Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

      View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    Checkout
    photo of train tracks

    Return to Idaho

    The Land My Ancestors Farmed

    Gracy Olmstead

    June 10, 2021
    6 Comments
    6 Comments
    6 Comments
      Submit
    • Chuck Schoendienst

      I enjoyed Gracy's story about returning to Idaho. I am a boomer who has spent his adult years living and working in a small northern California town. The climate, the soils, rivers and forest form the basis for the lives and incomes of the people who live here. And the people here have changed the environment. We built our homes and roads, planted our crops and harvested our trees.The land writes its story on the people. And the people write their story on the land. Wife and I raised our kids here. But now we are retired and the kids have scattered. We are considering moving to someplace new. Guess I'm not a sticker. In the southern California community where I grew up, the kids roamed freely and the adults met for patio building projects, BBQ parties, and nighttime poker games. But similar gatherings did not often occur here when my own kids grew up. Olmstead's nostalgic essay described her grandfather who grew corn for the neighborhood, a neidhgorhhod that probablly no nonger exists in Emmett, or Torrence, or Red Bluff California. I suspect our culture has changed. But regardless, the land (and the community) write their story on the people who live on the land. No doubt, the residents of a multi-story city apartment building, those in a retirement complex, or even those who are among the homeless are being scribed upon. May we all find a way to write our story on the land, and on the community around us.

    • Susan Barbarisi

      As Thich Nhat Hanh so often says, our ancestors are alive in us. We can honor them by learning from them and thanking them for what they continue to give us. Lovely article. Thank you.

    • Joanna Ray

      Thank you for asking me to comment on 'Return to Idaho'. Firstly, I enjoyed the article. Being English, it gave me a good picture of Rural life in Idaho and a lovely flavour of her Christian community there. You ask, ' ‘Am I a ‘sticker' or a 'boomer’?' Like Gracy Olmstead, I also grew up on a farm and loved every minute of it. The obituary of my Father, Kenneth Elliot Barlow, in The news paper called him, “The Father of the Organic Movement". He would not have claimed that title, but, as a medical doctor he was passionate about creating a community where the components that made for a healthy society could be recognised, enjoyed and studied. We lived on the organic farm that was to supply “The Family Health Club Housing Society (Coventry) Ltd. c.1952. (This ‘experiment’ is described in his book ‘Recognising Health’, and also described in Philip Conford’s book, ‘Realising Health’ (Cambridge Scholars Publishing.) He was certainly “a Sticker” and I would like to think that I was too, though I eventually left England and worked in the remote 'Bush’ in Nigeria for nine years, living amongst a more dramatic kind of beauty and many dear friends. I also taught at a Teacher Training College in Nigeria. While on leave in England I was offered a training with the BBC as a TV Director/Producer, and ended up in back in Jos producing radio and TV pogrammes for the NBC and what was then Jos’s new TV Station. For health reasons I eventually returned to England permanently and worked in TV for 20+ years. However, I always tended to feel a foreigner in that brittle world. I hankered after the beauty of the countryside and being amongst people who definitely were not ‘boomers'. I’m now retired and thankful to say I live in glorious countryside and the christian community around me are all lovely ’stickers'. So, my answer is that I hope I would be able to call myself a ‘sticker’.

    • Brian Christensen

      More of a 'sticker' - moved from the suburbs where parents lived for 30+ years to rural where we've lived for 30+. Mark Sayers in his book "The Road Trip That Changed the World" mentioned the same...maybe diff terms - and how its causing problems...people with means can live temporarily in an area and not invest..basically taking without giving. Good article.

    • Norman Weinstein

      Thank you for presenting a range of thoughtful reflections in "Return to Idaho." This is written from Idaho where I have lived over half my life, a very different landscape from Philadelphia, my birthplace. So my responses to Gracy's article reflect often a different perspective than hers. First, I find Wallace Stegner's differentiation between exploitative "boomers" and conserving "stickers" too reductive a scheme to accurately illuminate a complex process. From my wife's background in rural Missouri, I've come to understand that not everyone who maintains a generational tradition in farming does so because of the kinds of touching concerns that Gracy's grandfather embodied. Some do so because of intense family pressures to keep the family farm going. The consequences of such family pressure to keep fidelity to an agricultural way of life are not always pretty. Wendell Berry had the freedom to leave academia and become a gentleman farmer. Those born into an agricultural life and had neither the formal education nor family and social circumstances to consider an alternative way of life usually don't write poetry extolling pastoral virtues. To call such individuals "stickers" paints too broad a brush perhaps over a very diverse population. And then there are individuals are do freely make the choice to stay faithful to their family roots in the land - but who then treat the earth in a manner in which greed for fast profit weakens the land. I'm suggesting these considerations not in any way to cast doubt upon the deep value of Gracy's personal family experience with her roots as much as to suggest that these additional considerations might needed to be pondered. The entire notion of one's "roots" is exceedingly complex, a dialectical dance involving geography and memory over time, spirit and matter, family and community. "Roots" can also lend itself into romantic simplifications and stereotypes all too easily. Think of painted images of the American farmer from Grant Wood's "American Gothic" onwards. A counter to oversimplifying what "roots" mean in our lives comes with an acceptance that our place-centered roots are both visible and invisible, thoroughly material as well as thoroughly psychological and spiritual. I trust that Gracy's book addresses these concerns and look forward to reading it. Meanwhile, my question for her: does she sometimes envision herself and her family moving back to Idaho? If she did return, would such a move (after time away) then make her a "sticker"?

    • Diane McElwain

      I regret the negative tone about the "boomers" who "depleted the soil and left." I am labeled a boomer, but I hate those labels. I came from a farm and respect the land, and generations that stayed on the land. We are not all alike, we are not all the same individuals as those who have given us this label. And I am sick of those who continue to blame people for what is past, even if they had no part in it. We need to be responsible citizens of America and do our part to help our neighbor and take care of the earth.

    I step into a familiar graveyard. My husband is with me, and so is our oldest daughter, a curly-haired girl with dark lashes and thoughtful eyes. I am showing them the graves of my forebears, here where generations of my family rest in the soil of Emmett, Idaho.

    I brush snow off gravestones, searching for names. There are my great-grandparents, known as Grandpa Dad and Grandma Mom, side by side in the earth. Nearby, I see the graves of Grandpa Dad’s brothers, his sister, and his parents – along with dozens of other, more distant kin. My husband holds our daughter as he quietly reads inscriptions.

    To visit these graves today, I had to travel twenty-four hundred miles: over the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Plains, past the Rockies and the Sawtooths. It is good to be home in this quiet land, where purple shadows line the foothills and the Payette River is shadowed by cottonwood trees. It is good to be here, in a place where the past is still present and preservation is paramount. But much has changed here since I was a child.

    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.

    Fields that once were filled with corn and sugar beets, mint and onions are now graded, leveled, and covered with single-family homes. The farm stand where we bought tomatoes and peaches for canning is gone – as are many of the small mom-and-pop businesses we frequented growing up. Everywhere I drive in my homeland, I see the past crumbling and fading away, increasingly paved over and forgotten. And even as I observe good changes, I mourn what’s been lost and what we are losing.

    I grew up surrounded by folks who committed themselves to this place for the long haul. They served and loved it, year after year. For many of them, including my great-grandparents, rootedness meant turning down bigger paychecks, adventure, excitement, and ease. But they were able to experience the wonder of each season, the pride of committed stewardship. They got to grow old next to the ones they loved – and got to watch a new generation of young folks, like me, grow up in the land they had tended.

    Wallace Stegner once called the United States’ two archetypal populations the “boomers,” who come to extract value from a place and then leave, and the “stickers,” those who settle down and invest. Now boom-and-bust cycles and the exodus of the young, including me, have worn down the threads of community and belonging. Many of the valley’s rooted individuals are still alive – but they are growing old.

    old photo of a man in overalls standing in a cornfield

    “Grandpa Dad,” Walter Howard on his farm, ca. 1978 Photograph courtesy of the author

    I learned my first stories about this town at the feet of my Grandpa Dad, who was an aged farmer by that point. He knew all his neighbors, and they knew him. He was out riding his tractor until his early nineties, attending church services and teaching Sunday school until the end of his days. Over his lifetime, this valley aged into post-industrialism and decay. I am sure that much of what he saw alarmed him, inspiring in him a sense of sorrow for the land’s lost past, its fading local culture. I think that is why he told me stories over and over again, making sure I would not forget the ones who came before us, the countryfolk that history books would ignore. To Grandpa Dad, their stories mattered. And so they mattered to me as well.

    There was a time when the Drug Enforcement Administration showed up at Grandpa Dad’s door, demanding to know what he was growing in the middle of his cornfield. They had seen an aerial view of the field and knew that he had planted something in the middle of it that was shorter than the field corn surrounding it. They suspected this snowy-haired old man might be growing marijuana.

    You could be reading this in print. New Plough Quarterly subscribers get the first issue free. Sign up here.

    Grandpa Dad assured the concerned agents that he was doing nothing of the sort. He had started a tradition some years back of planting sweet corn – which is about two feet shorter than field corn – in the middle of one of his other cornfields. He didn’t want to grow the sweet corn right up to the road’s edge because passersby would occasionally stop their cars and help themselves to the crop. (Yes, locals in farm country can tell the difference between the full leaves and tall height of field corn and the shorter, spindlier appearance of sweet corn.)

    The sweet corn that Grandpa Dad planted wasn’t for him, you see – it was for church folks, neighbors, and family. So Grandpa Dad would plant it a little ways inside the tall rows of field corn, set back just enough from the road to hide it from prying eyes.

    The field of hidden sweet corn was Grandpa Dad’s first fruits: the crop he grew to give away. It was the corn I shucked with clumsy hands as a little girl and ate all through the cold winter months. It prompted storytelling and feasting, the gathering of the generations to bring in the harvest. That corn planted roots deep inside me, connecting me to Grandpa Dad and to the land that he cared for.

    photo of a valley in Idaho

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

    I can imagine Grandpa Dad planting that field in the spring, memorizing poetry and scripture verses as he worked on his tractor. I’m sure he looked forward to seeing the green tendrils of life erupt from the earth, to the truckloads of corn he would drive to my grandparents’ house, to the laughter and music we would all enjoy together. My ancestors were always setting aside a portion of their proceeds to bless the people they loved. Their labor was never just for them: it was a poured-out thing.

    Over the past several years, I’ve learned that the dead can hurt or heal, urge us forward or call us back. This means that the work of the boomers, those who deplete soil and community, can result in long-lasting brokenness. It can take generations to recover from their legacy, to restore what’s been depleted. Many of us are still waiting and watching, hoping to see our homelands restored. We are still observing and mourning what has been lost, squandered, or abused.

    But stickers, in contrast, can sow blessings in the soil for decades to come. I owe much of the good fruit in my life to my ancestors’ lives, labors, and love: to the chain of membership they handed down, the values they passed on, the richness they built in their community. My forebears connected me to much more than the land: They connected me to the dead, who came before me, and to the seasons that surrounded me. They connected me to rhythms of family, community, and virtue that sprang up in this land long before I was born. The portion they set aside resulted in an overflowing abundance of joy and grace.

    In his work Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke suggests that society is not just made up of the living but serves as an association between the dead, the living, and the unborn. To be indebted is to see oneself as inseparably intertwined with the duties and responsibilities of this membership. We are never entirely solitary or self-determining in this life. Everything we have and are is inescapably tied to those who came before us.

    That doesn’t mean that we cannot make our own marks on this world, that we cannot forge new paths for ourselves or for our families. But it acknowledges the fact that we are part of a community both dead and alive, and that this reality comes with responsibilities. We Americans delight in seeing ourselves as self-made, as mavericks. Tocqueville was right about us. We don’t want to acknowledge what we might owe to the past or to place. But I think Wendell Berry is also right: we should take our membership seriously, considering those dead and alive who have made us who we are, and how we might further their work in the future. The past is never fully past – not for the soil, and not for us.


    This essay is adapted from Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind by Grace Olmstead, published by Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright ©️ 2021 by Grace Olmstead.

     spacer image
    Contributed By portrait of Gracey Olmstead 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.

    Learn More
    6 Comments