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.
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.
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.
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.
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.