In Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind, Grace Olmstead tells the story of growing up in the small farming town of Emmett, Idaho, leaving for college, and becoming a journalist. Emmett has fallen on hard times, as Olmstead shows, like many other farming towns across the country. The collapse of the family farm and the state of modern mega-farming has significant implications for the future of our country.
Still, the call of home is strong. But in a time, such as our own, when agricultural livelihoods in places like Emmett are hard to sustain, and when professional and personal lives demand so much mobility, how does one responsibly answer that call? Olmstead wrestles with that and other questions in Uprooted, a fine book that I highly recommend to our readers. I recently asked Olmstead five questions about the book and the implications for families.
Michael Toscano: What is rootedness and why do families need it?
Grace Olmstead: In her book The Need for Roots, Simone Weil suggests that a person has roots "by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future."
Roots, by her definition, should be geographic, social, spiritual, and professional, and they should feed a person’s “moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.”
Her concept of rootedness fits well, I think, with Wendell Berry’s definition of “membership.”. In a few of his essays, including “Health is Membership” and “The Body and the Earth,” Berry suggests that human beings are meant to live in a participatory, mutually giving, cohesive way with the earth (soil, water, plants, and animals), and within their communities. In both these definitions, a rich sense of obligation, reverence, love, tradition, and “conviviality” (in Berry’s words) creates multiple roots connecting individuals to their places and neighbors. Through those roots, we receive health and create health—in our communities and in the larger world.
The family is a vital piece of the larger community puzzle that helps support roots and the flourishing of places. I would argue families need “villages” (strong communities full of multigenerational bonds, associations, and obligations) in order to be healthy and nourished, and families in turn can serve their villages and make them stronger. Rootedness in place helps families thrive: it counters the loneliness, stress, and anxiety that can be such a frightening and painful part of parenting in America today by offering a larger support network to parents and their children. It offers young people and children moral, intellectual, and spiritual connections beyond the nuclear family, thus helping them receive nourishment and hope in place.
Toscano: It has been years since I first read Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America, which opened my eyes as a city boy to a world of crisis that I was connected to socially but nothing about: the industrializing of American farming and the failure of the family farm. Your fine book explores this problem afresh. I picked Berry back up after reading Uprooted, and found this quote, "Farmers who have succeeded in increasing their farm size to a scale that will enable them to achieve almost all of the economics of size in production now find that their capital structure is so large that their sons cannot finance a takeover of the family farm." In the intervening years since his book was published, what if anything has changed?
Olmstead: The Unsettling of America was published in 1977, on the verge of the 1980s farm crisis. I think the trends Berry considers in that work—consolidation in the world of agriculture, the fraying of community, a growing lack of connection to place or to where our food comes from—have, for the most part, continued on apace. There are less farms in the United States, more farmland is going toward development, and economic concentration in the realm of agribusiness continues to shape the industry. Bill Gates is the largest private farmland owner in the United States. Farmers are overwhelmingly old, white, and male. And farm and food workers throughout the nation regularly experience poor pay, egregious working conditions, and exploitation by the farmers and agribusinesses they work for. It’s important to note that the sons (or daughters) of farmers aren’t the only ones who find it difficult to start (or continue) to work in agriculture at this point—many hopeful farmers find it impossible to get started, or to keep a farm going.
What has changed for the better? I think there’s growing interest in farming, in local food sovereignty, and in different forms of farming that are more sustainable (like regenerative agriculture). There are a growing number of farmers and farm advocates interested in forms of farming (such as collaborative farming) that bolster community supports and seek to support more equitable working conditions in agriculture.
Rootedness in place helps families thrive: it counters the loneliness, stress, and anxiety that can be such a frightening and painful part of parenting in America today by offering a larger support network to parents and their children.
Toscano: With the pandemic and the lockdowns, and the flight of residents from blue states to red states, how do you expect that this will affect the fortunes of towns like Emmett?
Olmstead: A July 2020 Pew Research Center study found that approximately one in five Americans either moved because of the pandemic, or knew someone else who had. Families with children moved out of dense cities and into the suburbs. Young people, facing high rent prices and lost jobs, chose to move in with their parents.
For many struggling towns and cities, this wave of newcomers has been an exciting one, bringing with it the promise of greater economic investment and a more youthful population. Both the shift of young people homeward and the growth in remote work could offer rural areas and smaller cities a vital chance at renewal.
All that said, it is uncertain how many of 2020’s moves will be permanent. Young people who moved because of college closings or financial difficulties may change locations again once things return to “normal.” But I think many rural areas will seek to keep their newcomers, if they can; perhaps projects like expanding rural broadband or revitalizing downtowns may help compel them to stay. And if they stay, that could have a sizable impact on the local community and economy.
Toscano: I'm a New Yorker who, after 20 years on Long Island, and almost 20 years in New York City, moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, with my wife and firstborn. We sometimes dream about heading back—even with all the chaos!—to a place that seems made for the uprooted. If we returned, what advice would you give to us about how to stay "rooted" in the big city?
Olmstead: Susannah Black, an editor at Plough Magazine and one of my favorite writers, once gave a speech in which she considered beautifully how to be rooted in the city. In it, she suggested,
It is not urbanism itself that is dehumanizing, it is a corruption of urbanism. Good urbanism exists, and it invites a particular kind of activity that I want to describe as tinkering. People who live well in cities tinker with their cities. Not arbitrarily, but in a craftsmanlike way that takes account of the whole but attends to a part; respects the larger household that is the city and knows that the best way to serve it is to attend to the smaller household that you’ve got going on in an apartment on the Lower East Side. A kind of blend of Philip Bess and Jane Jacobs, is what we’re aiming at. You know what the city is, and you are responsible for this particular corner of it; you act in good faith, whether the corner you are tinkering with is a vacant lot you’re trying to turn into a garden, or a political machine that you’re trying to reform.
I love Susannah’s descriptions of tinkering and acting in good faith. She reminds us that in cities (as elsewhere), loving and serving one’s neighbors faithfully—seeking to steward one’s place, one block, sidewalk, and house at a time—is a beautiful way to be rooted.
Toscano: Readers of IFS are interested in shoring up American marriages and families. Would you tell them how the state of farming is connected to the state of marriage and family in America today?
Olmstead: Farming results in the food we eat. It’s responsible for the stewardship (or depletion) of soil, water, and ecology—the environment we rely upon for health and wellbeing (and which, I would argue, we are responsible to steward well). Farming thus impacts marriage and families on a few different levels: in the food we serve our spouses, family members, and friends, the connection (or disconnection) we feel to local soil, animals, plants, and people—and thus our sense of membership within place—and it’s deeply tied to our role as citizens and stewards. Do we feel a sense of obligation to the health of our places? Do we view our places solely through the lens of a consumer? Our answer(s) to that question impact and shape our understanding of food and farming.