Americans Love to Uproot but at What Cost? (Review)

In America, to live is to move. Bust out of that old town. Move, and move again.

It’s a creed that suits our national love of business. If you’re digging a gas well in North Dakota, building a car factory in South Carolina, or setting up a lobbying office in northern Virginia, be certain you’ll find a thousand Americans willing to move for that paycheck

But good things have costs. Many things are true. Ask the communities those thousand Americans leave behind. Check the lost souls craving family ties, neighbors we know, and a sense of place and rootedness. See the thousands of busted main streets that dot this continent, and the nostalgia (the pain of returning home, in ancient Greek) that Americans carry in their hearts.

The tension between leaving home and nurturing roots is the subject of Grace Olmstead’s poignant and welcome memoir, Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind.

Olmstead is a writer from Emmett, Idaho (Pop. 6,770, a similar size to Moundsville) who now lives in northern Virginia, and has done some hard work thinking about nostalgia, and researching the history, economic, geography, culture and politics of mobility.

Her book is important because it tackles the reality of the costs we’ve paid for a well-oiled economy that can explode overnight into riches, from cities shining to valleys of silicon. Those costs include, among other things, a painful brain drain, a proliferation of news deserts, and the fraying of social and community ties that have busted up this country’s sense of a shared narrative.

The brain drain, in particular, is a bruising problem our political leaders almost never confront. (A recent exception is in West Virginia, which announced a program to pay remote workers $12,000 to relocate to the state.) As Olmstead points out, teachers, parents and neighbors in small towns push their brightest to leave and make something of themselves, pouring fuel on outward migration at the same time factories have been closing. The result is a country divided by income, geography, and talent, where cities have everything and towns have just the hospital and the WalMart. It’s the places that need young, smart, people the most that are losing them. And despite worshiping the meritocratic gods, we are incapable of finding the right language to talk about this. Nobody wants to tell those staying behind they’re incapable of starting a business or running a town, even if it’s true.

Olmstead relates what it’s like to grow up in a small farming community:

It connected me to a past that offered glimpses of (and hopes for) the future. Driving through the quiet farmland and observing its seasons brought to mind people, meals, and stories from years gone by and a sense of what might come around again in the future. Participating in farm tradition was like taking your 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 seasons, and to be fed was to remember.

So why leave?

“I craved novelty,” writes Olmstead.

Nothing big seemed to hang in the balance in our small town. Nothing noteworthy. Grit and dependence are important—but they can also be monotonous. (That is, in fact, their point: they are consistent.) The journeys of my favorite protagonists were, in contrast, anything but mundane: Frodo Baggins left the Shire on a quest that ultimately resulted in the salvation of Middle-earth. Jo March left home for New York City, seeking adventure beyond the stasis of Concord. Lucy Pevensie opened a wardrobe door and became the queen of a hidden country. Each had a quest, a mission: a calling beyond the quotidian. Belle, my favorite Disney princess as a toddler, was also the girl from a small town who sang plaintively, “There must be more than this provincial life.”

Americans have treasured those stories forever, but, in this century particularly, two economic trends have conspired to make it easier and more tempting than ever to migrate. One is technology, which serves up images of a life better than yours, and presents endless opportunity for the talented and plucky. A second is globalization, which encouraged companies to move factories to Asia, and farms to consolidate and grow into monocrop corporations that pushed out smaller farmers.

To be sure, there is a counter-movement of people staying in or moving back to their hometowns, building new kinds of communities based more on remote work and tech, anchored by new coffee shops, breweries and restaurants, a story brilliantly told in James and Deb Fallows in their Our Towns HBO film and book.

But nobody can fault any individual for leaving a place with only crappy service work for a greener pastures– and moving around this limitless continent is what Americans have always done. When I covered European economics for the Wall Street Journal, EU officials in Brussels would bemoan the unwillingness of, say, Belgians, to go work in Germany. If only we could move like the Americans do, we could have the same GDP growth, a Harvard-educated Eurocrat would tell me. (An exception is the Eastern Europeans from the former Soviet bloc, who, happily, went West after their countries joined the EU in 2004.)

As she researched the book, Olmstead, who politically leans conservative, wrote me in an email, she “saw how often the logic of our capitalism—which turns profit and efficiency into ultimate ends—can hurt people, communities, and the environment. Capitalism doesn’t often take into account the needs of embodied humans; and small, poor, or marginalized groups often bear the brunt of our system’s injustices.”

Olmstead’s family had a fruit farm, which they’ve had to sell. “Farms in the West continued to consolidate and specialize—in large part because of both government and market incentives,” she writes. “During World War Two and after, international trade took precedent over the cultivation of local markets and sales. Farming was no longer to be understood as a primarily regional enterprise, meant to feed one’s neighbors, but rather as a global (and heavily political) enterprise, meant to foster trade relations and sales overseas.”

There is hope in a family practicing sustainable agriculture. “Being content, living within a community, caring for people—that sounds like the real dream,” the small farmer tells Olmstead. “It’s romantic, and it’s reality. It’s a way of life worth living. Why settle for money, things, and disconnection?” He concludes: “We will do future generations an enormous favor if we reinvent the American Dream.”

That’s a good note to sound. There’s no such thing as utopia, and we’re going to continue living in a society that holds capitalism as a core value. But why can’t we have both free enterprise and strong communities anchored by local businesses? (Answer: Because it would require more regulation than Americans can stomach.)

But, maybe, as individuals, we can learn to love the places we live right now a little more, and get to know our neighbors, a little better.

As Olmstead, who thinks about moving home but for now is staying in Virginia with her husband and three children, wrote me in an email:

I think spending time in place, by itself, grows some forms of rootedness, whether we want it to or not. Unless you never leave your house, living a long time in one spot will invariably teach you certain lessons about that place’s seasons, geography, rhythms, traditions, politics, businesses, and people. But we can lean into and invest in those lessons, growing and deepening them, or ignore them. I’m guessing a person could live in a community for six months, and if they’re truly dedicated to loving that community, know more about it in that time frame than someone who’s lived despondently or passively in that community for six years. 

Maybe the American Dream, as well as growing richer than your parents, could be reinvented to include shopping at your neighborhood bookstore, buying food from the farmers’ market or growing your own, and getting to know all your neighbors by their first names. A nice dream that’s not about money.   

John W. Miller

One comment

  1. I love this piece, John! My husband and I have bounced all over the U.S., mostly for education or jobs. It’s been interesting, but now that we’re finally rooted in West Virginia — a place neither of us had even driven through prior to his taking a job here — we hope this is our lifetime home. A new American dream sounds lovely. 🙂

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