Book ReviewsCulture

Book Review: “Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind”

I did not grow up on a farm. I was born a son of the Texas suburbs, eventually made my way eastward (with a brief detour to the Northeast) and now work in the very center of Washington, D.C. I am blessed with interesting work, a loving wife, a beautiful home, and all in all live an extraordinarily privileged life.

But that wasn’t always the case. Historically speaking, we are relative newcomers to the American scene: on my mother’s side, I am descended from German Lutheran immigrants who came to America in the mid-1800s, in search of religious freedom. And my father’s Welsh ancestors, we believe, came through at Ellis Island at the turn of the century. Their lot, and that of their immediate descendants, was not an easy one. When I was a child, my grandfather would recount stories of growing up on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression, shooting squirrels and other small animals for food. (He wielded a .22 rifle against thieving varmints in his garden all the way into his eighties.) My grandmother, for her part, told tales of feeding itinerant vagabonds when they barely had enough for themselves. At the time, I remember thinking that while these stories were perfectly consistent with my grandparents’ character, they told of circumstances that were radically alien to anything I’d ever known.

All in all, there’s something very thematically American about this family history, the slow movement of generational transition from Midwest farms to major cities and all the way to the capital itself—and, more importantly, about the story of my parents and grandparents sacrificing so that their children could have an even better life than they did. For me, there is a long chain of obligations and duties that stretches backward into the past, but also forward to my unborn son.

And yet Grace Olmstead’s new book Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind is an invitation to conceive of those duties in a different way, to contemplate what we lose when we embrace this “transition story” as the universal American dream.

Uprooted tells the tale of Olmstead’s hometown of Emmett—a tiny community in Western Idaho known for its annual cherry festival. Through deep on-the-ground reporting, Olmstead captures not only her own family’s stories, but also the untold accounts of both the town itself and other Emmett folk—cattle cultivators Peter and Susan Dill, orchard owner Lance Phillips, small-scale farmer Matt Williams, and many others. Despite this heavy emphasis on history, Uprooted never once becomes dull or dry. Indeed, a real love for her subject matter suffuses every page of Olmstead’s book, never more notably than in her treatment of the astonishing natural beauty of rural America. In lush prose reminiscent of Scott Russell Sanders or Robin Wall Kimmerer, Olmstead writes of crisp Golden Delicious apples, Brown Swiss cattle meandering through a field, sprawling vegetable and flower gardens, and countless other facets of Idaho farm life.

But Emmett, like so many other American farming communities, has suffered in recent years. Emmett’s sons and daughters prefer big-city work to farm jobs with long hours and steadily deteriorating returns. Suburbanization threatens to replace local institutions with a strip-mall monoculture. Massive agricultural companies gobble up more and more small farms, exchanging sustainable subsistence farming for industrial-scale production practices that devastate local ecosystems and drive down the prices paid to farmers. To make matters even worse, Olmstead argues, this whole onslaught against family farms is driven by a complex web of incentives—including enormous subsidies for the agribusiness giants—that stacks the deck against small producers.

What do we lose when we live like this? Olmstead wonders. Is it even possible to find an enduring place called “home” anymore? Indeed, woven throughout Uprooted’s reflections is a sense of painful longing for rootedness, one evocative of Michael Brendan Dougherty’s recent My Father Left Me Ireland.

A key part of any Emmett restoration, Olmstead realizes, must involve convincing those who leave to stay in place—stopping, that is, the rural “brain drain.” Uprooted is, in many ways, a plea to the children of farm communities to apprehend the wonder of the world they tossed aside when they left town, and to eventually return to their agricultural birthright.

As it happens, I think Olmstead could press her argument here even further, toward an outright critique of the “sophisticated” world for which they leave their homes in the first place. The days when a college education was a ticket to middle-class prosperity are long gone, and evidence of the misery and alienation of the modern meritocracy’s winners continues to accumulate. I find it impossible to believe that grinding through hours of test-prep to score a 1400 on the SAT could ever compare with the joy of helping birth a foal or harvesting the first bushel of apples. And I’ll be the first to admit that I got far more satisfaction out of carving my own Pinewood Derby car than I did out of defending my first legal deposition. To play the game of privilege is, all too often, to undertake a never-ending struggle not to drop out of the professional-managerial class. And that is an unrewarding prospect indeed.

In case it isn’t already clear, I certainly feel the powerful pull of Olmstead’s arguments. I am compelled by her portrait of fully integrated communities in tune with the rhythms of summer and winter and birth and death, shot through with the eternal beauty that reveals itself in trees and sunsets and crops and living creatures. But something still keeps me from buying into the vision completely.

The fundamental question latent within Olmstead’s project has nothing to do with traditional “right” or “left” politics (as she takes pains to point out), but rather with the tension between preindustrial and postindustrial ways of being. If old-school Marxism tended to uniformly celebrate the former, the temptation of localism is to go the opposite direction and glorify the latter. And there are consequences that come with this.

Olmstead is a sharp critic of many “nontraditional” agricultural practices. But crucially, it is those practices—and the resulting explosion in agricultural production efficiency—that have averted the possibility of Malthusian doomsday scenarios, of outbreaks of mass starvation following from large-scale population growth. Olmstead even alludes to this at one point, noting that “[m]any folks say that local food is not enough: not enough to sustain our economy, not enough to feed the world. They might be right.” The question is haunting indeed: thanks to globalization and advancements in agricultural technology, I can have confidence that my child will be well nourished and likely survive to adulthood, and that a local famine will not leave my family empty-bellied in the depths of winter. And this progress, of course, is of particular importance for those far less fortunate than me. At long last in human history, it is possible in theory that no one need starve to death; the critical problem now is not the number of calories produced, but rather the distribution of food to where it needs to go.

Unlike some on the right, though, I am no libertarian apologist for modernity as such. If there are ways of preserving the practices and ways of life Olmstead describes so beautifully, I support them as a matter of the public good. And I know, painfully well, that thinking like mine renders me complicit in the breakdown of the traditional things that I love too. I know there are staggering costs, both seen and unseen, associated with the world we have built. But if finite life is always a question of tradeoffs, as the “dismal science” of economics teaches, there is no way of avoiding uncomfortable dilemmas. Would I turn back the clock, if I could? Would I go back to the “old ways” in all their beauty and their inevitable tragedies? I don’t know, though I suspect I would not.

Perhaps that is a failing on my own part. Perhaps it makes me someone who would disenchant the world in the name of my own family’s welfare, someone who is altogether too willing to be modern—to “give up meaning in exchange for power,” as Yuval Noah Harari once put it. Or perhaps, in the end, it simply leads me to contemplate whether some rapprochement is possible between the preindustrial and postindustrial ways of life.

I think Uprooted does in fact point in that direction. The virtues of the agrarian spirit, as Olmstead describes them, flow from a deep awareness of the reality of limits and cycles and timeless values. Such awareness, it seems to me, might open up the possibility of a different way of being in the urban world as well. It may mean knowing when to walk away from a job in the service of a higher end, such as more time with family or greater professional contribution to the church or the common good. It may mean learning how to repair the broken things in life rather than merely discarding and replacing them. It may mean taking the time to cultivate a taste for food as it was meant to be eaten, rather than as processed by multinational goliaths. It may mean working to stop mediating one’s life through omnipresent digital screens.

How might policymakers preserve the sites where those virtues first emerge? At one point, Olmstead proposes “using some of the funds traditionally given to the nation’s largest farms in order to rectify some of the hollowing out we are seeing in our farm towns,” and that certainly seems like a prudent idea to me. Olmstead makes a compelling case that it ought to be possible for those drawn to the land to make a viable living without facing crushing pressures to sell their farms—particularly given the massive market distortions that favor agribusiness giants.

To be sure, I don’t know whether any top-down policy can effect the transformative reconstruction of civil associations and rejuvenation of traditional culture that Olmstead contemplates at one point. What I do know is that any movement in this direction must begin with the individual choices of those who feel the call of the past, those who are willing to acknowledge their indebtedness to generations past and present. It must begin, in short, with choosing to care.

And that impulse, in the end, is precisely what Uprooted sparks. At its heart, Olmstead’s volume is a searing exhortation to remember the goodness in our ancestors’ ways of life, and to refuse to abandon rural America to a decline it did not choose. In an ever-more-rootless cultural moment, this book could not possibly be more timely or important.

(I received an advance copy of this book from the author, whom I attended college with. I was not required to write a positive review.)

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

Previous post

“I Have to Make a Faith Act”: The Story Behind the Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Next post

A Place of Hope and Healing (Part 2)