Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind
Reviewed by Stephen Kamm
In Canto twenty-six of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil and Dante arrive at the eighth chasm and look down on thousands of small flames, appearing as a field of fireflies. They are false counselors, those who used their intellect and wisdom in life to deceive others and, in hell, must always speak through a flame. In one flickering flame, they find Ulysses who, according to Homer’s Odyssey, fought and tricked his way home to Ithaca to reunite with his wife and son. Dante’s Ulysses tells a different story. He briefly mentions his return home, but instead of staying, he leaves on another adventure.
“Neither my fondness for my son nor pity
For my old father nor the love I owed
Penelope, which would have gladdended her,
Was able to defeat in me the longing
I had to gain experience of the world”
Grace Olmstead, author of Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind, recalls a similar longing. Bookish and curious, eager for “a quest worth embarking on,” Olmstead left her hometown of Emmett, a small farming town in the Payette Valley of southwestern Idaho, to attend college on the east coast. Uprooted is, in part, a reckoning with that decision. She wonders if she abandoned a community that needed her. “The place I love is hurting,” she observes and then asks, “What do I owe the people who invested in the land that raised me? What do I owe the places I’m from?”
In an effort to pay back that debt, Olmstead tells (with a light and loving touch) the story of her family, generations of farmers in Emmett. Her memories as a young girl on the farm make for some of the richest, most affecting scenes in the book. But Uprooted is more than a family memoir; it is also an “exercise in discernment.” Olmstead wonders if she, like Ulysses, has been beguiled by longing, uprooted from land, people, place, and history. Is this soil essential for her own flourishing? Through the story of Emmett and her family, she asks readers to consider the same questions. What roots us? What tears us out of good soil?
To address those questions, Olmstead returns readers to a thriving, early-twentieth century Emmett, a robust and growing farming community created by those who worked and tended the land until it produced fruit “known throughout the world for its quality.” At that time, it was part of an ecosystem of fertility, a region “full of life and diversity . . . orchards next to crops, cows and hogs and chickens creating mayhem in plenitude in barnyard and kitchen..” It was a community bound together by need and loyalty, mutually dependent and committed to mutual thriving.
Olmstead’s family wove itself into the fabric of this plenitude and, as a result, gifted her “many simple treasures: lines of recipes and poems, stories and songs they had committed to heart. Those lines formed a pattern and pulse we could all follow.” The “pattern and pulse” of her memories—the traditions and ways of living she traces generations back—are inextricably linked to the land and those who worked it. “Participating in farm tradition was like taking a place in the dance: joining arms with the company behind and before. Family, food, soil and place were all bound together in the rhythm of the season.”
Farm tradition was not simply food production in Olmstead’s telling. It was a way of being, the means by which those who farmed circumscribed their lives, giving shape and form to their days, meaning and value to their lives—a way of being now routinely dismissed as, ironically, unfruitful by those least familiar with it. Olmstead recalls a glib dismissal of her home during an admissions tour she led as a college student. After informing the group that she was from Idaho, she overheard parents whisper, “So it does exist.” Knowing they had been overheard, the parents stammered the entire “joke”: Idaho must have been created by the government “to get more tax dollars,” because, “after all, who’s ever met someone from Idaho?”
Yes, Idaho exists, and Uprooted challenges the assumption that those who remain don’t have what it takes to leave, are not smart enough or driven enough to do more. It’s an assumption held not only by those who dismiss Idaho with a vague wave of the hand, but also by many who, born and raised in Emmett (and love it as home), seek this ephemeral “more,” away from what they assume to be the stultifying life of farming. During one of her visits to a high school classroom in Emmett, Olmstead finds very few students have concrete plans to stay, and those who feel an instinctive inclination toward home and land admit that desire sheepishly, as if they should want to leave.
Olmstead acknowledges that displacement from farm life might be a very real economic necessity for those in a small farming town with limited economic opportunity. Yet she questions the vision behind the assumption that leaving Emmett (or towns like it) is necessary to succeed. What is the “more” that people seek? What counsel shapes dreams and hopes such that places like Emmett are deemed lesser examples of a good life? Against what are we normalizing success?
In Dante’s retelling of Ulysess’s story, the Greek hero rallies his men with this stirring speech:
“[Those who stay] ask to do the easy thing, and rest
But in the brief time that remains, my friends,
Would you deny yourself experience
Of that unpeopled world we’ll find if we
Follow the sun out into the immense
Unknown? Remember now your pedigree.
You were not born to live as brutes. Virtue
And knowledge are your guiding lights.”
They are compelling and beautiful words, lofty and ethereal. Enchanting his crew with visions of grandeur and adventure, Ulysses suggests that human flourishing is found in the acquisition of experience, that the alternative is merely brutish, and the crew follows him to their death.
Uprooted, by contrast, opens and closes in an Emmet graveyard—from dust to dust. Olmstead grounds her vision of human flourishing in the old wisdom of the psalms: “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field, the wind blows over it and it is gone.” If her wisdom feels gritty — all dust and soil — the strength of its counsel lies in the fact that her observations are not merely abstract and ruminative. Rather, they grow from the particularity of land and earth, of how life works at its most elemental. What she offers is humble, circumspect, grounded in the reality of transience.
Perhaps this is why there is an ache at the heart of Uprooted. It is the self-acknowledged ache of Olmstead’s displacement from Emmett, and her effort to discern whether to return. It is also the ache of a rumination for which there is no tidy conclusion. Is it possible to swim against currents that seek to commodify all experience? What is essential soil for human flourishing? What endures? Olmstead offers, quoting Simone Weil, that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” It is not an answer, merely a suggestion in the form of an observation — there is something true and enduring in a life “poured out and then offered back,” with long commitment to land, people and place, rooted in a home given, or a home created.