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Where Bones Belong to the Earth

On the precipice of a Southern Italian pilgrimage.

My hand holding a bottle of Motherwort tincture, with a slow cooker and the book Southern Italy in the background.

Unlearning Whiteness

Before we were white we were from the earth. This summer I have the opportunity to be the first person in my family to travel to our ancestral village in southern Italy.

My name doesn't sound Italian - and yet I'm a quarter Italian. My oldest living relative died last summer, her name was Theresa Antoinette Casanova. She was my grandmother and her parents immigrated from Soveria Manelli, Catanzaro, Calabria, Italy in 1901 (Joseph Casanova) and 1905 (Theresa Bonacci with her daughter Francesca Casanova).

Why is it important for people to learn about their ancestors? Why is it important for people, and in particular white people to learn about where they come from?

Ancestral Longing

I have been longing to travel to an ancestral homeland for at least ten years. The first time I did a deep dive into who my ancestors are was in 2015 when I participated in a program called Ancestral Remembrance with ancestalist and acupuncturist Erin Langly.

In this multi-week workshop we learned about dreamwork, plant medicine, divination and genealogy - all ways to learn about and connect to our ancestors. One afternoon we took a field trip to the Mormon Temple in the Oakland Hills. There there is a library dedicated to ancestor research and people available to support anyone who wants to do this work (This is because mormons will baptize any documented deceased person into the church of ladder day saints).

A couple years later, in 2017 I had the opportunity to study with Karyn Sanders and Sarah Holmes at The Blue Otter School, and one of our assignments was to research and write about ancestral traditions from our personal lineages. Why? At Blue Otter I was taught the traditions of Karyn's Choctaw family lineage. I hold this knowledge as sacred, and it is the foundation of how I practice clinical herbalism.

As my teacher, Karyn stressed the importance of learning our lineages. She says its important to learn our origin stories. Think about that - that whoever you are, you come from people with pre judeo-christian origin stories. Some of the ways we can start to remember these stories are through plants because plants are the people who do not move. There is a deep knowing in these ancestors.

While we were in the midst of that assignment, my friend and roommate Burdy and I talked about what it might feel like to be on ancestral land. Burdy said to me one day, (I paraphrase) "Can you imagine, being in a place where the earth is made up of the composted bodies of your ancestors?" The short answer, was no. This question draws up in me the inherent truth that I am a visitor on Turtle Island. While I feel most at home in what is commonly called "San Francisco, California" there is a deep longing that is often over looked - my people - my bloodline, arrived here - not so long ago.

The author, age 2 with Grandmother Theresa Casanova and the author's sibling.


Once in a dream in 2019, after a plant meditation with Black Cohosh, I remembered the feeling of my maternal Irish grandmother arriving in modern day New York Harbor. I remembered it again when I visited Governor's Island with my brother in 2022. I remembered in my bones and in my sprit the arrival of my bloodline to this continent. Something important happened after that - whiteness infected my people. While not at first, once established in this "country" my ancestors from Ireland, Southern Italy and Croatia were able to trade in their cultural traditions, language, festivals, food and medicines, in order to gain the privileges of whiteness. We let go of our identity for a grasp of power and privilege. Now I walk in the world with white body/white skin privilege without any deep knowing of the people I come from.

The Pilgrimage

At the end of the week, I will travel to southern Italy with MaryBeth Bonfiglio and Kara Wood of the Botanico Sacro Program. A few weeks back when Kara, a California herbalist and descendant of Calabrian people and I got on the phone, she asked me an important question - "When you say you are from Catanzaro, do you mean the town or the province? My people are from the Catanzaro province too." (Most Italian-Americans hail from southern Italy because it is historically and continues to be the poorest region).

This is when I realized I would need to dig a little deeper - I reached out to the husband of one of my grandma's nieces. He's a hobbyist genealogist and has welcomed me asking family history questions from time to time. Other than being from "Catanzaro" he didn't know much more. He told me he had the contact info for a man who might be related to me - or might not - but who had the same last name as my ancestors who immigrated here, Bonnaci.

With an email to a stranger, not knowing if I'd ever get a response, I write, "I'm looking to find information about where my family came from." Within a day I got a reply and it turns out he is my second cousin once removed, his grandfather and my great grandmother were siblings.

He writes me, "our family is from Soveria Manelli, and I went there a few years ago".

Was it coincidence that Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" was playing on shuffle when I opened his email?

For the fist time in my life, for the first time in the bloodline, we knew where we were from. The stories my grandmother had heard growing up had lacked the detail I would have needed to find any trace of the land where my people make up the earth. She herself had tried to go to Catanzaro (the town) in 1990, not knowing she was in the region we came from, but had lost important details over time. It felt like an obscured mirror had finally been swept clean.

My primary goal for visiting the town where my people come from is to walk the paths that they walked, to touch and smell the plants that they worked with, to see how the sun rises over on that land, and for the first time in my life, and the life of all of my Italian-American family, stand in a place that is made from our bones. I want to witness the forest, the culture, the food, the mannerisms of the people from this place. I want to try to speak as much Italian as I can. Who were my people before we were "white"?

I don't entirely know what to expect. I anticipate it will be emotional, hard, euphoric and non-linear.

A presto, ciao!

Mussels and risotto, a recipe from the cookbook Mi Calabria by Rosetta Costantino.


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