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    PloughCast 11: Putting Down Roots in Idaho and Australia

    Creatures, Part 5

    By Gracy Olmstead, Norann Voll, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    June 29, 2021

    About this Episode

    Pete and Susannah speak with Gracy Olmstead about her new book Uprooted. In this age of unrootedness, what does it mean to have a home – to be from somewhere? Gracy’s book talks about her own story: her family’s farm in Idaho, and what it means to have that be an important part of her life, even though she’s moved away. Can she go back to the land her ancestors farmed?

    Gracy’s work has been fundamentally shaped by her friendship with Wendell Berry, and by Berry’s own work. Is his agrarianism mere romanticism? Can there be a kind of love of the local that is not agrarian?

    Then, the hosts speak with Norann Voll about her move from Upstate New York to rural Australia. How can we learn to love a new place? What does it look like to put down roots when you’re ambivalent about where you are?

    Norann also discusses the process by which the Danthonia Bruderhof has learned how to manage their land: to regenerate the soil and to create a fertile homeplace in the midst of the badlands.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Gracy Olmstead: Uprooted

    Susannah: Welcome back to The PloughCast. We’ll be speaking today with Plough contributor Gracy Olmstead about her new book Uprooted.

    Peter: And then we’ll be talking to another Plough writer, Norann Voll, down in the outback of Australia about how she and her family transplanted there from New York twenty years ago. And this is part of the series of podcasts we’re doing on our nature issue, titled “Creatures.” I’m Peter Mommsen, editor of the Plough Quarterly.

    Susannah: And I’m Susannah Black, Plough senior editor.

    Peter: Now, if you haven’t already, you should really catch up on the first four episodes we did. And in this episode, we’re going to be talking about place, belonging and how to make a home wherever you are. So, Susannah, let’s get to it.

    Susannah: Well, we’re very pleased to welcome Gracy Olmstead, longtime Plough friend, writer and journalist whose work has been very inspirational to me for, man, probably close to a decade now. Maybe a little bit less than that. Ever since you were working at TAC, I think. We’re really pleased to have you on, and we are having you on to discuss your new book, Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind, an excerpt of which appears in our current issue. So, Gracy, do you want to talk a little bit about the idea for the book, how you came to write it, and where this all came from?

    Gracy Olmstead: Absolutely. I wanted to write a book about the farm community that I grew up in, in Idaho, and how the longer I was away from it, having moved to the eastern United States for college, and then for work, I continued to feel this yearning and homesickness for the land I had left. And I realized over time, as those feelings of homesickness grew and developed, that much of it, many of those feelings were related to the people who had died in that land who had helped raise me and who were so much a part of the fabric of my everyday life as a child. And in their lives, in their legacy of interdependence and givenness I saw this pattern that I wanted to follow. And I also realized that by picking myself up out of that fabric of interdependence that I had been a part of, I had isolated myself from a lot of that goodness. And so, this book was an effort to get back into those rhythms, to understand them more fully, and to consider how as we lose those rhythms, many communities throughout the United States suffer as a result.

    Susannah: You talk quite a bit in the book about the idea of boomers versus stickers, and that Wallace Stegner distinction. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

    Gracy Olmstead: Yes, Wallace Stegner once said that the United States has been torn up and rebuilt repeatedly by these two groups he called boomers and stickers. Boomers are those who move into a place and pillage and exploit and extract for their own gain. And then whenever the goodness in that place, the natural resources, the health, the wealth dry up, then they move elsewhere. Whereas stickers move into a place and invest in it. They love it for the long haul. They don’t leave when times get tough. They’re dedicated to the wellbeing of that piece of land, to that people, to that community.

    I think that, of course, there’s a lot of nuance that could be added. There’s a lot of people who stay in place because they’re stuck, not because they are really able to or willing to invest in it. There’s lots of people who maybe have to be transient for work, but try to live like stickers wherever they are. But I think the two categories were really interesting for me because I saw that in the West, as in many parts of the United States, there’s been a lot of extractive boom and bust cycles. And you can really see this pattern of people moving in, depleting the natural resources, and then moving on. And then there’s this undercurrent of people who try to live as stickers and try to actually grow the health of a place and who stay there for the long haul.

    Peter: Could you talk, Gracy, a bit about some of those counter-examples? So the people who stuck and the people who left. In one of our other episodes, we talked with a farmer, an Amish farmer, John Kempf, who spoke about the importance of leaving the soil better than you found it to the next generation. What does it actually look like? And [can you share] some of the stories you tell of the people who did it?

    Gracy Olmstead: I think there’s a lot of people who may not actually be from a place, may not have been born there, but they move into that place with an intentionality that Stegner, I believe, would have defined as the sticker mentality. Their desire is to, as you said, leave the place better than they found it, to be investing as much life and givenness and service to that community and to that piece of soil as they can. I think though, as a lot of rural communities have emptied out, we see a lot of people who don’t have the social or financial capital to leave that place behind and look for a job or a sense of well being elsewhere. And so, they might be living in place, but they’re stuck. A lot of the resources they might have been able to draw on in order to feel like they were truly members of that place have already been lost. And so, their ability to really flourish in that community is definitely an uphill battle.

    I think that we see that happening in a lot of communities throughout the United States, which I then think influences our tendency to say, “If you’re going to actually make something of yourself or be able to achieve what you want to achieve, you have to leave, you can’t do it in this community.” So I really wanted with this book to counter that idea, and to say, “No, we should be able to grow and flourish in the places where we grow up,” that’s important. And also to identify some of the reasons why the people who live in a place might feel like they’re stuck, rather than like stickers.

    Peter: And so, to give people a story of the honor of the sticker way of life. I think of my own high school up here in upstate New York, and how for many the idea of your kids going to the same high school that you went to could almost seem like a mark of not having really made it, right? That if you’d really done well, you’d be bringing up your kids probably in a big city somewhere. And it wasn’t very honorable to come back, and you’re late twenties, early thirties. And, “Oh, he’s around again,” people would say.

    Gracy Olmstead: Yeah, it’s almost like moving home is seen as settling in a bad way. Settling being used there as a term for someone who didn’t achieve what they could have. And usually we talk about success as a transitory thing, as a progression: “You’ll go far.” Success isn’t seen as something that can be embedded within your home soil. And yet, I don’t think it always used to be that way. And that’s why my great grandfather was so important for me to talk about in my book because he was born and he lived in and he died in the same probably ten to twenty mile radius. He traveled; he was able to see a lot of places and to enjoy his larger community. But he really loved that place. And he lived there and it was seen as an honorable thing that he loved that land that he cared for it for over ninety years.

    I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks and then he talks about Nan Shepherd and her love for her small community. And he says that in this localism or parochialism, this love of place, one place, is not an instance of knowledge curbed but knowledge cubed. And I love that and it’s just stuck in my brain ever since. This is really what I’m trying to get at in this book: that you can love a place for your whole life. Keep learning and growing and maturing, and doing good things in that place. And it’s not making you less of a person or an intellectual. It’s an instance of knowledge cubed, not knowledge curbed.

    Susannah: Can you tell a little bit more of the story of Grandpa Dad and Grandma Mom? … love that that’s what you called your great grandparents. How did they come to be there? What was their life? What have you found out? What are your memories?

    Gracy Olmstead: Well, I never got to meet my Grandma Mom, and I’ve often thought that if I had, probably at least 50 percent of this book would have been about her because so much of who she was, was transmitted to me through stories. And I know from what I’ve heard that she was an incredible woman. But my great grandfather was born in 1911. He was born in Emmett, Idaho. He grew up on a farm. And he was living at a time in the United States when there was a lot of economic desperation and struggle and his family was not immune to that. And so, from the age of seven or eight, he was working all sorts of hours on the farm. He was digging ditches. He was in charge of a four horse team actually at age eight. And his life was dedicated to the farm.

    As he grew older, he thought about going off to college and spent some time at the local Northwest Nazarene college that would have probably been about thirty miles away from his family’s farm, but he always wanted to be a farmer. And so, he actually came back to the land without finishing his degree and started a farm just down the road from his grandfather and father and stayed there until his dying day. His wife was the daughter of immigrants. She grew up in the Heartland. And as the 1930s rolled in, and there was a lot of drought and struggle, my Grandma Mom, who was the youngest of her siblings convinced her parents that they should move to Idaho with her. And so, she’s an example I offer in my book of someone I call a transplant. Someone who leaves their home behind, but with the purpose of truly stewarding and loving another place well.

    And so, they moved to Idaho and stayed there ever after. She was incredibly involved in the local hospital, the church. She was always making food for families in need. She was constantly involved in the local nursing homes and other ministries. And she was a beautiful singer, she had a lovely singing voice. And so, one of my favorite stories my great grandfather used to tell about her was that she would always get called to sing for local funerals and weddings. But sometimes the phone calls would come in at the very last minute. Someone dropped out or there was a sudden need. And so, the local pastor would call her as she was baking bread in the kitchen covered in flour. So she would just dash to the car, drive to the church and sing behind a screen so that no one could see her disheveled appearance, but she would always still show up and serve her local community in that way.

    I also heard – and there’s so many details you can include in a book – she made a very concerted effort to invest in troubled young people in her community. And there’s more than one story of someone who was perhaps going down a path they shouldn’t have been who through her motherly care and love started to change their habits and begin to go down a different path. So, anyways, it’s really fun to get to see all of the different ways they loved people. And as I worked on this book, I would call random people like a church secretary or a local farmer down the road, and get an earful of stories about Grandpa Dad and Grandma Mom.

    photo of train tracks going into the distance beside an old barn

    Bob Bales, Emmett Valley farmstead, 2017 Photograph by Bob Bales. Used by permission.

    More Olmstead: Learning from Wendell Berry

    Susannah: Wendell Berry has been a huge influence on you, and to a lesser degree on me. Can you talk a little bit about how Mr. Berry’s work has shaped your own approach to this stuff?

    Gracy Olmstead: I don’t think I would have written the book without him. I read his novella, Remembering, in college. And it was the story of a young writer who left home, became a journalist, was working, I think, on the West Coast, and then began writing about farming, and the stories of farming drew him home. And that’s the beginning story of Andy Catlett whose life, character, and story are drawing on I think a lot of Wendell Berry’s own life. And I saw the parallels with my own as someone who left Idaho for college on the East Coast, began to work as a journalist, began writing about farming as a journalist, and then saw how all the stories were drawing my own heart home.

    But when Wendell Berry writes about agriculture or about place, he writes from his own context, and from his own perspective, and he writes in a very particularized way. He’s writing about a specific region that he knows and loves well. And so, all of his perspectives on these issues of agriculture, place, stewardship, membership, are drawn from a very particular gaze that he’s bringing to bear on this place that he’s loved. And his attention is always drawn toward that place in Kentucky.

    And as I had received a fellowship to work on a piece on family farming in America, I felt the ways in which my broad lens were impeding my ability to look clearly and well. And I wanted to draw my gaze back toward my own home community, and to perhaps be able to offer readers a more particularized vision of how these problems of the loss of young people in place, rural brain drain, concentration in the realm of agriculture, the loss of Tocquevillian institutions, and more, were impacting one place and one group of people. And thus to add flesh to some of the abstract ideas that we oftentimes use to talk about these issues.

    And so, there’s a lot that’s left out in the book, of course, because it’s about one tiny town, and one tiny group of people. But in using that lens to look at these questions and problems, I was hoping to follow very poorly in Wendell Berry’s footsteps, and to perhaps follow that directive that he gave me as I started my project, which was, “If you’re going to write about farming, do it from your own family’s perspective, and from your perspective as a member of that family.”

    Susannah: That’s right. The book was originally going to be like a series of different studies, of different places; you were going to go around to different farmers and talk to them. Do you feel like … I guess, what do you feel like you’ve learned that is more generalized even as you learned it through doing the work on this one particular spot? What kinds of things are happening in America? What are the patterns that you’re seeing?

    Gracy Olmstead: I definitely see a pattern of division, of rural versus urban language that can make people feel cut off from each other, that can make it difficult to communicate values and things shared in common. And this is just something that I saw as the presidential elections happened, as I talked to farmers about different issues over time, there was just this growing sense that there were strong divisions between people in different geographic areas of the country. I think some of the language around that can be stereotypical. So, for instance, America’s rural areas can be extremely racially diverse. And that gets lost when we talk about the rural versus urban divide. There’s also areas in urban centers that experience a lot of poverty and rural poverty, sometimes, in recent decades especially, has gotten talked about more, highlighted more.

    And so, I think sometimes when we talk about rural versus urban, we play into stereotypes, and we can hurt the conversation. But I do think that you can see ways in which politically speaking, when we look at the partisan language of our times, it has become very geographically entrenched. And I think I see too, as I’ve talked to people, that there are many, many people who just want a place to live and love their whole lives. It’s interesting how many people no matter where they grew up want to be members of a place, want to have community, want to feel as if they belong somewhere. I think that’s a universal human desire. And in so far as we’ve encouraged this idea of the extremely mobile, cosmopolitan person who does not need routes.

    I think there’s a lot of people who in their own personal lives would speak to their desire to live well in a place. Whether that’s New York City, or small-town Idaho, or anywhere in between. Just to love a place well is I think a very universal human desire oftentimes that gets lost in our larger conversations. And so, it’s been really fun to have those conversations as people pick up the book and talk about it from their own perspectives.

    I think too, just the ways in which concentration has hurt small towns, and just continues to make people feel very much divorced from the food that they eat, the money they are or are not able to make, the people they’re doing business with. It’s interesting how there’s this sense of a lot of complicated intertwining ties that used to exist in this place that made it so that when you walked down the street, you were burdened with a sense of accountability and love, and indebtedness. As that passes away, people feel more and more isolated. And I think that can both lend itself to a growing sense of loneliness, and to a growing sense of “I am not accountable to anyone,” which I think can be rather dangerous when you’re looking at the ways in which resources are used in a lot of these places.

    Susannah: As you know, I’ve often – and a couple of times in front of Wendell Berry, which is very scary – At a couple of different Front Porch Republic conferences that we’ve both been at and spoken at, made the case that it’s legitimate to be a localist in the city. But in this book, you focus very much on the agricultural aspect, on the idea of a connection to the land. Can you talk about your early memories of that land, in particular of that farm? Just give us a sense of what it’s like, introduce us to it.

    Gracy Olmstead: Well, I have to say first that I absolutely agree with you, and have actually quoted one of your speeches that you gave at a Front Porch Republic conference in conversations with people about this. You talked about the member of a city as a tinkerer. Someone who loves a place well in the ways that they do the business of a city. And I’ve talked about you and Jane Jacobs as people who have shown me how important it is that we have localists, and Wendell Berry lovers, in all of our cities, and I’ve loved living in cities, too. But to get to your question, it’s funny because – and I do mention this in the book – I was a very nerdy bookworm. I was not someone who felt … I don’t feel like I always paid very good attention to my context until I left it behind.

    I always wanted to be elsewhere, and thought that the beauty of the English countryside, for instance, was far superior to Idaho sagebrush, and dry hills and mountains. And so, part of writing this book was really growing truly my love for the place that I left behind and seeing more of its geographic grandeur in a way that I don’t think I really did when I was a young person. I remember visiting Craters of the Moon with my parents, which is the most fantastic and fantastical lava flow in southern Idaho, and just thinking it was the ugliest thing in the world. And now I want with all my heart to go back and to see it again with fresh eyes because I have a new imagination, I think, that’s enchanted things that I didn’t appreciate as a child.

    However, I think some things that just stood out to me were the cleanliness and beauty of my great grandfather’s farm. He was meticulous in caring for it, and all the outbuildings, and even his ditches. As I note in the book, his irrigation ditches were very carefully kept in a way that was oriented toward beauty and order. I always loved as a kid when they harvested mint in the summer, my house was surrounded by farm fields, even though we were technically in [the city of] Fruitland, Idaho. Agriculture’s just all around you. And so, you could smell mint when they harvested it in late summer, and it was just on the air, it would waft past you as you were standing outside the house.

    And so, that was one of my sense memories associated with summer that I lost when I moved to Virginia. And once again, I didn’t really realize how much I loved it until it was gone. I remember, too, there were many times in which the food that we ate at our table came from the farm. Whether that was the beef that we had in our freezer and refrigerator or the corn that we would help my great grandpa shuck. I remember one time going out with my dad and actually helping harvest it at the farm. But for the most part, my great grandpa would harvest it all and then bring it to my grandparents’ house. And we would just have a whole day of shucking the corn, carrying it into the house, boiling it with lots of sugar and salt, and then freezing it. And then that was what we would eat through the winter and the next spring.

    Susannah: You also talk a lot about your grandparents, the sense of giving to the local community, just the sense of outpouring from the farm into people who were their neighbors. And you tell a story about the time that your grandpa dad had a run in with the DEA. Can you tell us that story?

    Gracy Olmstead: Yes. I actually did not hear this story until I was working on the book and probably halfway through with it, which is such a good reminder that sometimes there’s these little treasures that people forget, or they may not even think of as that big of a deal, and then you hear it and you realize, no, this is a treasure. So, just a reminder to all those people out there who might think they’ve heard all the family stories, keep asking, keep digging, who knows what you might find? But there was one day when my great grandfather walked up to his door and there were DEA agents outside, Drug Enforcement Agency. They had aerial footage of one of his fields and they suspected he might be growing marijuana.

    For context, he was probably at least in his seventies by that point, probably closer to his eighties, and was this upstanding, very quiet member of the community. And he was absolutely horrified, I’m sure. But what he explained to them was that in actuality, he had planted sweet corn in the middle of his field and then planted what’s called feed corn, field corn in the space around it. And the reason he did this is because in a rural country area, a lot of passersby would see that this was sweet corn and they would stop and help themselves to the sweet corn. And so, grandpa dad set it back behind a facade of field corn in order to make sure that not all of it got stolen by the people who were driving by.

    But he did this, and this is something I try to emphasize in the book, he hid the sweet corn from passersby not because he was stingy, but because this was the crop that he grew to give away. He would grow this sweet corn to give to members of his local church, to his friends, and to his family. And so, it was a crop that he grew for them. And so, that was the sweet corn actually, that I then ate all through my growing up years. And I’m sure he showed them. My dad said he always wondered what their reaction was. Whether they scratched their heads and walked away. But yeah, the crop that he hid was what I call his first fruits crop. There’s a verse in the Old Testament that speaks of how the Israelites were supposed to dedicate the first fruits of their labor to the Lord. And I see his rhythm of planting something just to give away as a way in which he was seeking to do that as well.

    Susannah: Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been really lovely to talk to you about this book. And I know it’s been a labor of love for you working on it. We should also mention that it’s published by Sentinel and it was edited by our mutual friend Bria, friend of the pod, Bria Sanford. And everyone should go get a hold of a copy and read more of Gracy’s family story.

    Peter: It is a great story. And it’s also a story that, although it is particular, is happening all around the world. And I was so grateful to read this, really enjoyed it. I think wherever you live reading this particular story can give you an appreciation of what it means to become a good sticker where you are. So, thank you, Gracy.

    Gracy Olmstead: Thank you guys so much.

    Norann Voll: Uprooted to Australia and Healing the Land

    Peter: For the second half of this episode of The PloughCast, we welcome Plough writer Norann Voll, calling in from New South Wales in Australia. Welcome, Norann.

    Norann Voll: Hi, Pete. Hi, Susannah. Thank you for inviting me. It’s an honor to be here.

    Peter: We were talking earlier in this episode with Gracy Olmstead about her book Uprooted and that’s a lot about these two words, “boomers” and “stickers,” that come from Wallace Stegner. So there’s two kinds of Americans. There’s the boomers who head out and go somewhere and there’s the stickers who stick around and make a home where they are. And it occurred to me, Norann, that you’re kind of both. You boomed and then you stuck. So, Norann and her husband Chris, who’s also written for Plough and used to be a Plough editor started out in New York, and landed up in the outback of Australia twenty years ago. Can you tell the story, Norann? I mean, what was that like?

    Norann Voll: Yeah, well, thank you. It was really amazing and very difficult. Chris and I had both grown up in [the northern hemisphere], me in upstate New York, Chris in England. And we’d met and married over in the United States and Chris had been editing for Plough. We were happily living our young lives. And our second son had just come along. And when we were invited to move to Australia, to our fledgling community here at the end of 2002, I was really excited. I’d stayed in one place my whole life in upstate New York. Chris, not so excited. But because of our joyous commitment to this adventuresome church we packed our bags and flew down here for what was going to be hopefully just a three month stint to sort out some immigration issues and have a go here and we haven’t left. That was 2002.

    We’ve been back and forth a few times, but we arrived on the back of the millennial drought. So, as we got into smaller and smaller planes and flew further and further inland, the land looked increasingly barren. We can see fires, there were dead cattle, they were empty dams. I could just feel my blood pressure rising, and it usually doesn’t rise at all, as we got to this tiny little community. We were welcomed by about forty-eight other brothers and sisters, that’s all we were then, very warmly. (My little kitten, Jules, is just joining me!) And every night we watched the hills burn, and the Newstead hills were just opposite our main community. And we had a little fledgling community there as well. So it was very, very challenging. But in the same way it was exciting. It was brand new. It was different. The people were new, the culture was new, but everything that we’d ever known was gone.

    Susannah: Even just in terms of the contrast of landscapes. Upstate New York, obviously, incredibly rich and lush and lots of streams everywhere, and then the contrast to Australia. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve been doing with the land in the last twenty years?

    Peter: Is it still burning?

    Susannah: Is it still burning?

    Norann Voll: Yeah, well, like you said, I grew up in upstate New York. And then we moved to Pennsylvania, which is where we were living before we moved here just briefly. But yeah, totally different landscape, lush forests and streams. And we moved to – the property that we moved to had been a sheep property. And when we purchased it, it was on the back of the 1991 floods, so it had meter high grass, but by 2002 that grass was gone. They’d been dumping fertilizer on this land for generations, and it was worn down to nothing. There were no trees. It was barren. It was just a very dead looking landscape. And every time it rained, we would celebrate and we watched the water just pour down the hills, and take the few dams that were there with it. It would break the dams, and we would cheer. We thought it was great, and the creek would just rush up past full of brown, beautiful topsoil, taking all the topsoil with it.

    We didn’t understand what was going on with the land, except that it wasn’t working and it was sick, and it was wounded, and it was telling us it needed to heal. In 2007, after a lot of research and listening to people who could do the land management or had studied old ways of land management, we began to plant trees and create contours to catch the water, and to plant willows on the waterways, and just to slow the water down. And in 2007 was our second drought. So 2007 to 2009 was very dry, but we planted, we watered, we waited. And there were a lot of naysayers at that point saying, “Guys, come on. That’s not how we farm in Australia. You can’t plant trees and move the cattle around in small bunches. It’s not how it’s done.”

    But that was also the year that Chris and I were given our third son, our youngest child. And I think that’s for me both emotionally and spiritually when I began to start saying, “You know what, I’m not going back upstate New York. Our church has asked us to live here, and I need to start putting heart roots down as well.” And we began planting in 2007. We’re at, I think, well over 150,000 trees now on this property. We planted them in tree belts. And every year that we planted and watered and waited, the bird species increased, the carbon increased in the soil, the density of the soil thickened and healed. And by the time we were entering in the 2018 to 2020 drought, the land was in a great position to handle that amount of dryness. And you can see, as you drive past our property on either side, there’s traditionally managed properties. And you could see that right in the drought that suddenly as you drove past Danthonia, there would be a lot of trees, there would be thick vegetation, mixed species cropping.

    I’m not saying that to go, “wow, look at us.” I’m saying that because we had to be humbled by our landscape in order to learn from it and to be healed by it. And yes, we did have to de-stock to some extent during the drought, but I remember there were some places where we wanted to add some more dams to the property toward the end of the drought in the hopes that when the rain came that they would fill up. So we dug them in our valley in December of 2019, which is when you were all seeing the fires on the news, and it was crazy, and people were evacuating from the coast, places that had never burned before. And as we dug those dams, they filled up with water of their own volition, crystal clear, beautiful water.

    I remember meeting our land manager down there once, and he was just standing there in awe of what … he had been told what the land would do, if it had healed, the water table would rise. And it had and it did. And I remember in that December, the apple gums began to bloom again, and all the old Australians told us as they had when I arrived back in 2002, and the apple gums were blooming, “Don’t worry, the rains are going to come in the New Year,” and they did. And we’re back in our amazing, rich, green growing healthy land again, and probably in about a decade, we’re going to get another one of these cycles.

    Peter: Yeah, it was interesting, there was a fantastic article that I believe your husband Chris did with Johannes Meier, who’s responsible for the land management there in the Danthonia Bruderhof community in Plough, and we should drop a link to that. But one aspect to that that really struck me that came out of the interview that Chris did with Johannes was that a lot of these streams and creeks, what you’re actually doing is restoring an original landscape that was there before, and it was degraded by thoughtless use of fertilizer, and overgrazing. And so, these kind of hellscapes that you described flying through as you first came to Australia are actually not nature, they’re creations of human beings.

    Norann Voll: You’re totally right. And we’re also learning that, of course, the indigenous bands that roamed Australia prior to White colonization practiced managed-fire land management. Essentially, they would burn an area carefully prior to leaving, so that the fresh vegetation would grow when they came back on their return, because a lot of our flora doesn’t regenerate without fire. And that’s a really interesting concept. Once again, coming from America where you rinse and repeat with the winter cycles, and then and then the rain and the snow and the buds come out and everything blooms, and the peepers start singing in the dams and everything and away you go. We weren’t used to that cycle at all. So, we’re starting to learn also, the old ways, again. It’s actually not a new way, it’s an old way, but it takes listening to and humility.

    Susannah: It’s really fascinating to think about the way that human beings can be a part of a natural … a necessary part of a natural cycle. It’s almost like humans are symbiotic with the land itself.

    Peter: That ties into a piece that is also in our new issue of Plough by Adam Nicholson who lives in East Sussex – believe you mentioned, that’s where you were born and where Chris grew up – and he’s talking about the Sussex Weald and how actually human beings created this very textured landscape that now as people are leaving, and it’s just turning into this suburban flyover area. You can still see the labors of people from centuries past who actually made the landscape what it is.

    Susannah: He had the phrase handmade landscape, which I thought was just wonderful.

    Peter: The hedges, the coppiced trees, the sunken lanes. This landscape doesn’t exist without human beings.

    Norann Voll: I would totally agree with you. Place isn’t everything, but it does humble and ground and connect us and I felt that very strongly going to East Sussex and reading that piece, again, that you mentioned. It’s just excellent and my husband grew up there. We returned as newlyweds and you can feel the joyful presence of those who had gone before. The hedges, the roads, the coppices, it’s very, very strong that sense of other people have protected and helped and healed and guided that landscape along.

    And when I think about coming here to Australia, the irony of this particular property is that we got this place from a family because the sense of place became too strong for them to bear. And that was because they lost their son when he was in his twenties in a tragic climbing accident over in the Himalayas. And every part of this land spoke his name, and they couldn’t bear it anymore. And they chose us as the purchasers for this property because they sensed we would understand that. We’ve endeavored to honor their work, even though we use traditional methods. But we’ve endeavored to honor their work by allowing this land to restore and to heal, and be a place of richness, ecological richness for generations to come. And you get that sense from the piece that you mentioned about East Sussex.

    More Voll: Putting Down Heart-Roots

    Susannah: The picture that I’m getting just from the way that you’re describing this is that people putting down roots in a place can do the same thing as when trees put down roots in a place. They can hold it together, and they can be the ones to actually help enrich the topsoil and make it fertile again.

    Norann Voll: Absolutely. And like I said, for us humans, we don’t get to put down physical roots like a tree does, we get to plant trees, but we have to put heart roots down. And I think until we did that, as a community here, and accepted the land and its challenges and said, instead of fighting against it, and wishing it was upstate New York, or wishing it was Pennsylvania, or over in the green of England, until we embraced the difficulties, made them our own and said we’re going to work with the land and figure this out – That’s only when the healing could begin, is when we’ve done that in our hearts, when we’ve done the hard work in our hearts first. I don’t know if that makes sense.

    All my life, I had a very strong sense of belonging to community, to my family, to my faith, my friends, and only when I moved continents that I actually began to understand that place mattered, and that finding true connection to a place mattered. And I think that’s what that piece you mentioned really brings across, and that finding that place is very, very important to also finding peace.

    Peter: Your Twitter stream, Norann, is sort of like an extended essay about belonging in place, and also lots of great recipes. Some of which …

    Susannah: It’s really good food photography!

    Peter: Yeah, some of which we can cook here, and some of it we can’t.

    Norann Voll: No, you’re right, my Twitter feed has become an accidental love song to this land. And Pete, you and I grew up in the same place together with really, really amazing teachers and mentors who taught us to look for the Creator in the wild and the wilderness and in the beauty of nature. And for me, I think yeah, my spirituality, my prayer time is often out among the wild and in nature, and I love to share that with other people. It also helps me just to find the beauty in the very unique landscape in which I live has been an exciting part, and I’m privileged to share it via Twitter. So, thank you.

    Peter: Well, some of those lessons that those teachers tried to instill in us, actually, I only got them maybe twenty, twenty-five years later when I was like, “Okay, now I really get it, right?” I think you almost have to leave home, maybe go to college, get some knocks on the head and then come back to the kind of landscape you grew up in to realize what’s there. But you obviously now are fully in love with this piece of Australia, right? Was it always that way? At what point did you feel that sense of belonging? Because obviously when you first arrived, it wasn’t love at first sight, necessarily, it sounds like.

    Norann Voll: No, and yeah, wow. It’s been quite a journey, and I think it can strike you a bit as a moonscape depending on when you land here and what season were going through. So, I guess it was probably after our son was born I began to think, we’ve had a child here, and we need to start connecting with the land. We need to start accepting that we’re here. But more than accepting, I wanted to learn to love it. And I think an important piece of that journey for me has been our connection with the indigenous brothers and sisters that live around here. And also north of Brisbane, there’s a community church that has family roots down here in this area.

    So, we live on Gamilaraay country or Kamilaroi, it’s often pronounced different ways. And listening to those brothers and sisters, having them walk on the land with us, teach us about their people and their ways and their love for the land, and their joy in seeing what we’re doing to help our land heal, that’s been really, really important for my heart journey to come to terms with this unique landscape that we live in. I think probably also in about, I think it was between 2013, 2014 when we had come back from an extended sabbatical overseas. Also, to say farewell my [step] mother who was nearing the end of her cancer journey. I think I found that really difficult to move back here at that point.

    I felt a sense of profound loss over both of my parents who had passed, or my mom had almost passed them, but I knew I wasn’t going to see her again most likely. I had to say farewell New York. I had to say farewell to Pennsylvania again. And I went into a deep place of sadness. And I realized that there was a huge part of my heart that was simply ungrateful. And we had built this place up to – Yes, we planted a lot of trees and the land was starting to heal. We were growing our own vegetables. We have the unique capability of being able to grow oranges and apples on one property, which is apparently quite amazing. We had a huge vineyard. Our sign business was going well. But I was dissatisfied, and what I began to realize was it was just a huge amount of dissatisfaction with the fact that I couldn’t accept where I’d been placed.

    I remember reflecting on it, and I began to realize that my one precious life was ending one second at a time. And by my inability to be happy where I was, and were God had placed me, I was actually spreading that sadness, and dissatisfaction, and not allowing myself and also my children to flourish. And just like a plant, if you don’t give it nourishment, if you don’t give it good soil to grow in, it’ll eventually shrivel up and die. I was depriving my own heart, my own emotions of the opportunity to grow and thrive and live just because I was like, “Why am I here? Why am I in this little desert?” I think that through starting to just embrace where I live and where God placed me, I began to be able to see the beauty around me, see the brothers and sisters I was living with, see the extended community in our area, and things began to turn around.

    Susannah: How are you teaching your kids to think about the land? And how are you seeing them – this is their home, these are their roots. This is where they’re going to have memories of. How are you seeing that happening with them?

    Norann Voll: Such a great question, but children just put down their roots way faster than adults do. My kids loved it from the minute they got here. And then of course, our oldest was two, and our second was ten weeks. So this is all they ever knew. And while we have raised them with an American consciousness because they’re dual citizens, they just love it and our children have been involved in a lot of the tree planting over the years, so they have a huge … they can point out and tell you exactly what tree they planted in what year and how well it’s doing. So, the way that children are, they just connected with the land much quicker than we did, loved to learn about all the different natural things and all the ecology and everything. And just delighted every year in the increasing biological diversity that we could see happening as the land began to heal.

    Peter: I mean, I think this really is a great conclusion to our podcast today, and it really answers the question that Gracy raised at the beginning. How do you make home where you are? And Norann has also written another piece for Plough called “Return to Vienna” about another homecoming, this time of a Jewish girl who evacuated Vienna in the 1930s and came back for the first time eighty years later. There is this theme in what you’ve written, Norann, where home plays a big role. Thanks for joining us today. And good luck with the tree planting and all the other stuff you’re doing down there.

    Norann Voll: Thank you so much. It’s been great to chat today. And thank you so much for inviting me here today.

    Contributed By GraceOlmstead Gracy Olmstead

    Gracy Olmstead is a journalist whose writing has appeared in the American Conservative, the Week, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others.

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    Contributed By NorannVoll Norann Voll

    Norann Voll lives at the Danthonia Bruderhof in rural Australia with her husband, Chris. They have three sons. She writes about discipleship, motherhood, and feeding people.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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