Loving and Leaving the Land

The world seems more fluid now than ever. Thanks to globalism and the Internet, we are somehow more connected to each other, but that human interconnectedness often leads to societal homogenization and loneliness. Americans seem greatly divided as well, though perhaps those quiet rumblings were always part of this country’s character and essence. One thing at least remains a constant in the United States: the variety of people and the beauty of the land. 

That land must be tended to, farmed, and passed on to future generations. Nature is beautiful, but also large in her brutality. “The great fact was the land itself,” writes Willa Cather in her 1913 novel O Pioneers! “which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth became so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.”

Human beings have a desire not merely to tame the land but to reap the hard work of farming, and be part of the growing community. This has always been the case, and perhaps it will remain so. In many ways, we have an inherent desire to connect to the landscape that surrounds us. Even in simple activities, such as walking, we seek connection to the natural world. Without tending to the land, there is no nourishment and sustenance, and if we don’t work within the boundaries of proper stewardship, it is not only the land that suffers, but also human beings. The continuation of our human community depends on memory and action, but what happens to those who end up forgotten? What happens when those who have given everything to the land are neglected and ignored, either because they don’t serve the purpose for a larger cause, or simply because they are in the way of other economic ventures?

Farming communities still exist, composed of hard-working people who have had farms for generations, and who would like to continue the tradition. But many of the communities found in what is known as “Middle America” are greatly suffering. Journalist Grace Olmstead explores the reasons why so many farming towns are abandoned in her book, Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind. Part memoir, part work of investigative journalism, Uprooted focuses on several inhabitants of Emmett, Idaho–a town in which Olmstead grew up. It explores the large exodus of people from rural America, and considers what this means for the farming communities. Emmett serves as an example, but there are many towns like it in America that are surviving as they struggle to thrive.

Past and Present Converge

Olmstead is conflicted. Although she grew up in Emmett, she now lives near Washington, D.C. and works as a journalist and writer. “For several years now,” she writes, “I have felt as if my feet were planted in two different places, two very different sets of soil. I have experienced a deep sense of tension between the person I was and the person I’ve become, and have long wondered when or whether I should choose between these two identities, these two places.” This state of being is not uncommon, especially among people who have had experiences of different regions, countries, languages. Of course, it’s a little easier if one’s identity is split between two parts of the same country. Nevertheless, Olmstead affirms that America can be a strange place, composed of people so far apart in geography and mindset that it feels as if they’re living in separate countries. 

There aren’t many commonalities between Washington, D.C. and Emmett, Idaho. Olmstead reflects on the impact both cultures have had on her, and especially on the way people in her college community and in the D.C. area have looked at her. She doesn’t fault them in any way, but it’s clear that there was an element of ‘otherness’ in Olmstead that those who have not been a part of the farming life could never comprehend. 

Community means something entirely different for the people in Emmett. Everyone is close, and the moral responsibility for the community is not just an idea but an act. The people are not only responsible for the well-being of their immediate families, but also for friends and co-workers. The family name is important, and members of a family in Emmett aren’t just separate individuals, but are closely and inextricably tied to their forbears. “I was known as Rick’s daughter or Wally’s grand-daughter,” writes Olmstead. “My last name held more meaning for most people than my first. My siblings and I often laughed about the way that affected our life on a day-to-day basis, considering the people who were strangers to us, yet regarded us with fondness and responsibility borne out of community ties.” 

For the people of Emmett, Idaho, the family name is a reality unto itself. One’s family is deeply connected to the virtues (and presumably the vices) of ancestral forefathers. Bearing the family name with honor can be a large responsibility. This created some tension for Olmstead. Although the pull to stay in Emmett was strong, the pull to go away into the different ‘lands’ was far stronger. Olmstead writes, “…I often wondered what would it be like to be known only for myself: for people to have no previous knowledge of those ties, and to take only for who I was.” 

In order for tradition to continue, it must be renewed, and naturally somewhat changed. But the core of the tradition and the threads that bind it should ideally remain intact. Circumstances change, yet the community must remain. 

Tilling the Soil

Olmstead deftly switches gears back and forth between personal reflection and investigative journalism. Deep farming communities, such as the one in Emmett, appear to be dying, or at the very least, changing beyond recognition. Tending to the land may have a deeper theological and spiritual meaning. In our alienated and digitized world, we want to go back to those spiritual seeds, but we need to be careful not to romanticize the past. 

The impact of governmental policies made life in Emmett even harder, but this didn’t happen overnight. Olmstead offers a detailed history of agriculture in America, explaining how small community farming went from a unique, family responsibility to suddenly being tied to the government bureaucracy. In particular, World War II appears to have been a breaking point between an older agricultural tradition, and a more modern approach to agriculture. I am not speaking here about the usage of farming equipment, but rather about a shift from community agriculture to a more standardized, and thus more anonymous, way of farming. 

At this point in American agricultural history, “international trade took precedent over the cultivation of local markets and sales. Farming was no longer to be understood primarily as a regional enterprise, meant to feed one’s neighbors, but rather as a global (and heavily political) enterprise, meant to foster trade relations and sales overseas.” Such changes inevitably impacted farmers, and they “worked less with their neighbors and grew increasingly reliant on the federal government and on new technological innovations. They came to see themselves less as part of a local community and more as part of a national and international effort to ‘feed the world.’” 

Food is at the center of our lives. It’s not merely about biological sustenance but also about our experience of sharing a meal, and thus being part of one particular family, as well as a larger, human family.

The speed with which everything was moving in society, and the increasingly global outlook of farmers, changed the very meaning of farming, and the whole enterprise became less of a way of life and more of an impersonal business. With big business and increased government intervention came the inevitable and unfortunate exploitation of the land and its people. Communities like Emmett were, and are, dismissed. Experienced farmers who grow our food are now labeled as “those who chose to stay behind.” But Olmstead disagrees with this. 

Criticizing Vox reporter Sean Illing (who claimed that the farmers were suffering because they have “chosen not to keep up”), Olmstead rejects Illing’s simplistic and dismissive analysis, which “fits perfectly with the transitory language of success in our culture: the fact that mobility is equated with success, and rootedness with failure.” But it’s not only this mindset that’s terribly wrong, or at the very least, ignorant of what farmers must go through. Olmstead writes that “Emmett’s farmers and townspeople have tried to keep up over time: there have always been efforts to follow the latest fad, to embrace the latest boom, or to listen to the advice of the current agricultural experts.” Olmstead admits that some of these efforts were successful but “most of them ended in busts, depletion, and bankruptcy. Emmett has suffered not because it didn’t keep up but because it did.” Idaho, much like most of the “flyover country” is once again forgotten. 

Food for Thought and Thought for Food

Olmstead’s work and mindset are imbued both by the spirit of libertarianism and by communitarianism. These can sometimes greatly conflict. The free market should always be the determining factor in people’s economic success, but how can this be reconciled with the idea of community? As much as this communitarian spirit lives on in Olmstead’s words, she does not expect the government to be the creator of that spirit. Rather, she writes both implicitly and explicitly that farming communities should be able to make their own choices about the best way to preserve their traditions. One major theme that runs through the book is Olmstead’s insistence on the recognition of dignity both in human beings and in work itself. Ideally, it should be in concert with the free market, though not under the boot of corrupt capitalism.

Food is at the center of our lives. It’s not merely about biological sustenance but also about our experience of sharing a meal, and thus being part of one particular family, as well as a larger, human family. “Rootedness and perennial belonging,” writes Olmstead, “often make sense to us on a scientific, ecological level….But there seems to be a widespread belief in our society that these principles do not apply to people: that we are different, that our minds and souls are, in fact, better suited to wandering and restlessness than to faithful belonging, the choice to stick.” Are both restlessness and belonging part of being American? At the core of being American is independence. No matter what the state of the government is, Americans should be able to choose independence and that includes choosing either nomadic restlessness or settled belonging. 

Olmstead’s grappling with these questions is at the center of this book. Although this is a story about her own life, Olmstead presents a generous picture of the people of Emmett, Idaho. The biggest question that arises in the book is not necessarily about the state of American farming, but the state of Olmstead’s interior life, which she shares with her readers. “I often feel like I don’t belong in Idaho or in Virginia: both defined by my roots and remade by my present reality.” At the heart of this is the very meaning of the American Dream, and the inherent contradiction that is quietly rumbling in every American. There is an ever-present desire for a better life, although what constitutes a better life is different for every person. Often times, people are escaping painful reminders of the past, and they’re driven by the need to remake themselves in another image. But as Olmstead writes, “The past is never fully past–not for the soil, and not for us.” For most people, an identity is closely linked to a physical space, and so all Americans must consider whether they are loyal to the place, or to the idea of America, which would perhaps mean that home is where the American heart is. 

Olmstead is not sure if she can properly honor her past, even as she lives in a very different present. She may try to recreate some semblance of it, which she did with the small community of similarly minded people in Virginia. This brings one closer to the order of things, and it gives spiritual nourishment to not only an individual but the entire family. Much like the land, the spiritual landscapes of our souls need tending as well.

Olmstead may be living in an in-between state of being, but in some strange and uniquely American way, this reality is not entirely contradictory. Both paths of being American are affirmed in this: the yearning for stability, and the thirst for exploration. Some choosing is necessary, but is there a way to reconcile these identities and be at peace? The journey continues.