Will we ever return to our rural roots?
Re-connecting with the land is vital, argues a new book
As companies begin to settle, post-pandemic, into new rhythms — which will include ongoing remote working — many people are asking if they really need to remain in cities. A new book published this week argues that this might have benefits beyond individual lives.
Uprooted by Grace Olmstead sits in the tradition of great poet and environmental essayist Wendell Berry. Olmstead muses on her childhood in Idaho farming country, and the impact of the many people, like her, who have left it behind.
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It is in part a polemic against the impact of the practices of global agribusiness on soil, and an urgent plea for a return to small scale, diverse, locally appropriate farming which invests in the health of the land for future generations.
She writes persuasively about the biological reality which means that long term plant roots, local organic matter like compost, and techniques like “no-till” which leave the soil undisturbed are essential if the mid-west is to avoid another Dust Bowl-level environmental disaster.
At the same time, she develops the parallel metaphor about human unrootedness: the way the rural brain drain pushes prosperity towards urban centres and disconnects much of the population from the land, sources of their food, and the communities that raised them. She fears that “as those of us who grew up in the soil of our small towns leave, we remove the material that should have remained, that would have resulted in hope and nourishment for the next generation.”
Olmstead acknowledges the forces behind these moves, the ways that promising children are told they will “go far”, a framing that equates success and status with mobility and transience. She is also no tribal xenophobic, acknowledging that newcomers to rural regions, driven by deprivation or policy, can be beneficial for the land or communities.
She lands the book with four categories of people: the mobile (‘Boomers’ in Berry’s language, or ‘anywheres’ in David Goodhart’s); the stuck, who never had a choice to leave and face the worst effects of hollowed out communities; the rooted, who choose to stay and seek to nourish the soil of their communities; and the returners, who follow the well-trodden, high status path away, but eventually feel the pull of home. These too can be nourishing.
Nothing, post-pandemic, seems certain. But at least in some industries new working practices look likely to spark a wave of rural “returners”. If they pick their place not just for the house prices or transport links, and not for the short term as rootless digital nomads, it could be an essential injection of “organic matter” to the soil of communities that have continually been churned up and left bare.
I live in a rural part of France where most of my neighbours were born in the houses they live in. My neighbouring farmer’s family have lived in his house since 1650. I think this situation is common in the French countryside, and probably even more true in southern Italy, Poland, Hungary, and the rest of eastern Europe – also in Russia, So there are many millions of Europeans who live, more or less very happily, in one place, all their lives, and they care for their surroundings – the farm tracks, the hedges, the buildings. The relationship with their environment is a fundamental part of their lives, and of their happiness, and we, as strangers, feel it too. I’m sure the same is true in the Chinese countryside, and probably in many other parts of Asia.
That might be the reason why the French countryside is full of elderly people and Chinese peasants have fled to the cities in the largest migration of human history. Such happiness
I noticed that in France. Italy and Spain are even worse, small dying towns even pay people to move back. Plus they try to attract immigrants to repopulate the villages.
The new generation have moved out of the country and away from farm life, because the ‘newer’ industries have marketed themselves well. They’ve sold the idea that a personal fulfillment and contentedness can be reached simply by buying more things, and chasing convenience. I’m one of the returners…I see many people like me moving back to the country for largely the same reasons: food is shit in the city, my kids are experiencing health issues as a result of the environment and the industrial food in the city, the corporate rat-race is a vacuous, vain venture, etc. etc. etc.
I spent about 1/3 of my life in big cities, 1/3 drifting, and 1/3 in smaller cities/towns. The great cities have such Buzz, such cosmopolitan vigor, so many things going on, so much culture and history, they are high energy and wonderful, but having done that enough, become wearing. Youth and middle age are great in the city.
I return to London since I left 40 years ago regularly, and loved it, but 2 weeks was always enough, and time to get back to a place where every movement was not monitored, where you were not part of a hive.
I quit drifting a dozen years ago and settled in a small town in a place of great natural beauty, the people mostly had their grandparents in school with the other town peoples Grandparents, and once you become established one feels one is part of a community, it is comfortable, no crime to speak of, you do not lock your doors or car, most people attend one of the 8 churches pretty often. I am on the water most days, live in the woods, yet in the town limits, have all the work I need (I can work anywhere though), it do not see ever leaving. It would be very dull as a young person, but is very pleasant at my age.
real estate is Booming now though This town has been this size for 50 years, 100 years, basically, it is not near any jobs centers, there never has been much work, most people move away when they become adults for that reason, wealthy people’s Second Homes, Mansions even, are the biggest industry, a few make long commutes to work. Suddenly houses are sold almost immediately, raw land price has doubled since Covid. I cannot imagine why anyone would not want to live here (anyone who does not love being in a huge city), the weather is pretty much perfect, life is easy, and my guess is this town is going to change very much in the next 20 years to something unrecognizable. And that will be a pity. Work From Home is going to alter things hugely. Covid seems to have set off a diaspora, not just WFH, but mentally there just seems to be a wish to go somewhere different, like lockdown made people reflect on what ever was wrong with their situation, I just get this mood from reading media that society wants to try somewhere else. And I suspect a lot are going to try here.
the weather is pretty much perfect … not the UK then.
The weather is glorious today. What I don’t understand is people who complain because the weather is not like other countries-so they are only happy when the temperatures are high (for about three weeks). I don’t like weather that is too hot or cold-so everything is perfect for 48 weeks of the year.
“an urgent plea for a return to small scale, diverse, locally appropriate farming”
When people starved, children toiled in the fields and women died in their tenth pregnancy.
Industrial agriculture has liberated us from the curse of Cain and the Malthusian cycle.
The last time that clock was reversed, two million Cambodians starved to death.
Bollocks,small scale, diverse, locally appropriate farming is doable.We have the knowledge and technology to make it work. Industrial agriculture has placed farmers on a treadmill of diminishing returns and rising input costs.Everyone expects what they want when they want and as cheap as possible,hint eat less but eat better. Too many heart diseased fat diabetics with allergies is a product of industrial agriculture and human greed.
You clearly have nae clue of how industrial agriculture works. We’ve jumped from record harvest to record harvest.
I’ve been engaged in industrial agriculture has a dairyman,plus it’s all around me having lived rural all my life. Your problem is limited understanding that appears to only value one metric.
I guess the Cambodians couldn’t afford small scale organic farm products. Tut tut, they should have had more money! Maybe they just didn’t care enough about their health, eh?
Classic case of conflating 2 things.
‘returning’ to a more diverse, local, small scale farming does not mean going back to back breaking work in the fields and back to having 10 children.
We can use today’s technology with some sensible changes which support the environment.
Ok, Kathryn. If people want to return, so be it. But if we want to sustain 50% of the population living in cities, which is where they seem to want to live, we need industrial agriculture, the technology which gave us record harvest and has reduced starvation as in nae other time in human history.
In England there is not much space between countryside and suburbs. Where I live is quite typical , I am surrounded by farms so technically I live in the countryside. However since we moved here 40 years ago most of the farms have sold up and so we live in the suburbs with a few fields to look at.Eventually apart from a few things that stop building-like rivers, it will all look the same- in the words of Joni Mitchell ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot’
Bradford Council wish to cover the moors made famous by the Brontes with a 150 home development.
Yes, at one time. But they also starved in the cities, children toiled in the factories and even the mines, and a woman hardly needed to be on a farm to die in her tenth pregnancy – or her first, for that matter. Modern technology can be made to apply everywhere, including in small-scale farming.
Now, whether or not we ought to heed this back-to-the-land suggestion is certainly debatable, as is our continued dependence on industrial agriculture. I can see the pros and cons on both sides. But to suggest that to adopt the former approach requires our technology to revert a century or more ago is patently ridiculous.
I grew up in the countryside and moved away because of lack of opportunity, although I’ve always tried to live in places within a day’s drive of wilderness. I can easily accept the idea that we must reconnect with nature and the land for our own well-being.
That said, I’m skeptical there will be some kind of rural renaissance post-pandemic. There will probably be some increase in telecommuting professionals who move to the countryside for better quality of life. But I already see signs that the supposed massive shift to working from home will not be a permanent feature. Companies are indicating they prefer most employees to be on-site. It’s reported there is even a rebound in the downtown, commercial real estate market in Seattle which was so badly affected by the riots last summer.
I don’t think our corporate masters are willing to relinquish enough control to permit many of us to telecommute from small towns over the long term. And for those urban refugees moving to rural communities, I’m not sure many of them have the skills (or willingness to acquire the skills) to contribute to a true agrarian economy. I hope I’m wrong.
‘It’s reported there is even a rebound in the downtown, commercial real estate market in Seattle which was so badly affected by the riots last summer.’
Yes, I saw that on the Summit Properties podcast. Very interesting. To be honest I don’t want people from the cities invading the countryside in which I grew up.
And I don’t want them invading the countryside where I live. The cities are great – hope they stay there.
Aye, we rurals have our own locally bred miscreants,no need to import come from aways.
Real Estate markets are in a state of totally ‘Irrational Exuberance’ though. 3.2% 30 year fixed Mortgages! My guess is real inflation (not CPI) is about 6 %, but then I work in building trades and lumber went up 250%, copper 100%, plumbing lines 200%, concrete 100% in the last year, and houses 17 – 20%!!! And CPI avoids those numbers.
So if you can get a 30 year fixed at 3.2%, and real inflation is 5% you are being paid 1.7%, – – about the yield of a 30 year USA Bond! But instead of having to give the gov your money for 30 years to make the 1.7% THEY PAY YOU (interest paid minus inflation = negative yield) 1.7% TO TAKE THE USE OF THEIR MONEY FOR 30 YEARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Naturally people are buying the best place they can, for the most they can, and if that means Seattle down town, do it, because it is such an unbelievable deal.
The 9 Trillion $ (or what ever number you believe) of MMT, QE, Stimulus, almost all went to the wealthy, and they have nothing to do with it but put it into the stock market, bonds, and so the economy seems bursting with health, although it is a dead man walking, or so I believe, and it all will correct massively within 2 years once the stimulus stops. Which means if it ends not being deflationary all the property buyers will score big, but if deflationary – will be bad.
You can be pretty certain that if a company doesn’t need a job to require attending the office, then the job will be offshored very quickly.
Maybe the newly unemployed recent arrival to the countryside will be forced to learn an agricultural trade.
I don’t know about necessarily rural, but New Yorkers have fled the city in droves, usually winding up somewhere along the Hudson Valley but maybe sometimes on horse farms in Kentucky and Tennessee. I know a couple who fled to a lovely $1 million lake house on Morse Reservoir in Indiana. Some obviously head to beachfront property in Florida. Besides the obvious tax benefits, if they bring businesses with them, they reap additional benefits. Plus land and privacy and quiet. What’s not to like?
Indeed,some wealthy Germans bought an old farm in Nova Scotia for a million and a half and stocked it with deer,the school teacher son of the old farmer made a mint, Currently people are buying property sight unseen just to get away from the city and maybe have a better life.
The latest figures I have seen (2015) show that 83% of people in the UK live in conurbations, so about 17% live in rural or semi-rural accommodation. To change those figures to 75/25, means that 5,000,000 people need to move. With an average of 4 per family, we would have to provide another 1,250,000 houses in the country.
Apart from the houses there would have to be improved services. I am convinced that nobody living in London would be happy with our internet speeds. Many more children would have to be bussed to the extra schools we would build. Roads would have to be improved so that the ‘movers’ could visit family still living in cities.
Presumably, the cities which would be emptier and would have to be improved – you couldn’t just leave the buildings empty. More parks for drug addicts, more immigrants to pick up the litter in the parks and streets, more social workers to provide counselling.
It sounds like a plan.
“…we would have to provide another 1,250,000 houses in the country.”
A lot of those houses are being built in South Cambridgeshire. The irony is that the newcomers don’t seem to realise that they are moving from one city to another.
Well here in Arcadia things are still perfect. We’ve stopped hanging people for sheep stealing and stopped drowning witches but otherwise our Anglo Saxon society remains much the same, despite the addition of few .’mod cons’.
Dogs and field sports are the main obsessions in the winter, and dogs and cricket in the summer. Our eight hundred year old Church still baptises, marries and buries us, and there is still plenty of honey for tea. .
We too inhabit such a place, mentioned in the Domesday Book. We don’t even have a 1G signal at our end of the village, though high speed broadband is arriving, seven years later than we were promised it. Though we can no longer hunt foxes, Socialists are however “fair game” 😉
If we had any ‘Socialists’ they would be fair game, but until then it’s‘Charlie’ as it has been for centuries l
Nobody told me they had stopped drowning witches-what will we do for entertainment? We are also in the Domesday book. Apparently though some people move to the countryside and then complain about animals being too noisy or too smelly , church bells ringing ( they bought a house in Church Lane ) and other disappointments-why can’t the country be more like the town?
Yup, neighbour complained about the rooster in the back yard of a house near us. And we know of people who were sent to Coventry in the village they moved to, as they got the church bells stopped.
For a short time till they moved again…
We had the exact same thing. A neighbor with a rooster got calls complaining about him. Turns out though that it was a household of nurses, both husband and wife worked the night shift. Must have been horrendous to have that rooster go off every morning.
An actor from Emmerdale has complained about the practice of burning moorland near his Yorkshire Dales home which leaves him heartbroken and depressed and calls for an end to it ie he doesn’t have the gumption to close his windows when he smells smoke. Does he think farmers are pyromaniacs who burn things for the fun of it-this is a well known method to help renewal.
The various ‘green trusts’ seem to be trying to let Britain have the same problem as America does with uncontrolled fires as they also want to stop the practice of controlled fires. I wonder if any property speculators who fancy building over the moorside give’generously’ to these causes?
Couldn’t agree more.
Currently, for reasons unknown, Witches are in short supply!
Charles, I guess that’s what happens when the “native Romans” were faced with invasion by Germanic tribes. And then Anglo saxons were the “natives” until the Normans arrived, eh?
just a bit of fun Charles.
Yes, we were all barbarians once and some still are!
Perhaps even myself, although my dogs have yet to vote on the matter.
In the light of this article, I must recommend this book, on 6 generations of an American homestead farm.
“In good hands” – Charles Fish
“In 1836, Henry Lester moved his family from the Vermont hills to better land on the valley floor north of Rutland, beginning a saga six generations on a farm, which this book portrays and explores with an affectionate but critical eye. What gives the book its distinctive charm is its vivid evocation of a way of life: the beloved grandmother keeping house both as a shelter and as a temple of the spirit; the uncles sowing and harvesting, raising and slaughtering; the author, as a small boy, working with the men, fishing and hunting, and later, reflecting on the issues of pleasure and work, freedom and community.”
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