Interview: Gracy Olmstead on Rootlessness, Small Towns, and City People

Her new book, "Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind," calls us to value places that our society is leaving behind.

Gracy Olmstead is on a mission. “Many rural towns,” she writes in her new book, Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind (out now from Sentinel), “are considered interchangeable and expendable, valuable not for their own sake but because their resources . . . Have for many decades been exported to other places by large corporations. These towns’ worth (or lack thereof) is contingent on what other spaces think of them, take from them, or offer them.” Following in the footsteps of Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, Olmstead’s goal is to ensure that such places are not forgotten. Uprooted is part of that effort—and it’s one of the best books I’ve read on the subject in a long time.

Born and raised in southern Idaho, Olmstead now lives with her husband and children in Virginia where she is a journalist. Her work has been in published in The WeekThe New York TimesThe Washington PostNational ReviewThe Wall Street Journal, and Christianity Today, among others. And she was kind of enough to chat recently about what she learned while writing the book—and why the topic matters to city people, too.

As you have studied the epidemic of rootlessness that has swept our country over the last half-century (and the economic and social impacts of that epidemic), have you identified any misconceptions about this issue that particularly bother you? 

It is funny to me how rootedness can almost seem like a novel concept (or at least like a very distasteful one) to many people. In my book, I note that rootedness and perennial belonging often make sense to us on a scientific, ecological level (they are the basis for the entire regenerative grazing movement, and for many of the reforms Wes Jackson has been trying to make at The Land Institute). But there seems to be a widespread belief that these principles do not apply to people: that we are better suited to wandering than to faithful belonging, or “sticking,” in a place.

It’s true that hunter-gatherers are a vital part of human history—but most would still have been situated in a larger region they called “home,” and their movements would still have respected its ecosystem and seasons. Movement through that region would have involved its own form of stewardship. American transience, on the other hand, is generally predicated on “throwaway culture,” and does not see place as something to respect or steward. We’ve made widespread rootlessness itself seem so “normal” to people, we rarely grapple with the potential costs (to land and communities) that result.

In contrast, I think about a conversation I had a few years back with a cousin and her husband who spent some time in Morocco. While there, they stayed with a family who have lived on the same property for 800 years (not just in the same town—on the same property!). The family was known throughout surrounding neighborhoods and served as an established piece of the city's past and present culture and commerce. What's more, their long-standing inhabitance of that place was not seen as the loathsome result of a static economy or constraining culture. Rather, their permanence was a point of pride: they were deeply woven into the tapestry of their place and saw themselves as inextricably part of it.

James Rebanks, in his book The Shepherd’s Life, notes that his people have been sheepherders in the Lake District for thousands of years. In the United States, we just don’t have that sort of place memory. We’re not indigenous to this landscape, for one, and so most of us are “new” here. But even in our newness, we’ve rarely sought to inhabit a region long enough to really know it in that sort of deep, multigenerational way. It makes me think of this Alexis de Tocqueville quote, from his work Democracy in America: “Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.” 

(I would also note that it always frustrates and saddens me when people associate the concept of “rootedness” with rural areas, but don’t think it applies to cities. Cities need stickers, too! We have wonderful examples of urban rootedness in people like Dorothy Day and Jane Jacobs—people who had a passionate love for the stewardship of their places, and care for the people in them.)

Let’s talk about that last idea a bit: You say cities need stickers too but cities have been designed for movement, motion, mobility. So what should that urban rootedness look like? What advice do you have for your reader who values the ideas in your book, but still lives in an apartment or maybe on a small lot in the suburbs?  

To consider what urban rootedness should look like, I must turn to a favorite speech that Susannah Black gave at a 2014 Front Porch Republic conference. 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.”

This acting in good faith, attending to one’s place faithfully with the spirit of a craftsman, seems to me like a wonderful way to live a rooted life in the city.

One of the things I appreciate about Uprooted is the way it avoids becoming a sentimental hagiography for small-town life; it’s realistic about the pros and cons of such places. And, of course, you are honest about the fact that you left your home and have made your life in a new spot thousands of miles from where your family’s roots are. So when you look at the place where you are living now, what do you think it can teach the place where you grew up? (Besides get big or get out!). 

Rural Virginia shares some political similarities with rural Idaho. But in Washington, D.C. (where I worked pre-kids), Alexandria, Virginia (where we lived for the first five years of our marriage), and out here in the countryside, I’ve been impressed by the number of individuals eager to conserve and protect rural land. Agricultural easements aren’t quite as controversial out here as I think they often are in the West (although here, too, more land seems to go toward suburban development than it does toward land preservation… I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I get). There’s an understandable hesitancy on the part of many private property advocates to embrace easements, Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs, or other measures which might limit landowners’ options. But as land becomes more valuable in places like Idaho, protecting and preserving its natural or agricultural state becomes a difficult thing—and may require some safeguards.

A lot of people in Idaho worry about the influx of a more politically progressive population as the state continues to grow. I think Virginia’s proximity to Washington, D.C. has naturally resulted in a greater mixture of red and blue constituents—and I think there’s much we can learn by living alongside people who vote very differently than us. My town here in Virginia leans Democratic, but I’ve absolutely loved this community, appreciate my mayor’s approach to town revitalization, and have been incredibly blessed by the support and neighborliness this community has given our family. I think it can be easy, when living in a less “purple” area, to feel more fear over our political divide. And there are moments—like when Governor Ralph Northam came out in support of a late-term abortion—bill when I feel the divide between our political parties most acutely. But overall, I’d say it’s a good thing to live in a place where the art of compromise and the work of empathy are always necessary.

Many of your readers are people who live in cities but grew up in small towns or rural areas. They know, firsthand, what such places have suffered in our country, and they might even want to help but feel powerless to do anything. They probably can't drop everything and leave their current homes to return to the places they grew up. Maybe, like you, they have planted roots in a new place. Yet they still have affection for the places they came from. What can they do to help preserve those home-places from afar (you know, besides writing a book about them!)?

I think becoming a student of my own homeland’s history, ecology, and current struggles has inspired my desire to support various forms of environmental conservation, as well as to support initiatives like Strong Towns that support reform in the way we cultivate our built environment. Each place is different and needs to be loved and cared for in a particular way. But there are many generalized principles of renewal and reform (many of which I share in the book) that might help the places we grew up in, as well as the places where we currently live.

Fighting for a more dense, mixed-use approach to urban planning—or advocating for Transfer of Development Right (TDR) programs and conservation or agricultural easements, and explaining why they matter to you—might have a sizable impact on the future of the rural community where you grew up. The preservation and stewardship of rural land is a goal that might be achieved through federal, state, and local policy measures and initiatives—but can also be advanced through our actions as consumers. Maybe you can encourage your family members, or old neighbors and friends, to support folks like Williams (of "Waterwheel Gardens") or the Dills (of "Saint John's Organic Farm").

Another, more personal means of preservation: talk to the older people in your life you admire and look up to, and write down (or record) their stories. I owe a huge debt to my dad and grandpa’s cousins, who went through the work of tracking down and preserving old family documents, letters, and pictures, and recorded older relatives telling their stories in their own voices. It brought tears to my eyes, getting to hear my Grandpa Dad talk about Grandma Mom, all these years after both of them had passed away. Doing that work of local history is an immense gift to present and future generations—and it helps us see how and why our places (and their pasts) matter.

Last question: What's the last great book you read? 

I'd recommend two! For Lent, I'm reading Rowan Williams's The Sign and the Sacrifice, and it's incredibly soul-nourishing. I have been loving every word. In fiction, I recently finished Susanna Clarke's Piranesi recently and thought it was a majestic, beautiful piece of writing.  

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David Kern is an editor with FORMA. He and his wife own Goldberry Books in Concord, NC where they live with their four children. He also hosts “The Daily Poem” and “Close Reads,” literary podcasts from Goldberry Studios.