Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Do we know where we are fishing?

Thoreau said, "Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after." Many genealogists never quite understand what they are after, just like Thoreau's fishermen. What is it that we are after?

When I was lot younger, I spent a lot of time running. Mile after mile, I would run up hills and down hills. The running never seemed to get any easier. Finally, while I was in the Army, I ran every day, everywhere we went we ran. We also did pull-ups, sit-ups and push-ups in between running. Suddenly, after weeks of running and other exercises, I realized running was no longer a burden. It was just an natural as walking, only faster. My body and my mind had finally adjusted to the effort of running.

I fear that many genealogists are like I was when I was dabbling in running. They never do enough genealogy to get to the point where research and analysis are no longer a burden. The never get to the point where searching through long records is so absorbing that time passes without notice. They never do genealogy enough, or long enough to find out that it isn't the names and dates they are after, it is the hearts and souls of their ancestors. I am sure that this realization only comes to those who work at research long enough and with enough consistency that it is no longer a burden. You no longer feel an obligation to "do your genealogy" but realize that you can do genealogy like you eat and drink and walk, mostly without effort and as part of your natural cycle of life.

People ask me all the time if I ever sleep. The answer is simple, I sleep but my mind does not. When I am faced with a problem or question, my mind continues to work. Just like when I was running in the Army, solving the problem is no longer a burden, I can keep thinking about something even while I am asleep and wake up to the same problem or its solution. If I were like Thoreau's fishermen, I would soon tire of the problems and never reach the solution. I talk to people all the time who "started to do some genealogy, but never got anywhere." The problem is that they did not know what they were after. The assumed that genealogy was like playing a game, when you get tired you stop and go home. On the contrary, when you get tired you do genealogy.  I believe genealogy is like John Muir's walk, when he said, "I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in." 1913, in L.M. Wolfe, ed., John Muir, John of the Mountains:  The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, 1938.

In going out to work on genealogy, you must find yourself going in. 


  1. I think it is because each answer we find begets more questions. It is human nature to keep searching.

    I sm still searching for the records of my husbands great grandmother, I have her name, parents, and county where she was born, but I can not find them. She is my main goal and I keep on running.

  2. Great point. But I am curious as to what Thoreau said that fishermen are really after. I know why I go fishing but I don't have Thoreau's book and I would like to know what he said about it.