Many of us like the idea of living a countercultural life. We want to be fish swimming against the current, not sheep in a crowd. But cultures are hard to identify, let alone counter. In her new book, Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind, journalist Grace Olmstead shows us an American culture of transience we may not have noticed or even understood to be problematic. It turns out that swimming against the current might look exactly like staying in one place.
In the book, we see that the choice to stay and put down roots may be not only the most countercultural life choice available to many of us, but the choice with the greatest potential for healing so much of what ails us, as individuals and as a nation. In this deeply personal study of a small Idaho farming community, Olmstead argues that a culture of transience “almost always results in extraction and exploitation of the places left behind,” and that this isn’t only a problem for those who are stuck or who choose to stay “behind.”
This is a book about places, but it is also a book about limitations and dependence. We need one another, and we need roots. We also need limits, and the fewer limits we have, the greater our need for discernment amidst a consumerist culture of almost endless choice. As Olmstead notes, “we move to places that will offer us something: to places that fit the consumptive cadences of our time, not to places that might ask something of us.” Uprooted is a persuasive call to dig in, give back, and perhaps even move back.
The need for rootedness
Since leaving the rural Idaho town her family has called home for generations to attend college in Virginia, Olmstead has, paradoxically, used her journalism to champion places experiencing postindustrial collapse or brain drain. Olmstead herself wonders if the paradox makes her a hypocrite, and her writing here is fueled by two questions: Should she return? And will it matter if she does?
The question many readers will bring to this book is distinct but related to Olmstead’s own: What difference does the decline of one faraway farming town make to me and where I live? The surprising answer is that it matters much more than most of us know.
Uprooted weaves together the stories of Olmstead’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents—the history of their farming home in the fruitful though arid Emmett Valley—with detailed assessments of the current state of American farming life. Olmstead explores everything from debt to loneliness, suicide to soil health. She is one of many writers to mine this problematic territory, and she is clear about her debt to writers like Wendell Berry and academics who study America’s farms and small towns, but Olmstead harnesses the emotional power of her personal experience to give this subject new focus and force.
The loss of Olmstead’s family farm becomes emblematic of losses that plague communities across our country. These losses are economic (most farms can no longer support one family, let alone generations). They are practical (I was surprised to learn that despite our Dust Bowl history, some farmers do still risk their topsoil by leaving fields bare after harvest). And the losses are spiritual and cultural as well. These last are hard to quantify with data, but Olmstead evokes them for us in poetic language: “Participating in farm tradition was like taking your place in the dance,” she writes, “joining arms with the company behind and before. Family, food, soil, and place were all bound together in the rhythm of the seasons, and to be fed was to remember.”
Such losses are too easy to overlook in a culture that equates success with moving up and moving out. As Olmstead reminds us, “Few Americans take easily to the idea of rootedness.” We tell the best and brightest of our youth, “You will go far!” I’m not sure I would have seen this as a problem before reading this book, but Olmstead is convincing in her argument that the fault lines in our agricultural communities will require the very best we can offer if they are to be repaired. Brain drain isn’t only a problem for those anonymous places left behind; it is a problem for all of us. Chances are, most of the food in our homes comes from such “anonymous” places, and problems there quickly reveal themselves here.
Olmstead doesn’t only take a magnifying glass to Emmett, Idaho, where orchard trees are bulldozed for suburbia even as the crowds at the local cherry festival grow. She steps back to ask much bigger questions about our universal human need for rootedness. To use the colloquial terms Olmstead borrows from novelist Wallace Stegner, are we boomers or stickers?
Boomers are those, like gold miners of yore, who swoop in, extract resources, and move on. From schools to weather, we talk about our places like customers rating products on Amazon. We may long for connection, but entrenched consumerist habits sabotage our efforts to put down roots. Becoming stickers—growing roots, deepening our dependance on others, cultivating our communities through committees and boards and local institutions—is slow, sometimes tedious, work. Olmstead’s depiction of her “Grandpa Dad”—who would work all day in the field before showering and heading off for a meeting of the hospital board, church board, or Land Bank Board—highlighted for me just how much I overvalue my own comfort and “free” time.
My story echoes Olmstead’s in interesting ways. My father left the family farm in Comanche, Texas, for college, military service, and, eventually, missionary work. During childhood visits to my grandmother’s farmhouse, I touched the tension between staying and going when I traced the intricate carvings on a wooden chest my father had sent his mother from Thailand decades before. I could at least experience the place my father had left behind, but my own children have never read the stones in that country cemetery where generations of our family were laid to rest in hope of resurrection. Unless I write the names on the back of photographs, they will never know them.
And yet, my children are growing up on the edge of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Because our Amish neighbors have embraced limitations and interdependence for generations, our landscape still looks in many respects like the small-farm landscapes Olmstead has watched disappear in Idaho. The Amish commitment to farm only what they can care for with a team of horses means that we have access to the kind of storybook beauty and delicious local food out of reach to most Americans.
We also have a very near example of strongly countercultural discernment. While most of our American farms are monocultures, and work and activities pull our families in a dozen different directions, I regularly drive past farms checkered with various crops and grazing animals. And I have never forgotten the story I heard about a local Amish farmer who chose to add tobacco to his other crops because its labor-intensive harvest was something his whole family could participate in together, sharing both the work and the delight of a life lived in harmony with growing things.
Nourishing the generations
Ultimately, Uprooted is a valuable guide for the kind of discernment we all must exercise if we are to cultivate strong roots in our unique places. While Olmstead believes that her desire to care for aging parents will eventually lead her family back to Idaho, that outcome is not the only possible good she describes.
My own father left the farm, but he continued to nourish his roots by purchasing land in Comanche. He is an absentee landlord with a difference: He knows those fields, he loves those fields, and I have watched him say no to quick profits because he did not believe it was in the best long-term interest of the place he once called home.
And after years of moving, after living in city and suburb, my family and I have put down roots in the ground of an old Pennsylvania farmhouse. Ten years ago, we hoped this place would nurture our children, but it will soon nurture the generation preceding us as well. My husband’s parents are leaving Texas to come and live with us. Because we have worked hard to root ourselves in this place and this community, I am confident they will find this home is fertile enough to nourish them, too.
We can and should applaud those who say “yes” to the call to go far and make disciples. But we must also credit those who stay and do the same, passing on knowledge, history, faith, and love for the land to the next generation. What do we owe the places we’ve left behind? We owe them everything, but as Olmstead helps us understand, we can repay that debt in so many fruitful ways.
Christie Purifoy lives with her husband and four children in a farmhouse in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She is the author of Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace.