Choosing to be Perennials

Several weeks ago, the Australian Prime Minister announced that international travel would likely remain on hold until mid-2022. I don’t have a tremendous amount of confidence in such a statement—as my friend, a fellow immigrant to Australia, reminded me recently, the forecast for the future is ever changing. 

And yet, to consider for a moment that it could be true, that we could go another year without going home to the U.S. or having family come here, feels devastating. COVID robbed us of our 2020 Christmas visit; mid-2022 would put us at three and a half years between visits. 

Three and a half years doesn’t sound like too long in the grand scheme of my adulthood. Life can remain pretty steady for that length of time. It’s others I am mourning for—my own three children and my nieces and nephews (all 19 of them!). Three and a half years can be the difference between being known and being a face in a photo. 

Perhaps I’m being dramatic. I’ll admit that the stress of the past year has intensified my sense of distance and loss. Still, the current travel situation has made us think seriously about whether to stay here or to return. One of the comforting realities we held onto when we moved overseas was the miracle of air travel: if we needed to, we could hop on a plane the next day and get home relatively quickly. Now, a visit home would be a logistical labyrinth, due to the dearth of flights, along with their cost, and the quarantine restrictions. How much should this difficulty factor into any decision to stay or to return? How much should this difficulty factor into any decision to stay or to return? 

Discarded Virtues

Whether to stay or return is one of the central questions of Grace Olmstead’s new book Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We Left Behind. An Idaho native, Olmstead moved to the East Coast for college and remained there after graduation. Now, she wrestles with the question of whether to stay in Virginia or return to Idaho roots.

She places this question in the larger context of the history of rural America, a history of boom and bust, of a past hope for prosperity and present despair over farming conditions. Rural Idaho, like much of rural American, once boasted rich communities of commitment to the land and to each other. And yet now, young talent leaving for better opportunities in urban areas is common, sometimes expected. As one of those young, talented Idahoans who has left, Olmstead considers her responsibilities to Idaho, and her place in the legacy of her ancestors.

Olmstead’s book places questions of her own responsibility in historical and local context. Weaving family and local history with agricultural science and the stories of farmers then and now, she traces the growth and decline of rural Idaho. Olmstead argues that the health of our communities and of our very soil depends on the stability and loving attention of their people.

She gives a voice to men and women who, while not glamorous or successful by today’s standards, have committed to live on the land and care for it with a long-term vision. Their stories challenge the modern narrative of competition, mobility, and keeping up with the latest technological advances. Instead, Olmstead demonstrates that the strength of a community depends on the discarded virtues of stability, simplicity, and dependability. 

Love, not nostalgia

Olmstead’s assessment does not ignore the dark part of Idaho’s history, or the harsh realities of farm life. She brings to light the racist policies and violence that pushed minorities out of Idaho, cutting them off from the prosperity that other immigrants were able to cultivate. She also confronts the fierce independence of her own great-grandfather. While his independence allowed him to successfully establish his farm, it also compromised his ability to pass it on to the next generation. Facing this history, Olmstead argues that “Locality requires us to deepen our gaze and examine our roots. It requires us to see the complexity of our places and their needs.” 

She’s established her own family and community now, but the legacy of her hometown haunts her presence in Virginia. Throughout the book she returns to the question of her own connection to the land that shaped her, and the question of whether or not she should return. She engages these questions with complexity and honest introspection. On the dangers of nostalgia for the places we’ve left behind, she writes, “Nostalgia can make us blind: It can prompt us to view complicated, messy places with a false simplicity or sentimentality. It can convince us to return home to a place that no longer exists—one that perhaps never existed in the first place.”

And yet, she argues that choosing to remain where she is “would mean accepting weakening ties to people and places back home,” not to mention accepting a role as “bystander amid Idaho’s transformation, witnessing its depletion, exploitation, or metamorphosis in coming decades.” Even so, she eschews any hubris attached to moving home in an effort to “save” her home state. Instead, she desires faithful presence as a witness to her “community’s griefs, needs, and joys.”

In the end, she concludes by arguing that “Wherever we decide to live, we must learn to stick: choosing to invest ourselves in place, to love our neighbors, to leave our soil a little healthier than it was when we arrived. Every place will be imperfect. But love suggests that we ought to keep trying anyway: to keep sowing seeds of service and generosity in the lands we love.”

This does not necessarily mean never leaving a place. As the history that she tells demonstrates, the past is full of men and women who left one place for another. This leaving is not necessarily indicative of failure or lack of love. Olmstead’s example of her own great-grandmother illustrates this: she moved from North Dakota to Idaho for college, and remained there when she got married. While she was a transplant, Olmstead calls her a “perennial”—she chose to put down roots in her new home, helped others to do so as well, and served the people there with “grace and generosity.”

This, then, is the vision: not for people to never leave the place they’ve been born, but for people to put down roots wherever they are, even if those roots might be transplanted elsewhere in the future. 

Tending our places for others

As an expat myself, I found that the way Olmstead faced the question of staying or returning resonated with my own experience. Although we left our homes for different reasons, she and I both left without a definitive break. We both have continued to nurture the relationships and long for the homes we left behind. I, too, feel the grief of going back and forth, having my heart in two places and longing for wholeness. 

Olmstead does not, in her book, decide to return home—yet. Given the family circumstances that she describes, it seems likely to me that she will. But perhaps that’s simply my own longings read into hers—a longing to return, even as I continue to put roots down here. 

I’ve been thinking recently of Jeremiah’s words to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. Through Jeremiah, God instructs his people to put down roots—to “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce…seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:5,7a). While I’ve considered for some time the context of this command, God’s people in enemy lands, I’ve only just begun to think about the timing. God does not tell Israel that they will be in Babylon forever. They will be there longer than they want or expect, which is why God gives them a wake-up call to settle down.

But they will return—in seventy years, God will bring a remnant back (Jeremiah 29:10). This means that for some, their work and legacies will not be enjoyed by them or their families. They will leave it to go back to Israel, and others will benefit from their obedience. 

I don’t have any such promise from the Lord. Our own future seems frustratingly unclear, and I don’t know if or when we will return home. But I know that putting down roots, committing to a long-term vision of place and community, is a way of seeking the peace and prosperity of the place where I find myself. It demonstrates a love of neighbour that sees value in tending to my place today, even if I will not be here for the rest of my life. This act of choosing to be a “perennial” is an act of faithfulness, not only to our places, but to God himself.

As we do so, may he bless the work of our hands, bringing forth good fruit for the lands that sustain us and the ones who come after us.