In Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind (March 2021) Grace tells the story of her hometown of Emmett, Idaho, where her great-grandfather and great-grandmother lived and farmed, and where her grandparents and parents still live. Through the story of her Grandpa Dad and other stewards of Emmett, she weaves the story of the “nobodies” who are actually somebodies: the people who stick around and stick together, who care for the land and for each other, who together build a beautiful life.
One theme of her book explores how putting down roots is not exclusive with having grit and a pioneer spirit—indeed, being creative, independent, and visionary in the best sense helps us persevere in putting down deep roots and making a rich inheritance for our children. But if we are not also interdependent, if we don’t let those roots connect us to a multiplicity of bonds, when we have individualism without proper limits, we get destruction of the web of creation. We risk rejecting the given life, the inheritance of the permanent things that we are called to steward, in order to consume a mess of pottage.
Grace traces two legacies: one of love and settling and community, and one of pillage, of ignoring the needs of both land and people. She draws from Wallace Stegner, who wrote in his essay collection Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: “Deeply lived-in places are exceptions rather than the rule in the West….For one thing, all western places are new; for another, many of the people who established them came to pillage, or to work for pillagers, rather than to settle for life. When the pillaging was done or the dream exploded, they moved on, to be replaced in the next boom by others just as hopeful and just as footloose.” Grace writes in praise of the stewards, the stickers, who came to settle after the boom had burst.
We can choose which legacy to take up. And it’s only in knowing the stories of the past, of those who also came before us, that we can best learn how to take care of what we’ve been given, and to take part in “the patterns of fidelity.”
Grace and I talked about her book on March 12, via video call and email.
Tessa Carman: First, thank you for this book. It’s such a gift. I know so many people for whom this story will be so important, and as you say in the book, a lot of us simply don’t know these stories in the first place. I know it’s going to bless so many people.
Grace Olmstead: I hope so. Thank you.
Tessa Carman: Your beat in journalism has become small farms and food, small towns and sourdough bread. How is that related to wrestling with your role in carrying on the legacy of Emmett?
Grace Olmstead: I think branching into that area of journalism was partially the result of working in D.C. and realizing how foreign a lot of those rural experiences were to people who’ve not grown up in rural America. I would be at a happy hour and someone would introduce me by saying, “She grew up in Idaho! Her grandfather is a farmer!” I realized it was a novelty — that without even intending to or realizing it, I already had a niche, or beat, that I could share with people. Pressing into it just required time and work after that.
As with anything you begin to dedicate a lot of time and research to, I realized along the way how little I knew about the world of farming, how little I knew about the health of rural towns and rural economies, how little I knew about the intricacies of farming itself. So one really fun thing with this book was finding out, how do you grow teff and combine it and harvest it? What does it mean to farm for seed as opposed to growing something for its fruit? A lot of these questions were incredibly interesting and fun and showed me how ignorant you can be of a place you grew up in, just by nature of not asking all the right questions. It was an enjoyable process.
I think it’s showed me too how much rural America needs advocates in the world of journalism. One thing we’ve observed in recent years is that we have bubbles of journalistic presence in a lot of major cities, but there isn’t the same writerly influence or presence in most heartland or rural areas.
Tessa Carman: It’s interesting when you realize that within debates in, say, New York and D.C., often there isn’t a real understanding of what life is like on the ground in the places under discussion.
I think that’s one striking thing: People just don’t know. They don’t know the stories, or how things and places are connected. You mention talking with a libertarian friend who basically argued that survival of the fittest is just how it is, even if robots and drones have to do a lot of the farm work. But you can’t make that argument unless you’re making assumptions based on an understanding of the land that probably isn’t based in a deep knowledge of the land.
Grace Olmstead: And that sees it as a place of life. When you look at these places as flyover states, when you’re just looking down at a tapestry of fields from a plane, you don’t necessarily see the life that exists there. But when you are living in that place, you know people whose livelihoods depend on those fields. You know the plants, the animals, the habitats, and you are far more aware that oftentimes bad farming practices have resulted in ill health. You know the answer is not abandonment, but it’s going to require a lot of work and presence to restore what’s not been treated well.
There’s this view that eating locally is this very sentimental or romantic idea, but I think if we look at the health of our land, it becomes a very urgent one. We need not always or only eat food grown from a local sphere. But local food sovereignty and a stronger local economy are the natural outworkings of the health of the place, and in many instances when we’ve neglected one, we’ve lost the other.
Conquest vs. Cultivation
Tessa Carman: The problem of knowledge and vision reminds me of something Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in Braiding Sweetgrass: She was teaching biology and realized that none of her students knew of a good picture of a healthy relationship between humans and nature. That seems true in your work too: Oftentimes we don’t know what a good, well-kept farm looks like. Instead, a lot of us have an image from the Dust Bowl, or a big tractor combine in the middle of a lonely field.
That’s one thing that I so appreciate about your book, that you give us that picture in the particular story of a place, where we see the beauty, the ugliness too, but we see that it’s when we reject the duty of stewardship and bonds, and when we ignore limits, that the ugliness comes. Without a vision of health, what can you do other than despair if you don’t know that there’s another way?
Grace Olmstead: One thing that was really important to me—which I hope people will pick up on as they read the book—is that this isn’t just about small farms growing local food. One thing that I really appreciate about Wes Jackson, and the reason I thought it was really important to include his work and the Land Institute in the book, is that we’re never going to only grow fruits and vegetables. Nor should we. Cereals and other commodity crops are an essential part of agriculture. So, how can we be sure that the way we’re growing them isn’t extractive or dangerous, but that those farms are also healthy, and that we have a vision of what their health might look like?
I just read the latest Convivial Society email in which Michael Sacasas talks about this idea that our relationship with the earth and its people has been so often built on control, that we as humans relate to other people, our businesses, and our work, and the earth itself through a desire to control it. And the author that he is reviewing, German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, says that instead we need to cultivate resonance, this mutual giving back and forth, that isn’t about control but is something more. One of the books I read as I was working on my book was by Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest, and she talks about how the American West—America as a whole but the West in particular—has been built on this narrative of conquest and control, trying to eke all the health out of a place and then leaving it behind. Always there’s this mode of, “I must make this thing profit me,” as opposed to any sort of relationship or resonance or shared health. The idea of boomers and stickers gets at that, but it’s interesting to think of that idea of resonance as something that would be very vital to the health of a farm or a farm town.
Tessa Carman: And that idea of extraction, of conquest—it’s at work in our cities as well as our small towns and rural places. It’s interesting that in the stereotypical city-folk view of rural, small-town life and the rural-folk view of big-city life: Each of them can say, “How could you live there? It’s so lonely.” It can be easier to see that something’s wrong with someplace else that we aren’t connected to, but then it’s also harder to see the good that can be cultivated, the beauty that is already there. Someone who has affection for a place can see it better than someone who doesn’t know it, or maybe feels contempt for it.
I loved reading about the Dills and Saint John’s Organic Farm. It was so encouraging to hear how they are living out their Christian faith, and how they understand that the beauty and the health of a place are connected. They also note that in order to prepare to pass on a farm to the younger generation, you have to make it a place that children love, and that means it’s not just a place for family.
Grace Olmstead: Right.
Tessa Carman: It’s part of an interconnected web. I feel that’s one of the biggest drawbacks to thinking about living in a small town where everyone knows you and knows your family. There’s a beauty to that, but sometimes there might be a situation where you need to move away from family, or distance yourself, but then family is not the only thing—it’s central, but it’s not the only part of the web of communal connection.
Grace Olmstead: And farmers need to go on vacation too! I love that that was a priority for the Dills, that they would get time away with their kids. They built that into the rhythm of their farm. And I have no doubt that that’s part of the reason why they still have kids on the farm who enjoy it, because (a) the farm is beautiful, as a result of good stewardship, and so it’s a lovely place to be, but then (b) the farm has always been a place that they can enjoy without being burnt out.
Tessa Carman: I have an aunt and uncle who have a wonderful, thriving homestead, but it’s really hard, because it’s kind of just them. But they have Amish friends who can leave their cows, who can go to Mexico and back, and my aunt and uncle can’t. I guess that highlights one big problem: It’s hard to rebuild the web of membership by yourself. There’s always something you can do to be more rooted, but you can’t rebuild the village without a baby village around you. So even there, there’s that need for creativity—to decide what is our duty where we are—and there’s enjoyment in that. There doesn’t have to be this inevitability, where we just have to throw up our hands. Often it feels like people object to the idea that we need to learn from the past by straw manning it, as if we’re saying we have to imitate the past and therefore can’t be innovative or creative. But we do actually need so much creativity to learn from the past and steward well in the present, and we’re not always trained in that. We’re trained to go by the book, follow the rules, not write outside the lines.
Recovering Communal Bonds
You mention the Land Institute and the Strong Towns movement in the book. What are some other examples of creativity, of thinking outside the box in how to recover roots, that have inspired you?
Grace Olmstead: Thinking about what you were saying about growing a baby village, I continue to really appreciate Dr. Sarah Taber’s thoughts on collaborative farming and farm co-ops, thinking outside the box of the nuclear family. Perhaps in order to build healthy farm operations, we need to start thinking about them as collectives rather than as individual creators doing their thing. I am very curious to see whether that might build back something you might have seen in the medieval village, where people all worked the land together. The land was something owned in common and worked in common. It wasn’t the sort of relationship to the land you see now, where it is entirely about what you, by yourself, are able to achieve.
I think that’s what you see Lance Phillips trying to bring back by saying we need an orchard co-op in Emmett, so that we can get our product to market, so that we can share some of the costs, so that we can attract fruit harvesters and aren’t trying to figure out how to do all of this work by ourselves.
One other example from out here in Virginia that I have always loved: There was a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria that I interviewed once because they were a locavore, farm-to-table restaurant, and the chef at the time told me that one day a man walked into the restaurant with a box of tomatoes, and he said, “I was wondering if you might want to feature my tomatoes in your restaurant. I’ve been growing them in my backyard.” The man was living in Old Town Alexandria, and the chef just looked at him like, Who do you think you are? He shooed the man out the door. But then, just out of curiosity, he tasted one of the tomatoes—and chased the man down the street because they were so wonderful.
It’s such a wonderful picture of someone doing something that they love, doing it well, and then saying, How can this contribute to my community? I’m sure he wasn’t getting super rich selling his tomatoes to his local restaurant, but I’m guessing it was a point of pride and enjoyment to collaborate with the restaurant in making delicious food.
Tessa Carman: That is a great story. It’s also interesting to consider situations where we’re forced to work together: You write about how irrigation is one thing that has forced people to work together in Idaho, and then of course small farms used to be simply necessary, but then when you don’t have to work together, how do you keep up those connections? I remember thinking of this when I visited the town where all four of my grandparents came from and how within a mile radius, all the houses where they grew up were still there, and they all used to have little farms in their yards. My grandmother grew up slaughtering chickens, and she was absolutely the last back-to-the-lander you’d ever see. It wasn’t something you did because you were into chickens; that was just what you did, to help out your small farm.
Grace Olmstead: The barrier to entry used to be a lot lower. It wasn’t an expensive thing to try and do. There weren’t a lot of zoning issues to prevent you from doing it. And the potential payoff, in terms of supporting your family, was sizable. I think we’re seeing some of that change, but in a lot of areas we’ve so differentiated between the commercial and the residential, between where you live and where you work, destroying those household economies, that now putting that infrastructure back in place is a very uphill battle.
Sticking and Stewarding
Tessa Carman: What are some other challenges of being a sticker, a steward, today, and how has it changed from your grandparents’ time?
Grace Olmstead: In many areas of our country—including, but not limited to rural America—a lack of local health and opportunity have made it difficult for people to stay in place, even if they’d like to. My great-grandfather built a happy life and successful farm while remaining in the community where he grew up. But cultural, societal health and economic opportunity in his region largely made that possible.
I think many of my peers, living in that same region, would be hard-pressed to achieve the same thing today. Economic concentration and boom and bust cycles that have wiped out a lot of local businesses and weakened local empowerment and agency. Cultural and societal cues, meanwhile, have urged many of these young people’s contemporaries to leave place behind. Our jobs often encourage rootlessness, not rootedness—and the “American dream,” as it’s most commonly understood, fosters a vision of mobility and abandonment over staying in place. The opportunities and incentive to “stick” have thus waned with time.
As a result, many Americans are displaced in some form or another—and those who do remain in place often feel (understandably, given the lack of health in many of our places) that they are “stuck.”
Tessa Carman: I loved the story of Hajimu Fujii, the Japanese immigrant who came to Emmett to start a new life and worked around unjust laws. It seems like there are so many regulations that make it hard to be a sticker. What are some lessons we can take from Fujii’s example of getting around unjust or unreasonable regulations nowadays?
Grace Olmstead: For Fujii and many other minorities who sought to build a life in Idaho, discrimination and racism constantly worked against their efforts at rootedness. “Alien land laws,” curfews, segregation, employment discrimination, and other forms of injustice were constant through much of the state’s early history. But many Japanese immigrants worked together through local civic associations and organizations—most notably in Fujii’s case, the Japanese Association of Western Idaho (JAWI)—to fight for their rights and to make their voices heard. Hajimu Fujii used savvy and determination to establish himself, his family, and his farm in this landscape, despite institutional efforts to bar him from land ownership. In addition to the details provided in the book, I also learned through my research that Fujii was deeply active in his local church, and founded the Japanese Onion Growers Association. It seems that membership was a vital means for Fujii and others to stick here, and to fight against the injustices and racism they confronted.
Many of us are far more privileged in our places, and don’t confront the same bigotry Fujii did. But for us, too, membership—in local organizations, neighborhoods, church communities, and more—offers an opportunity to change things that are broken, to build up local health, and to fight for justice when and where it isn’t present. I also think Fujii’s clever way of getting around Idaho’s land laws—buying land in his children’s names—has some interesting (but far less serious) parallels on the regulatory front today, as Americans do things like buy a share in a cow so that they can get raw milk in states where it is not legal to purchase.
Tessa Carman: What are some things you wish you’d had had more time to explore in the book?
Grace Olmstead: There are so many things. I wish I’d been able to devote more time to the history of this region, and to its ecological transformation. I found out a lot about orchard farming practices in the early twentieth century, and how they’ve influenced health in our own time. Reading about the use of “smudge pots” and arsenic in the valley’s orchards was both fascinating and terrifying. (An example: apparently the local pharmacist used to mix up and sell mercury, arsenic, and lead sprays to local orchard owners, who would use a team of horses to pull the spray line through the rows of trees. Decades later, the current town pharmacist found mercury and arsenic still sitting in the basement of the town’s 120-year-old pharmacy building. The spray colored apples white with lead, and so orchard owners kept their horses carefully muzzled or reined up so they wouldn’t eat while they were pulling the sprayer and get “leaded.”)
Chapters could be written on irrigation, and I barely touched on its complexities. Water rights, dam creation, and new irrigation systems are fascinating and vital topics if you’re going to think about agriculture in the arid West. In addition to being a farm town, Emmett was also a mill town, one of the original hubs for Boise Cascade back in the day—and so in addition to the history of agricultural information considered in the book, there’s a whole lot of postindustrial transformation and decay that I could have considered (and did consider in an earlier, longer version of the finished book).
On a very literal note: I found out that when he was a kid, my dad buried a time capsule somewhere in the Emmett foothills, and I desperately wanted to go out and try and find it with him. Alas, we were unable to find the time to explore that particular bit of family history together before I finished the book. I would still love to go back and try to find the time capsule with him on an upcoming visit home.
Tessa Carman: What are some stories and people you wish you could have included in the book?
Grace Olmstead: I would have loved to introduce readers to more of Emmett, Idaho’s Basque history, and to write about the Basque sheepherders’ influence on both agricultural and civic health over time. I have some lovely anecdotes and stories I uncovered that I might hold onto and try to share in some other format.
I also have a whole bunch more material on Bob Benson, the ninety-year-old orchard owner in my book who farmed the property where he was born. He was a fascinating and amazing person, similar to my Grandpa Dad in a lot of ways. He often packed his neighbor’s fruit as well as his own, charging half the amount that larger packing sheds charged.
Tessa Carman: How did your parents shape your rhythms of rootedness?
Grace Olmstead: Both my parents were born and raised in Idaho, and have a long legacy of loving and serving place. My mother was a professional ballerina who hung up her pointe shoes to instead raise and homeschool four crazy kids (but now runs a barre, pilates, yoga, and dance studio). My father is a small-town accountant who’s spent his entire life serving a local clientele with his expertise. My parents, like their own parents and grandparents, have a legacy of deep local involvement and civic service. And they are incredibly hospitable people. Growing up, my mom was constantly bringing meals to the elderly, the ill, or new moms, and opening up our home to women who needed a cup of tea and a listening ear. My parents are almost always hosting church groups, weddings, and birthday parties in the backyard — and have often opened up their home to people in need of a place to live. They are my best friends, and have constantly inspired me to live in a similar way.
Tessa Carman: I thought of these lines from the Lithuanian-Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and from the French writer Simone Weil while reading your book. Could you share your thoughts on them in light of your work?
Milosz: “One would like to astound the world, to save the world, but one can do neither. We are summoned to deeds that are of moment only to our village.”
Weil: “Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others. Whoever is rooted himself doesn’t uproot others.”
Grace Olmstead: In a recent edition of my Granola newsletter, I considered the importance of rejecting “immodest” efforts at reform and change. When crises hit, we’re always tempted to try and find an easy (or a grand) fix. But in actual fact, caring for the world most often requires modest efforts at reform and faithfulness in unknown, unseen places. As George Eliot once urged us, the good of this world is most often tied to “unhistoric acts” and “hidden lives.” Grandpa Dad and Grandma Mom made that clear to me. They performed the deeds that, as Milosz writes, “are of moment only to our village.”
Weil’s quote reminds me of all the times and ways I’ve seen rooted people offer safe haven to the rootless and uprooted. Their long presence in place helps cultivate safety and solace for others. But rooted people also help conserve (or renew) life and prosperity in place. When trappers nearly exterminated Idaho’s beaver populations, they upended an entire ecosystem, in many ways uprooting and destroying everything in the wake of that extermination. People like the Dills, who instead have worked for a lifetime putting roots (literal and metaphorical) in the soil, are creating and conserving life—not just for themselves but for all the wildlife, insects, birds, and people surrounding them.
Tessa Carman: You mention Wendell Berry’s book Remembering. Are there other novels that you would recommend to people that give a sense of the complexity of farming and rural life?
Grace Olmstead: I’ve always been partial to Gene Stratton Porter’s novel Laddie: A True Blue Story. Much of its tension surrounds a young man’s decision to stay on, or to leave, his Indiana family farm. And it’s a celebration of rural Indiana’s wildlife and woodlands.
Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, of course, is a well-known and vital work on the subject of U.S. farming. East of Eden considers farming in California, and holds an early description of the so-called phenomenon of “brain drain”: “learning made a boy leave the farm to live in the city — to consider himself better than his father,” Steinbeck writes at one point.
Willa Cather’s novels about the Great Plains — O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, especially — consider agriculture and the work of farm women in particular. They offer interesting regional, historical insights into the way agriculture shaped the Midwest.
And I really loved reading George Eliot’s Adam Bede recently through the lens of agricultural study. The Poyser family offers some fascinating details on the work of dairying, and illustrates the work of farm women who often ran dairies prior to the profession’s industrialization. It also offers keen insights into (and some subtle condemnations of) tenant farming.
Tessa Carman: Are there any books from other countries and times that you’d especially recommend to help us gain much needed perspective on our time?
Grace Olmstead: Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots was indispensable as I thought through this book and its purpose. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Robert Nisbet’s Quest for Community both identified trends in American life that I think are coming to fruition in our own time, and informed much of the analysis I offer in my book.
The Romantic and the Real
Tessa Carman: I loved your account of Idaho’s history, and the two legacies, that of the boomers, who pillage and extract and then leave it, and of the stickers, of stewarding your own place and community—you mention the Basque immigrants, as well as Chinese and Scottish immigrants. I loved Andy Little saying that the Emmett Valley had “the same neighborliness and village closeness he grew up with in Scotland,” and how the town theater owner wanted parents to bring babies to the movie theater!
Grace Olmstead: I had to include that! I knew there would be a few people who would see that and say, “Yes! Babies in the movie theater!”
Tessa Carman: This is a mark of a healthy society.
Grace Olmstead: Babies and knitting—and sourdough. The sheepherders who would have their sourdough crocks with them, that was one of my favorite things I learned as I was researching.
Tessa Carman: I absolutely loved how in your book Peter Dill mentions that it may be romantic to have real community and a healthy land, but it’s also real. That’s something you can come up against, people saying, Well, that sounds too good to be true. I had a friend who was in an MFA program for fiction, and he said Wendell Berry’s novels just didn’t seem real to him. And I wondered, would it seem real if it were more like a Walker Percy novel, or a story where someone’s working in a grey office building? If Berry’s fiction presents a different world, maybe there’s a reason it doesn’t feel real—and what might that say about our world?
Grace Olmstead: That’s something I often struggle with. When I read my own writing, or when I read people’s critiques of it, I think in the voice of the cynic: This is so romantic or sentimental! “Just love your town, and that will make a difference!” I can make fun of myself very easily and begin to feel maybe this is all just too wishy-washy, all too sentimental, all too hopeful and starry-eyed. But then I have to remind myself, I’ve seen it in action, I’ve seen the goodness it creates. It’s not perfect, nothing’s perfect, and I’m not ever going to say that it is. But in terms of building something healthy, something that despite the imperfections is still creating happiness and goodness within a community, it’s absolutely possible. And I think sometimes we have to choose not to let the skeptics rule our narrative. For all the brokenness, if we can advocate for beauty and bring more of it into the lives of people who need it, it’s worth taking some of those skeptical comments along the way.
Recovering Good Work
Tessa Carman: Another challenge you mention in the book, is the contempt and sometimes just dislike for manual trades: farming, but also the trades, vocations, or activities where you’re hands-on, whether you’re caring for a child, caring for someone who’s elderly, working the land, or fixing the plumbing. It’s hard to dignify that work properly when we have such an ingrained sensibility of, instead of dignifying the work, we try to save people from the work. Some of us would be okay if robots did all of our “dirty” work for us, working the farms and wiping kids’ runny noses and fixing the plumbing.
Grace Olmstead: Could one argue that it comes from a cultural gnosticism, in which we have degraded the soil to such an extent that we think touching it is a bad thing? Same with our children. Being covered in their bodily fluids—which happens on a regular basis if you have babies—seeing that as an indignity, as opposed to just being human?
One thing that I found so interesting is that during haymaking seasons back in the day, you would be stirring up so much hay dust, and my great-grandfather loved it when he was coated from head to toe in dust and was absolutely as dirty as could be. That’s when he was at his happiest. And I thought about how I would work in my little tiny garden in Alexandria, Virginia. I loved it when I had dirt under my fingernails and dirt on my knees, and was just immersed in it. But then I would get on the metro to go into work, and I would see all these people in their posh, clean, perfect suits and looking so immaculate, and I would realize I still had smudges of dirt on my knees! And I would feel like such a country bumpkin. It was funny realizing how quickly, depending on the society you’re in, the group of people you’re with, you can feel so comfortable in that soil and in that dirt and just the very biology of life that we’re surrounded by—or you can feel like it’s an indignity, like it’s something to be embarrassed by. That was interesting to observe even in myself, how easy it was all of a sudden to think, Oh, I look less put-together or special than these other people around me. But hearing the story of how much Grandpa Dad loved it actually enabled me to wear my badges of dirt smudges a little more proudly.
Tessa Carman: Speaking of what it means to be human, and the idea of being uprooted, to paraphrase Simone Weil, it’s so easy to uproot others when we ourselves are uprooted. Roots tie us to a place, but we need a spiritual rootedness, too. In moving home, we might encounter family tensions or political differences that will require that deeper rootedness. Even when things get tough, we have our given tasks, our duties. So many things come down to duty, and it sounds so old-fashioned! But it makes the question of what we should do with our lives so much simpler if we ask, Where are you, and who are you connected with, right now? What are your given tasks, right where you are? It’s so clarifying and freeing if you think about it that way.
The Longing for Home
I loved what you said about the two kinds of homesickness, or nostalgia, especially the second one, the ache for home that should spur us to reflection and to asking, What ought I to do now, to bring that love to where I am right now, what do I need to create now, to honor that?
Grace Olmstead: It was such an important realization even in my own life, because I think homesickness and nostalgia can be very sentimental things. They can be criticized for many different reasons, and people are often more than happy to criticize them, to use nostalgia as this kind of bad word for all the things that make us backwards or reactionary humans.
But the more I thought about it, I realized I felt nostalgia because of these people that I missed, who had passed away, like my great-grandfather or my grandmother, my grandma Elaine. I knew I couldn’t do her justice in this book. But she inspires me to live the life that I do. It’s impossible to measure the way she’s impacted not just my life but the lives of my cousins, my siblings. When we lost her, we all agreed it was a fundamental life-changing experience for all of us. My nostalgia for Idaho was wrapped up in memories of her, of who she was and how she lived. When I think about that, that’s not a bad nostalgia, that is the best that nostalgia can be. When my soul aches for those memories, it’s pointing me toward a life well-lived, and hopefully inspiring me to carry out those same rhythms in order to bless people who are still alive.
So there’s a sense of hauntedness I wanted to try and capture in the book, a good hauntedness, in which we can look to the past and see the ways in which it can still animate what and how we live in the present moment.
Tessa Carman: That’s so beautiful.
So, Gracy, are you saying more of us should be caretakers rather than pioneers? Or maybe both?
Grace Olmstead: Caretakers who bring their skills wherever they’re called to be. I talked in my last Granola newsletter about how my mother has urged me, “Wherever you are, be all there.” When I first was living in Alexandria as a newlywed and working in D.C., I was so homesick. I would call her and talk on the phone almost every lunch break, and that was the quote she gave me. But there’s a second part to it: “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” It’s a quote from Jim Elliot. Most Christians know his story. But his story was one of exodus from America, moving to a very hard place, and then dying in the service of work he felt called to do. He was a caretaker who moved, but who was by nature someone who sought to steward and love well. And the fact that he brought almost that radical rootedness with him — Wherever you are, be all there! — can be an example for the rest of us. Hopefully it offers us a form of rootedness that’s supple, that’s flexible, that enables us to live good lives wherever we might be called — even if we’re called not to live necessarily in the place where we were born.
Tessa Carman: That’s so important, to remember that we need particular, rooted people as examples, and not just engage in cosplay. If we’re working with the real instead of living vicariously, then that might be a good place to start. So, be a perennial, not a millennial!
Grace Olmstead: I love it. Let’s get those shirts printed.
Tessa Carman: Thank you so much, Gracy. It’s been a delight.