[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Last summer my family and I drove right by Emmett, Idaho, the ancestral home of Grace Olmstead, author of the wonderful, if imperfect, Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind. Idaho’s Gem County (Emmett is the county seat) is beautiful country, which it was good to reminded of. We were traveling from Spokane, Washington (where I was born and raised, and where my widowed mother–whom my children hadn’t seen in years, and needed to visit–continues to live in a cabin atop what we call Fox Hill just over the Idaho border) to Gooding, Idaho (for a big family gathering which, out of pandemic-related concerns for our mother’s health, we held someplace other than the old homestead). If we’d taken the interstate, we would have traveled faster, but missed the scenery, so instead we took state highways through the wheat fields of the Palouse, down into Hells Canyon, up again into the forested mountains around Payette Lake (we swam for a bit, but Sharlie, the legendary monster of Payette, made no appearance), and then down again towards Boise, before getting on the interstate and heading east across southern Idaho’s Snake River Plain to our destination. If I’d known that reading Olmstead’s book was in my future, I would have made sure we stopped for dinner in Emmett instead of later on.

I take the time to talk about the landscape around these places because it is the land of southwestern Idaho, and the people who built small farming towns like Emmett on that land, that Olmstead approaches in her book with great–though sometimes uneven–passion and grace. Uprooted is partly a memoir of her extended family (though mostly just her great-grandparents), partly a paean to a way of life that is both dying and which she never really understood while she grew up in the midst of it (and thus feels the loss of all the more deeply now), and partly a study of the causes of that dying, and how what has endured–the habits, the connections, the sense of place–has shaped her extended family nonetheless. She calls her book “an exercise in discernment” (pg. xiii, 206), and it was that element of the book which broke through my partial resistance to it. In presenting to the public her ongoing attempt to work through her own feelings about the decades-long decline of a town and the agrarian vocation which it served as a particular home for, all of which she has belatedly realized she loves, and moreover in doing so with such regional specificity, Olmstead forced a degree of reflection upon me–a person with his own family stories of Idaho and farms, stories which I, also, mostly now know only at a great distance, both physical and temporal.

For Olmstead, the heart of the story she wants to tell about Emmett, and about her own Howard family in that place, is her great-grandfather, Walter Allen Howard–or as Olmstead always refers to him, “Grandpa Dad,” the marvelously inventive and hard-working (and, as the story unfolds, contrary and independent to a fault) patriarch of her clan. Born in 1911, and still driving a tractor and tending to his prized (and apparently somewhat secretly maintained) irrigation ditches until he passed away in 2008, Olmstead grounds her many ruminations about farming life and community attachment in near-constant references to Grandpa Dad’s example. He was a man who embodied a certain kind of rootedness, to the land (“Grandpa Dad dug many of the ditches that still feed water to crops in north Emmett–all of them with a spade and his two hands”–pg. 5), to the community of Emmett (“He would often come in dirty from a long work day on the farm and head straight for the shower to clean up so he could attend a local meeting”–pg. 179), to his church (“To Grandpa Dad, some things mattered more than the price tag–and supporting his neighbor and Christian brother [who ran the only grocery store he was willing patronize] was one of those things”–pg. 141), and most of all to his family. Her portrait of this impressive man is a deeply loving one, and no wonder: to a great-granddaughter, shucking corn beside him, listening to him tell stories of his long-dead wife and recite poetry and spin tales of a land utterly transformed (“He was the first storyteller and historian I knew…overflowing with knowledge and narrative”–pgs. 5-6), he must have seemed an entirely lovable human being.

But Olmstead also thoughtfully makes use of such authors as Robert Nisbet, Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, Robert Wuthnow, and Wendell Berry to elaborate upon the beauty, social utility, and moral worthiness of that particular rural rootedness which she most centrally associates with the memory of that human being and of his farm in Emmett. In particular, she makes use of the distinction employed by Wallace Stegner (and frequented emphasized by Berry as well) between “boomers”–those who “come to extract value from a place and then leave”–and “stickers”–“those who settle down and invest.” She trenchantly observes that “since the mid-nineteenth century, there have been more boomers than stickers in Idaho history” (pg. 21), and provides the background to make her point clear. Grandpa Dad, in contrast, was a sticker, and that haunts her.

Haunts her, because she, and her whole extended family, didn’t actually stick, at least not entirely. Though the Howards were all deeply shaped by the connections which Grandpa Dad’s work and care for the land and the community had built around him, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren nonetheless never committed to that community or that work. They became bankers and pharmacists and engineers and, in Olmstead’s case, a journalist in Washington DC. And here is where my internal reflection begins, because I could say something similar in regards to myself, and my own extended family. Our family’s own Idaho farm, and the milk cows and alfalfa fields and vegetable gardens and calf pens and homemade fences and barns I grew up around and worked early mornings and late nights in, all through the 1970s and 1980s, have faded into an enduring set of Idaho-centric reminiscences, not something I–a college professor in Kansas, with siblings working in real estate and communications and investment and education–can really claim any rootedness in, especially not over the past fifteen years or so, as we have settled in Wichita and as our children have grown up.

There are differences, to be sure: my own great-grandfather, and grandfather (that’s a photo of him there, standing in the crop fields along the Kootenai river north of Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, sometime in the early 1950s), and my father too, all mostly approached agriculture as a business endeavor–something lovely in its own right, to be sure, and something they studied well and worked hard at and thought important enough (or at least money-making enough) to impress upon us children. They weren’t dilettantes when it came to growing wheat, driving combines, bailing hay, leveling ground, raising calves, breaking horses, and all the rest. But to them it was also, in the end, something to expand and outsource (four generations of Amoths, a Mennonite family, have really done most of the daily work on that land in Idaho) and trade upon and sell off (the Amoths now own the farm) as the situation warranted. This is very different from Olmstead’s Grandpa Dad, who wouldn’t take government subsidies and, as the decades went by, continually “refused to get big and refused to get out” (p. 64). Not that his impressive example at all affected the economic, cultural, and governmental realities which depressed his own community (and which my own ancestors recognized and, when they could, both profited and escaped from). Emment’s agrarian community has suffered the same catastrophic decline in numbers of farms, in wealth, in population, and in environmental health that you see in rural areas all across the country. But either way, whether our family histories reach back through an engagement with farming as something to get into and get out of while the getting was good, or an engagement that was grounded in a true sense of vocation and community…it was something that didn’t last.

Olmstead is very good at making the case that it might not have been this way; the viability of sticking with the farm and with the rural communities which long centered the lives of large numbers of Americans–include her family and mine–might have been preserved. If the centralizing logic of finance capitalism had been prevented from cheering on agribusinesses like Monsanto as they effectively robbed farmers of control of their own seed; if the global marketplace had been pushed away from prioritizing commodity crops which served international trade and put the burden on farmers to expand and homogenize and go into debt in order to do so; if government supports and subsidies had been directed at maintaining local networks of producers instead of ever larger and ever more costly farms that could maximize production for the expansionist purposes of the Cold War-era American state; if, if, if…well, then maybe things would be different. As it is, though, they aren’t. Olmstead details the lives of many contemporary farmers in the Emmett area who are sticking it out despite the obstacles all around them–people like Susan and Peter Dill of Saint John’s Organic Farm, the Williams family at Waterwheel Gardens, or Terry and Ashley Walton who (thanks to a Farm Service Agency loan) purchased Grandpa Dad’s farm after he passed away and no one in the family had any interest in preserving it. But her deep engagement with these topics–with America’s broken food system, its exploitative farm labor practices, its consumer-mad economy, and its poisonous addiction to treating the land almost always as either a brute calorie resource or a recreational site for visiting elites, and almost never as respectful localities where people can build lives for themselves–all makes her doubtful that even a great many farmers like her great-grandfather could ever make a enough of a difference:

Grandpa Dad emerged from the difficulties of poverty in this landscape by not moving–by staying in one spot for his entire life. But wealth is no longer built through allegiance to a community or a town; it is increasingly achieved in isolation by individuals and grown through rootlessness, not through loyalty. . . . Without systemic change–without a revaluing of the soil, or all the land that depends on it, of the farmers to cultivate and steward it–I fear sticking might not even be enough. Too much has changed. Too much has been lost (pgs. 126, 175).

What kind of systemic change? In a word, an abandonment of the cranky individualism which is so central to the myth of the family farm in America. Olmstead documents how as early as 150 years ago perceptive writers and government leaders were already pointing out the economic and environmental necessity of farmers forming “cooperative communities” rather than “privately owned patchworks” (pg. 56); this vision of individual (rather than collective) and libertarian (rather than local) self-sufficiency has long endured, with arguably ruinous results–the real story behind of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books provides one example, and the separation of the extended Howard family from what Grandpa Dad had laboriously built provides another (“Grandpa Dad’s fierce independence was likely part of the reason our family no longer belonged to Emmett, or to the farm. . . . The farm was always his: something others helped with but were never integrated into”–pgs. 182-183). In place of such ferocious denials of the collective, Olmstead, repenting of her youthful attachment to “free-market capitalism and limited government,” applauds federal programs designed to “get a younger, more diverse, and more sustainable population on the land,” to use “public funds and efforts to undergird civil associations: not just investing in individuals, but also the groups and networks that support them,” and to basically just use government policies to push back against the “reductive thinking that breaks down the farm’s purpose to fit solely profit-focused ends,” and to instead “strengthen local economic sovereignty” (pgs. 186-190). The change she’d want to see, in other words, is a populist one. Not the faux-populism of the Trump era, of course, but the kind of populism–that is, the kind of collective, inclusive, democratic action which economically empowers local places–which farmers like Wendell Berry have both striven to build and constantly emphasized for decades.

But would such systemic changes actually bring about a return to the land? That’s a harder question, and one likely not much influenced by changes in politics. For her part, Olmstead sees her own political evolution (“I’m neither Republican nor libertarian these days . . . . but . . . someone who cares deeply about . . . the issues of racial injustice, economic exploitation, and ecological abuse”–pgs. 202-203) as actually creating additional obstacles to her return to the red-state land she loves–though she suspects it will happen eventually, as her parents grow older and become more in need of her care. More important than any political disagreement or policy recommendation, though, is the difficulty of simply accepting the sacrifice that a return to the rural will involve for people who have organized their whole conception of the self, whether they realize it or not, in opposition to the kind of communal beauties which belonging to a small, land-based, productive community may (it’s always a maybe; never a surety) involve. Our acceptance of community transience, consumer disposibility, and capitalist booming will not easily or quickly turn around–though trying to do so is a must. As Olmstead notes in her conclusion:

To choose rootedness, we must acknowledge the fact that, as Simone Weil points out, a desire for profit, unless tempered by other goods and goals, tends to destroy human roots. We have to seek out larger goals than financial fulfillment, than reaching the next rung on the social or economic ladder. We have to consider whether the perfect career or paycheck will offer us the fulfillment or happiness we lack–or whether the cost of transience is, in fact, too high a cost. It is true that providing for ourselves and our families and having solid employment are fundamental considerations. But we must also remember that they are not the only questions or goals worth considering (pg. 217).

I should note that Olmstead’s book, in my judgment anyway, is not at its absolute best when it comes to those “fundamental considerations.” While the impassioned case she makes for Emmett–or at least for the sort of local food and tight communities and productive land which can be found in a place like Emmett–is well-informed and wise, it doesn’t hold together as tightly as it might have if she’d approached questions of cost, as they are born by those who actually live in the region, somewhat more consistently. She has a long profile of the Little family–part of “the state’s agriculture royalty”–whose climb to the top of Idaho’s state government and Republican party began in Emmett, but there is strangely little analysis or critique there (are we really supposed to believe that the Little’s massive leased-out ranches and the Williams’s “twenty-five dense acres of fruit and vegetables” both reflect the same “decision to invest in this community”?–pgs. 160-164). Another time she profiles a self-described “Emmett original,” a young woman who only wanted to escape the town (“there aren’t enough jobs in this valley, she told me, and she thinks the education system is rather poor”), and while her journey out of Idaho includes some intriguing bumps (she turned down the prospect of Oregon State University because “I just didn’t . . . see no one in cowboy boots”–pgs. 116-119), she did up leaving to study journalism elsewhere–very much like Olmstead herself. What’s her story, and what does it tell us readers, or Olmstead herself, about how we, or she, should total up the educational or economic costs of her, or our own, staying versus leaving? Again, by mostly skimping on the structural or ideological aspects of this act of investigation, the point is not clear.

But then, no book should be expected to clearly explain–or critique, for that matter–every consequence and cost of the story they aim to tell, and certainly not a book like Uprooted, whose overriding purpose, as Olmstead insisted, is to discern something about her own story, and the story of a family and a town and a region and a vocation she loves and remembers and is still shaped by, however great the distance. And I wonder if any criticisms I have of the book aren’t rooted (yes, I see what I did there) in how it pushed me to think through and discern better my own distant agrarian connections–ones that, I cannot deny, were never as strong as Olmstead’s, nor ones that I have attended to with anything like her own dedication or insight or generosity. Grace Olmstead’s book may not be the final masterpiece of all possible localist argument, but it is a set of very smart reflections on localism and rural life which are specific enough, and thoughtfully expressed enough, to bring up in my mind the Fox family’s own private agrarian Idaho, and to reflect upon–and also mourn, if just a little–my distance from its own beauty as well. As I wrote above, I wish I’d read this book before my family made our visit to my old home and our drive to southern Idaho last summer. But now that I’ve read it, I can at least remember it a little bit differently, and a little bit better too.

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