Remember Where You Came From

January 19, 2016

There is a Greek myth about a man named Antaeus, whom we know about mainly because Herakles had to fight him on the way to the eleventh of his one dozen fiendishly difficult tasks, better known as “the twelve labors of Hercules.”

So Herakles had to fight this dude. Not a problem; Herakles was one helluva fighter. Except this was no ordinary dude. Antaeus came from a unique lineage: his father was Poseidon; his mother, Gaia.

Aka, the earth.

And that was a problem. Because, as Herakles soon discovered, every time he had Antaeus just about beat, exhausted, wrung out, and threw him to the ground, the guy leapt up again, entirely refreshed and good to go. It was that instantaneous contact with the ground that did it. Reconnecting with the earth: his mother.

As long as he touched the earth, he could not be conquered.

Once Herakles realized what was happening, he found a way around it: he got the guy in a wrestler’s hold, pinned against his own body and held up off the ground. No contact with the earth. Squeezed the life out of him.

There’s a message in that myth, to me: it pays to stay in touch with your source. As long as you stay connected with where you came from, you cannot be conquered.

There’s a term for what Antaeus had going for him. They call it terroir.

I learned about terroir from a company out of Sri Lanka, Dilmah Tea, that sells a single origin tea. This is critically important, they say, because every region, every valley, and even every growing season imparts its unique signature taste and character to that tea. Which means that every cup — its taste, its aroma, its impact on all your cells — tells you exactly where that tea came from.

Terroir: sense of place. Unique lineage. It’s like a fingerprint, or DNA: the expression of the thing’s source and, therefore, its quintessential nature.

It’s cheaper and easier, say the good people of Dilmah Tea, to just blend in all sorts of different batches from wherever, whatever happens to be available. But it’s not the same thing. That’s why a good unblended Scotch costs so much. Because it’s worth it.

Terroir is a big deal for wine people, too. It’s also something devotees follow in chocolate, chili peppers, coffee, even maple syrup.

I thought of Dilmah Tea, and of Antaeus, when I had dinner a few weeks ago with my amazing daughter, Sarah, before she headed back to Berlin.

Sarah has moved to Germany and embarked on the path to German citizenship, in part as an expression of her connection with her grandfather, my father, Alfred Mann.

In the last years of his life, my father took up a project to translate the extensive correspondence (some forty-plus years’ worth) between the composer Johannes Brahms and his lifelong friend, the pianist Clara Schumann — a project for which I became amanuensis and editorial assistant. Several times a week, he would call me on the phone and dictate a letter or two as I listened and typed.

We were about halfway through the body of work when he died, in the fall of 2006, just a half-year shy of his ninetieth birthday.

I wrote about the project, and its sad interruption, here.

Now, a decade later, Sarah has picked up the gauntlet.

Following in my father’s footsteps, she moved to Berlin (he relocated there at the age of nineteen) and, in the Berlin district of Wedding, created an artists’ residency program called “The Wedding Space,” founded in memory of her grandfather.

As she says on her website:

My grandfather was a brilliant and generous person. He crossed borders, oceans, disciplines — he was courageous in his life, his vision, and his creative process. To me, he was, first, the man who always sent me Christmas presents, even though I knew he ‘had been’ Jewish, that he almost never made it out of Europe, and that if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be there either, opening, each Christmas, his carefully wrapped gifts of paint sets, charcoal pencils, and sketchbooks. I was also afraid of him — when I was tasked with calling him from his study for dinner. I remember the mystical feeling of just standing at his closed door, as if the air was different, thick with the movement of his mind. And, later, I remember the letters we exchanged — his spindly, sideways handwriting; his excitement, being the only one in my family with a PhD (Columbia, Musicology), to hear that I planned to get one too, when I’d finished art school. I remember writing to him when I’d taught Benjamin’s Task of the Translator for the first time; telling him that I, too, wanted to translate, as he had done, as he continued to do until his death.

Alfred left a legacy of community-building, thinking, writing, research, translation, conducting, performance, and sharing. This legacy is something I want to continue in The Wedding Space, in its rooms; I want to once again feel, terrified, the air, thick with the movements of our inspiration; I feel it already; it has re-begun.

People have terroir, too. You don’t just live where you live. You also live where you’re made of.

Which is why you don’t ever want to forget where you came from.

Sarah says that because the Space was founded in memory of Alfred, its first resident project is the taking up of that Brahms-Schumann translation project.

I will do anything and everything in my power to help her with that project. Be that as it may, though, I suspect that she’ll complete it no matter what aid does or does not come her way, because she has an unquenchable force working for her: terroir.

As long as you stay connected with where you came from, you cannot be conquered.

Photo courtesy of Dilmah Tea


  1. Margery (Susie) Whitesell Fauteux

    Hi John, I’ve just responded to a link that Robert Johnson put on facebook of your article here. If you’re friends with Robert on facebook, I imagine you’ll find my words in the ‘comment’ section of his message sharing your link. I’m not too savvy about navigating cyberspace, but I wish you and your Sarah the best in her resurrection of your wonderful, wonderful father’s project. I remember both of your parents well. Just thinking of all of you has put an enormous smile on my face. Those Far Brook years seem so long ago. Be well John, and thank you for your writing. Your explanation of terroir resonates with me, and my own experiences of gaining strength from returning home to the place of my beginning in this life. With love, Margery (Susie) Whitesell Fauteux xoxoxo
    P.S. I am an assistant in a fifth grade classroom this year – your mother was my fifth grade teacher – funny that your family should reenter my orbit right now! Your mother was such a fantastic inspiration in my early years!

    • John David Mann

      It’s so amazing to hear from you, Susie-Margery! I remember a Christmas party, half a century ago, seeing your shoes lined up next to your father’s shoes in the hallway and thinking it was hilarious: “Brucie’s shoesies and Susie’s shoesies” became a punch line around my home for some time afterward. Thanks so much for those thoughts about my mom. Your fifth graders have a wonderful teacher!

    • John David Mann

      Hi Susie again — Just read your sweet comments over on Robert’s page: my fond regards to your own Sara-daughter, and to you as well!

  2. Connie Morin

    Hi John!
    I, too, am steadfastly rooted in my family’s history. My Maine heritage: that solid, proudly self-reliant, giving to others, salt of the earth, sardonic, nature-loving heritage. It strikes me, though, that we are, all of us, more than our heritage. I believe that through our familial histories, the love from which we came, we are able to reach into the realms of excellence, of creativity, of possibilities and become, deeply, our own selves – reaching outward toward those brightly lit holes in the night sky we call stars, sending out our beacons of self, reaching, connecting with others and ever growing. I think that you are one of those rooted and growth-filled reachers. Connie

    • John David Mann

      Beautifully said, Connie! “We are, all of us, more than our heritage…” — I love that. We are more than our childhood, more than how our parents raised us, more than what happened “to” us. I’m forgetting who it was who said this (possibly Bucky Fuller?) but we aren’t plants: our roots are in the heavens.


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