While in college in Virginia, I started working for the admissions department, giving campus tours to prospective students and their families. On one particular tour, as soon as I said that I had grown up in Idaho, I saw the prospective student’s mother lean toward her husband. “So it does exist,” she whispered with a soft smirk.
When she saw that I had overheard, she blushed and explained. The family’s pastor did not believe Idaho was real. He told them the state was “made up by the federal government,” part of a scheme to get more tax dollars.
“After all,” he would say with a laugh, “who’s ever met someone from Idaho?”
Well, they met me — making this the first (and last) time I’ve smashed a conspiracy theory by my very existence. But that rather strange family stirred something inside me: a growing frustration, I think, over how hard it was to justify a place that nobody knew anything about.
This wasn’t the first time I had experienced cluelessness when my home state came up in conversations. Idaho was a place sparsely populated enough, it seemed, to foster both silly stereotypes and complete ignorance. Sometimes, I just leaned into the stereotypes. When one classmate asked me about Idaho potatoes, I jestingly told her that I grew up in a house surrounded by potato fields, with an outhouse in the backyard and no paved roads for miles. She believed me.
I saw other friends from rural states struggle with this: The incredulity we all felt when Iowa, Ohio and Idaho morphed into a featureless blob in the imaginations of our peers. The names are similar, in their defense. But sometimes it felt as if places with farmers and cows and corn were all the same to people who hadn’t lived there. The few folks I talked to who had traveled through Idaho on road trips told me how surprised they were to discover its beauty. I was not sure what they expected — 83,600 square feet of brown fields, perhaps?
Us rural kids adapted pretty quickly. We got used to telling or hearing jokes about our hometowns, embraced the derision and amusement of people who were cool enough to come from places like Chicago or Los Angeles. One of my friends said she was from the “Middle of Nowhere, Indiana” for so long, it took me years to learn the name of her actual hometown.
Later, at happy hours, banquets and lunches in Washington, D.C., I was often introduced as the person from Idaho, the person whose grandfathers were farmers. The novelty of my farming roots made little sense to me at first. Now, however, I know that less than 2% of Americans work on a farm these days. Very few of us still have direct ties to the land and to those who work it. My childhood in rural Idaho gave me a connection to the land and to our food system that many folks in D.C. had not experienced.
In one sense, this ignorance was harmless. In another sense, it was indicative of a political and economic system that judges places not by how well they serve their own inhabitants, or by the culture and people they keep in place, but by their profit and utility.
Some cities may be exceptions — places like New York City, which are so iconic in their own right they’re viewed as intrinsically valuable. But many rural towns are considered interchangeable and expendable, valuable not for their own sake but because their resources — lumber, paper, coal, minerals, gemstones, oil, gas, produce, dairy, meat and grains, to name a few — 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. This extraction of worth, hope and resources is something farmer and essayist Wendell Berry and economist John Ikerd have both referred to as the economic colonization of rural America.
“Irreplaceable precious rural resources, including rural people and cultures, are being exploited — not to benefit rural people but to increase the wealth of corporate investors,” Ikerd writes. He sees industrial agriculture as a primary means of rural America’s colonization: It is extractive and emphasizes profit over long-term health.
On the East Coast, I began to see that extractive mentality clearly for the first time. It often flourishes through ignorance or apathy toward the places that produce our food — an ignorance that can even result in contempt. As Sarah Smarsh writes in her memoir, “Heartland,” “I rarely saw the place I called home described or tended to in political discourse, the news media, or popular culture as anything but a stereotype or something that happened a hundred years ago.”
It’s easy to exploit places we don’t know, places we believe to be unimportant. It’s easy to think the soil can last forever if you know nothing of it. But extraction of value at the expense of the land and its people destroys both the “nowheres” and the “somewheres,” if you give it time.
Roots absorb water and nutrients from the soil.
They anchor and support the plants we see aboveground. But roots also are essential to the well-being of the soil itself — part of an intricate, living system we often ignore, because it’s beneath our feet.
Good soil is teeming with life: It is home to a multitude of living organisms both large and small, such as bacteria, protozoa, worms, mites, insects, millipedes, centipedes, spiders, slugs and snails. In healthy soil, there are more organisms underneath the ground than above it. Most of these life forms live on plant roots and decaying matter: If there is no humus (decaying organic matter) in the soil, then these microorganisms will struggle.
The symbiotic relationship between roots and fungi is called mycorrhizae: “Mycorrhizal fungi live in and extend from root tissue, bringing nutrients and water to the host plant, suppressing weed growth near it, binding the nearby soil into aggregates that hold water, and probably dozens of other activities we don’t understand,” Stephanie Anderson writes in “One Size Fits None.” “Soil is one of the most complex substances on earth, if not the most complex. Humans understand only a tiny fraction of what’s actually going on underground, but we do know that billions of microorganisms work together to make soil a living substance.”
The area surrounding a plant’s roots is known as the rhizosphere, and in this zone, the plant makes compounds that serve as “a veritable cocktail or ‘buffet’ of resources for anything in the rhizosphere,” according to University of Aberdeen researcher Paul Hallett. Roots, exudates and microorganisms hold the soil together: They serve as indispensable building blocks in our earth. Soil aggregates — both macro- and micro-aggregates — form “microbial villages” that share nutrients, store carbon and lend health and vigor to the land we observe aboveground. Every time we tear roots out of the soil, we threaten the networks that provide structure and life to this plot of earth. We don’t just affect the past or present life of the soil — we harm its future as well. Healthy roots need healthy soil in order to flourish, but healthy soil is also dependent on the roots that have existed in it throughout generations past and present.
This is the wondrous, mysterious life of soil that farmers in centuries past did not understand, when they tore out grasses and sagebrush and plowed up the earth. We are only beginning to understand the degree to which our health is tied to that of our soil — to the communities of microbes that bring wholeness and health to our food, and therefore to us. It’s a reality we are increasingly cognizant of and seeking to understand better.
It’s easy to exploit places we don’t know, places we believe to be unimportant. It’s easy to think the soil can last forever if you know nothing of it.
At a meeting of the Idaho Environmental Forum some years ago, state agronomist Marlon Winger declared that the battle for agricultural survival must start “up there on the naked soil”: the soil depleted and abandoned. Instability has long been part and parcel of life in this landscape, and it has resulted in an eroded landscape: a land decimated by rootlessness, left bare of fruit and life. No-till farming and the use of “cover crops” — providing the soil with constant ground cover and root protection by planting diverse, soil-replenishing crops on off years — are efforts aimed at combating this depletion. But many farmers and conservationists worry that no-till farming is not enough: Wes Jackson, co-founder of the Land Institute, has warned that no-till farming still requires herbicide usage and perpetuates the growth of annuals over perennials. Jackson applauds the sustainable agriculture movement and its emphasis on the local production and consumption of fruits and vegetables, but he believes that a truly regenerative system needs to include our cereal production: the wheat and corn from which we get about a quarter of our calories on average.
“Soon people will realize that annuals are poor managers of soil nutrients and water, and that agriculture will need to turn to perennials to better manage those resources,” Jackson told The Sun in a 2010 interview.
Jackson and his companions at the Land Institute are seeking to fix these ills by developing perennial hybrid grains called polycultures, which result from crossing annual grains with their wild perennial relatives. These perennial crops would grow back season after season without farmers ever having to till or plow the soil — thus resulting in deep-rooted, soil-nourishing crops. Jackson calls this a “natural- systems agriculture” and hopes it might replace our current system, which invests only 20 percent of acreage in the growth of perennials. But much depends on the powerful voices of our age and whether people decide to listen this time around: to preserve life in the soil, rather than tearing it up by the roots.
As John Ikerd has noted, as we’ve built up fewer, larger and more specialized farms, and decreased both local markets and locally purchased inputs, “many rural communities seem to have lost their purpose.” Small farm towns are increasingly seen as “middle of nowheres,” practically nonexistent in the eyes of the larger world.
We’ve undervalued the degree to which those small, connected farms mattered: How the bonds of life they cultivated in their lifetime were thick and nourishing, how the virtues they fostered mattered for communal health. Small farmers built a culture in Emmett, Idaho — a shared set of beliefs, values, goals and practices — that emphasized stewardship, neighborliness, voluntarism and responsibility. The farmers that undergirded this community worked hard to build job opportunities for the kids who grew up there, and did their best to keep health in the soil.
These days, however, highly educated Americans cluster in “winner-take-all cities” such as Los Angeles, New York City or Chicago, according to Richard Florida, and “Americans with less education are often either left behind in stagnant economies or pushed out of expensive, dynamic cities,” according to a 2019 Congressional Joint Economic Committee Republicans report.
It is not difficult to see how dangerous this situation could be for our rural communities. Places that used to be healthy have grown frail. Many rural communities are increasingly empty of people and of hope. But for some reason, instead of seeing an outpouring of alarm or concern over these developments, advocates for rural America have met with a growing amount of pushback and disdain. Maria Kefalas told me in a phone interview that she remembers her publisher asking her, as she was co-writing her book “Hollowing Out the Middle,” “So what if rural America dies?” Nobody she knew cared about “flyover country,” the rural stretches of America where little exciting or meaningful activity seemed to happen.
In an interview with Robert Wuthnow, author of “The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America,” Vox reporter Sean Illing suggested that rural America is not a place where people have been left behind, but rather a place where people have “chosen not to keep up.” Any difficulties country folk were experiencing in our time, he seemed to suggest, were their own fault.
Illing’s suggestion that rural people have “chosen not to keep up” fits perfectly with the transitory language of success in our culture: The fact that mobility is equated with success and rootedness with failure. But he’s wrong, too, because 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. Some of these efforts may have had a good impact on the town. But a lot of them ended in busts, depletion and bankruptcy. Emmett has suffered not because it didn’t keep up — but because it did.
Our own efforts at living well in place will be imperfect. But love suggests that we ought to keep trying anyway: To keep sowing seeds of service and generosity in the lands we love.
Farm towns have now experienced countless cycles of conquest and depletion, boom and bust. Timber and riverbed, flora and fauna have experienced patterns of overuse and exhaustion. The constant waves of exodus bleed nourishment from the soil, eroding the ground they leave behind.
Sir Albert Howard, a turn-of-the-century botanist who studied sustainable agriculture in India, suggested that soil regenerates through a life cycle of death, decay and regrowth. To cultivate health, we must be investing as much (or more) fertility in the earth as we take from it. If we instead deplete the ground’s resources, future generations pay the price. I fear that as those of us who grew up in the soil of our small farm towns leave, we remove the material that should have remained, that would have resulted in hope and nourishment for the next generation.
The good news is that, despite the damage caused by boomers, there is hope, thanks to the stickers who have stayed and who give back to the soil, both literally and metaphorically.
Wherever we decide to live, we must learn to stick: Choosing to invest ourselves in place, to love our neighbors, to leave our soil a little healthier than it was when we arrived. Every place will be imperfect. Our own efforts at living well in place will be imperfect. But love suggests that we ought to keep trying anyway: to keep sowing seeds of service and generosity in the lands we love.
To choose rootedness, we must acknowledge the fact that, as Simone Weil points out, a desire for profit, unless tempered by other goods and goals, tends to destroy human roots. We have to seek out larger goals than financial fulfillment, than reaching that next rung on the social or economic ladder. We have to consider whether the perfect career or paycheck will offer us the fulfillment or happiness we lack — or whether the cost of transience is, in fact, too high a cost. It is true that providing for ourselves and our families and having solid employment are fundamental considerations. But we must also remember that they are not the only questions or goals worth considering.
If you are conservative, you may have to reckon with the fact that, as Robert Nisbet argues, capitalism is especially prone to fostering a vision of the autonomous, rootless individual. Capitalism’s “great, impersonal system” sees humans “not as members of society but as individual units of energy and production,” Nisbet argues. And while that means we have built a lot of wealth over the course of our history, it also means we have ignored deeper spiritual and communal needs, breaking down social capital along the way.
On the other hand, if you are progressive, you may have to reckon with the fact that individualism and self-actualization are not enough to foster happiness and well-being. The federal government is not enough, on its own, to meet the needs of its citizens. Humans crave membership, within localities and associations — and rather than building a cultural or political environment that would foster this sort of belonging, we’ve done the opposite. As Christine Emba wrote in 2018 for The Washington Post, liberalism “has scoured anything that could hold stable meaning and connection from our modern landscape — culture has been disintegrated, family bonds devalued, connections to the past cut off, an understanding of the common good all but disappeared.”
By encouraging social mobility and ignoring the importance of rootedness, both left and right have destroyed the very environment their voters depend upon for happiness and well-being. Many cities and towns have felt the aftereffects. Richard Florida, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas have identified two groups besides the “mobile” and “stuck” who have a beneficial impact on their places: The “rooted,” who “have the resources to move, but prefer to stay where they are,” and the “returners,” who build up financial capital elsewhere but then return and invest that capital in their home communities. Both these groups could do (and, indeed, have done) a lot to strengthen their places.
Perhaps we can be the rooted: Those who encourage our employees, co-workers, friends or neighbors to be rooted as well, by seeking to foster health and profit within place (rather than leaving place behind). There are several such stories of community service and investment I have observed within my Idaho community — stories of mom-and-pop businesses that grow but never leave. Even small efforts aimed at reinvigorating place — volunteering, going to town council meetings or cleaning up trash on the sidewalk — can serve to encourage rootedness in those around us. For those of us who have left home behind, perhaps we can offer the hope of a “returner”: One of those community members who will be key, in many areas of America, to rebuilding social fabric and economic opportunity.
Perhaps we hesitate to make such decisions because we fear “settling.” We see going home, or even settling in one place long term, as failure. We fear such rootedness might reveal that we do not have what it takes — even if we are unsure what it is that we are supposed to have, or where it is we aim to go. We are used to a culture that constantly urges us to “make a mark on the world,” to turn ourselves into powerful influencers or world changers of one sort or another. We want to be somebodies and fear becoming nobodies.
Yet as James Rebanks writes in his book “The Shepherd’s Life,” “Landscapes like ours were created by and survive through the efforts of nobodies.” I still go back to the graveyard whenever I can on my visits home, with flowers under my arm. I plant my feet in a graveyard full of names I do not recognize, along with the few I know and love, and consider what their presence here, their silent membership, represents. Sometimes, I wonder: Where will I be buried? Does it matter what soil my body is planted in, after I’m gone?
Perhaps it’s a pointless question. But maybe there’s something to be said for the bodies that remain in place, long after they have lived and loved there, staying faithful to the ground they once cared for. Perhaps these graves will testify to something important, long after I or any other visiting relative is gone. These bodies may rest in unremembered graves — but our lives will still be the better for their faithfulness.
I stand here with the dead because I believe they matter. This land matters. And all the roots that sink down deep into this ground, lending strength and life to this soil, will matter long after any of us are gone. No matter how the world determines worth, we must remember and reverence the nobodies who are truly somebodies.
From “Uprooted” by Grace Olmstead, published by Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2021 by Grace Olmstead.