Saturday 22 December 2012

Roots and wings

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote that children should be nurtured to grow roots and wings (“Zwei Dinge sollen Kinder von ihren Eltern bekommen: Wurzeln und Flügel.”).

Knowing Goethe’s thought, his juxtaposition of two apparently contradictory upbringing requirements can neither have meant “roots” in the sense of ‘motionless’, nor “wings” in the sense of ‘restless’: he must have meant that we can’t find roots unless we’re able to go look for them, and that we can’t fly unless we also can perch. Roots expand towards where their nutrition comes from, and flying creatures thrive in the homes that they choose to build for themselves. Likewise, we learn to seek what makes us grow and thrive, and flee what doesn’t.

I was reminded of Goethe’s quote years ago, when I read a fascinating book, Elders: Wisdom from Australia’s Indigenous Leaders. In it, Peter McConchie reports one elder as saying: “We always knew the people were okay because they would come home” which, to me, describes the feature which makes a cultural community acknowledge someone as their own: these people knew that they had a home to return to, which means that they had been taught to leave it. And the elder adds: “They knew to get home, it’s instilled in them, in their spirit and in our stories.” I particularly liked this formulation: their individual, winged spirit, was nurtured by our stories, the roots of our culture.

We all start sprouting root feelers as soon as we realise that “home” is just, well, wherever you feel at home. We find our individual bearings in a multitude of environments, whose distinctive cultural, linguistic and personal habits we can only appreciate once we learn to let go of them, so we also learn how to go back to them, if we so wish. There’s nothing like distance, physical or intellectual, to teach us how to take flight and stay rooted which, to me, is what learning about ourselves is all about.

Image © Copyright Hugh Chevallier
Licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Gianpiero Petriglieri gives a real-life account of what Moving Around Without Losing Your Roots may involve (obrigada pela dica, Karin!). If you read German, Wurzeln und Flügel discusses the topic of this post with the added bonus of two other of my favourite Roots-and-Wings books, Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgerssons Underbara Resa genom Sverige and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I would definitely include in this list Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, with which I grew up when I was learning to take flight.

I wonder whether I’ve just given you a couple of ideas to go and visit, or revisit, these books. I’ll certainly do the latter. Reminiscing about them also reminded me that this is the perfect time of year to find a cosy place from where to fly away by means of cosy reading. I’ll be back next year. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll be able to take time to savour your own roots and wings, too.

© MCF 2012

Next post: What causes what? Saturday 5th January 2013.


  1. Merry Christmas to you and your beautiful family! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  2. And to you, Cubano! May your blog continue to be a source of inspiration to us all throughout 2013.


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