Sunday, April 11, 2021

Get Your Hands on It


Sometimes, in working with a sticky research problem, you just have to get your hands on it.

I've compared genealogy to knitting in the past. That is not the limitation of comparisons that can be applied to the pursuit of family history, of course. Last week, in wrangling with the possible cluster of connections that emerged in one nascent community of western Virginia, the feeling reminded me of a number of other endeavors. Sewing, for instance.

A long time ago, when I had plenty of time to spare on sewing my own clothes, the one wrestling moment in the creation of a new outfit was the step which demanded a hollow tube—think sleeve—be inserted into an uncooperative gap hanging from the shoulder. It always seemed there was far more material in the sleeve than could be crammed into the armhole. Or that the two lines refused to mesh.

The only way I could make sense of the process was to do it so many times that my hands gained a muscle memory of their own. 

There are many such touch points in the everyday activities of bygone eras. I'm sure there are several occupations which illustrate those same unworkable tasks that simply have to be done. You just have to gain the know-how to know how to get the job done.

Take farming. This may be an apocryphal example, but think of those stories of old farmers, when considering whether to buy a field, stooping down to scoop up a handful of the dirt—then sticking it in their mouth. I don't know whether any farmer actually did such a thing, but I do know that farmers wanted to check the quality of the soil and whether it would be suitable for the crops they intended to grow, if they went ahead and purchased the field.

Eat dirt or not, farmers apparently followed the soil. I'll never forget a comment in a southern research course taught at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy by Mark Lowe (who will be back to address that subject again next winter). His tip: when your farming ancestors disappeared from one community, follow the USDA soil and climate charts to track which other regions shared the same farming conditions; perhaps your ancestors would resurface there.

A story about checking the dirt wouldn't make sense to anyone but another farmer—another person who has invested the same years into the experience and knows what to look for. Same thing with any field. When two details don't seem to jibe—at least to the uninitiated—that's when getting your hands on the material, again and again, creates the muscle memory needed to make the impossible work.

It's no surprise, then, to learn the same dynamic works for genealogy. When the lines get messy, when they don't seem to fit together comfortably, that's when we need to get our hands on the documents—not just one, but many—to get the sense of what belongs and what doesn't apply.

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