North Carolina, and while my July 2015 trip was about family, this trip was largely about the land: who owned it, how it was used, how it has changed, how it has nourished or limited the experiences of the people who lived there.
Colors pop on dark days, and as I drove, I passed field after field of glowing flowers. Lavender and light green frothy blooms shaped like snap dragons reminded me of how much I don’t know about what is being grown in that sandy coastal plain. (Later I’d learn that those were fields of clary sage.)When I finally arrived at the genealogical society’s cookout, the eating had ended, and the group had moved on to grave dowsing. I don’t understand the science behind this work, although one of the participants is a nuclear engineer, and must understand its inexplicable powers.
I tried holding the metal rods softly in my grip as I walked over a family plot and was amazed when they took on a life of their own, crossing and uncrossing over the remains beneath my feet. The dowsers mark the heads and foots of the graves with cornstarch. They are mapping the long-dead that lie in orderly and disorderly formations on this land. They hold theories about what has happened on this farm and when.My research partner and I are exploring different branches of a family of Ulster Scots who came to the Colonies and first farmed in Maryland. After a couple of generations, we assume that they wore out the land before moving south, where their holdings were once significant.
She has done extensive work in wills and deeds and understands how strategic marriages were used to increase real estate assets and build wealth. She has been following our extended family’s land ownership for decades. During less than four days, we’d visit four counties and look for secrets in the landscape, places that could be marked with cornstarch, places that could not.