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Last month, I considered the work of regional storytelling, and what it can tell us about a place. This month, I wanted to dedicate a little more time to thinking about how we live out the concept of “rootedness” (which could be understood more simply, perhaps, as the virtue of fidelity applied to a place and its community).

Rootedness must not only be applicable to a rural and/or agricultural setting. It must not be anti-urban, require staying in your homeland, or necessitate abandoning adventure or travel. So what other examples of fidelity, or “rootedness,” can we look to for inspiration?

Some examples I've been thinking about a lot lately:

Dorothy Day was born in New York City in 1897. She lived in other cities throughout the United States, and traveled the world as a writer, reformer, and activist. But Day spent more than six decades living in New York City, and she died among the city’s poor. As Casey Cep wrote in an essay on Day’s life, "From the start, the Catholic Workers served the sorts of individuals even other social reformers might not have allowed through the door: the mentally ill, the drunk, the offensive, the disobedient, the ungrateful."

“We cannot love God,” Day wrote in her memoir, “unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more.”


George Washington Carver was born in Missouri in 1864. After his mother was kidnapped by slave raiders, Carver grew up as an orphan. He developed an astonishing acumen with plants and medicinal herbs at a young age. The early years of his life were marked by mobility as he journeyed through the Midwest, seeking to further his education in the face of rampant racism and segregation. In 1894, he became the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree, and worked with famed mycologist L.H. Pammel, identifying and treating plant diseases.

When Booker T. Washington invited Carver to teach at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), Carver accepted—and spent the remainder of his life teaching the Institute’s students and surrounding community, working in his laboratory, and assisting poor farmers in making their agricultural practices more sustainable. His recommendations for crop rotations, nitrogen-fixing crops, and composting (among countless other things) transformed and informed agricultural practice in the United States. The Tuskegee Institute, meanwhile, became Carver's home—one he deeply loved, and was often reluctant to leave. He died at the Tuskegee Institute in 1943, and is buried there. 

Fannie Lou Hamer was the daughter of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend, and grew up in poverty in the Jim Crow South. Over the course of her lifetime, Hamer became “one of the most important, passionate, and powerful voices of the civil and voting rights movements”— while also serving as an impassioned advocate for the poor in her Mississippi community. She was a co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organizer of the 1964 Freedom Summer, and one of the first Black women to stand in the U.S. Congress.
 
Hamer also founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) in 1969, a collaborative farming operation for Black farmers that fostered “many opportunities for group development of economic enterprises which develop the total community, rather than create monopolies that monopolize the resources of a community.” Hamer’s FFC opposed the “individualistic notion of economic development, freedom, or progress,” championing instead the view that stewardship of the land can and should “take a village.” In addition to all this, Hamer practiced constant hospitality and generosity to her neighbors, and was a pro-life advocate. She died in Mississippi in 1977.

Jane Jacobs moved to Greenwich Village from Scranton, Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, where she worked as a freelance writer. After she got married, she and her husband chose to stay in Greenwich Village (at the time a blue-collar neighborhood) with their children. When Jacobs turned her journalistic eye to the subject of urban planning and our built environment, she attended carefully to the life of her place and other similar neighborhoods, observing through firsthand experience how healthy city communities develop. She worked as an activist to defend her neighborhood and others from efforts aimed at “renewal,” “revitalization,” or “slum clearance” that ignored the wisdom and beauty of these places—even when her protests resulted in an arrest in 1968. Shortly thereafter, Jacobs moved to Toronto—and applied all her wisdom and activism to the betterment of her new city. She died in Toronto at age 89.

In these stories, I see heroic people who were both adventurers and “stickers”: most didn't live in just one place. They traveled extensively. But their larger calling to advocacy and service was paired with an intensely local calling and purpose. Some of the “rooted” virtues I see running through these lives:
  • Attentiveness to the particularity of place: both Jacobs and Carver, for instance, were experts in their very local environments. Their talent and genius enabled them to better see, know, and love their places (and to make those places stronger and better).
     
  • Determination to live alongside their neighbors (even, or especially, when it’s hard)—Hamer and Day both saw the oppression of people they loved, and dedicated their lives to advocating for (and living with) those people.
     
  • Adventurous advocacy, growth, and return—I think in each of these examples, people served as advocates and students as they traveled to other places. They 1) advocated for their communities to the larger world, and 2) brought lessons from that larger world to bear in their particular communities. This give-and-take, venturing out and returning in a spirit of love, is something that really inspires me—because it suggests that rootedness can (and should) involve movement, change, growth, and maturity, even as it also involves deepening love and long faithfulness to place.
Some other fun/interesting examples of rootedness I’ve been thinking about: Miss Rumphius, Samwise Gamgee, Ántonia Shimerda, Beatrix Potter, Tabitha of Joppa, and Mamá Imelda in the film “Coco.”
 
What are some examples you see—in your personal life, in history, or in literature—of fidelity and rootedness? How do you think we can apply these virtues in unexpected or overlooked contexts?

Email me and let me know your thoughts. I'll include some excerpts in the next newsletter!
 
in other news
  • John Miller highlights the importance of local journalism in helping us to “defang conspiracy theories, rebuild shared narratives and make democracy possible,” and notes the growing prevalence of "news deserts" throughout our country.

  • Amy Halloran considers the impact the Covid-19 pandemic had on regional grain economies, and how the efforts of small and "micro" mills might be able to help shape the U.S. flour industry. 
     
  • A fascinating article from Smithsonian Magazine on the hidden costs of the penny, whether we can make the penny "greener," and the opposition of "anti-pennyists."
     
  • Correen Grant writes of the threats to ancient British footpaths—a potential loss known as "the Extinguishment"—and of how the pathways might be saved.
essays
  • "Darkness and the starry sky have succumbed to that all too familiar pattern whereby a public good, commonly shared or freely accessible, has been transmuted into a luxury item available only to the privileged classes," L.M. Sacasas writes.
     
  • This excellent essay by Fred Magdoff describes how regenerative agriculture can help with carbon sequestration—but also warns against viewing such efforts as a "magic bullet" to fix climate change.
     
  • Yuval Levin: "What stands out about our era is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence."
     
  • Mara Wilson and Leah Feiger consider Antarctica's growing number of ghost stations: "Half-operational and deserted stations are scattered around the continent, some still inhabitable, others lost to extreme conditions, and a number left standing to solidify geopolitical claims to land, fishing rights, and minerals."
books
  • Landscapes, by Robert MacFarlane
    A stunningly beautiful work about the way we as humans work as "christeners" in the world, and how place words serve to enchant our landscapes.

    "
    Words act as compass," MacFarlane writes. "Place-speech serves literally to en-chant the land – to sing it back into being, and to sing one’s being back into it.” Without this knowledge, he warns, landscape become a “blandscape”: we become “blasé about place... [and] indifferent to the distinction between things.”
     
  •  From Nature to Creation, by Norman Wirzba
    I was re-reading this wonderful book this week, and reminded of the beauty and hope it offers. “Creation is not a vast lump of valueless matter," Wirzba writes. "It is God’s love made visible, fragrant, tactile, audible, and delectable.” Wirzba considers the profound failures of Christians throughout history, in "accept[ing] an industrial and consumerist naming and narration of the world as a massive pile of 'resources' waiting to be exploited by us," and he calls us to something different: to "learn the art of the creaturely life."
recipes
music, podcasts, and more
Feedback for the last edition of Granola: 

"Really love the bit about 'long attention in one direction.' A friend recently pointed me to a little short story anthology called Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters, which tells the multi-generational story of a small rural northern Minnesota town through its inhabitants, which include the indigenous Ojibwe and the sizable Finnish immigrant population that have coexisted there. It's partly based on real-life oral histories of people from there, mixed with the author's own experiences. Just really insightful, incisive, and rich writing that deeply embodies the regional storytelling and/or fidelity to place you're exploring. Wrote my own thoughts about it here."
– Chad

"My dad was a Vo-Ag teacher who crop-shared during his nights, weekends and summers, but the primary regret of his later years is that he couldn't ever purchase land to farm. When I picked up Wendell Berry's fiction years later, he prodded that inherited scar. I listen to [my dad] talk about the importance of loyalty, family, and community and I wonder what we will lose when we lose him. It sounds morbid, but it was actually healing to use those books to start conversations on hard topics.  My dad's generation is aging but mine is supposed to be in its prime.  I am no longer involved in agriculture the way my dad was and still is, but I think a lot about community and how to create it."
– Candice
 
"Your stories behind Uprooted yanked a chord in me... my family started moving when I was 14 and hasn't really stopped since. My siblings and I lived in a different town or state every 1-2 years. It was an illuminating experience in many ways, but it made me hunger for place and region. I've been in PA for the last 7+ years, and I still feel like I'm settling into place!"
 
– Joseph
My book: "Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind." I grew up in rural Idaho, and now live in Northern Virginia. I have written for The American Conservative,  New York Times, Christianity Today, and others. To quote C.S. Lewis, "You'll never find a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."
 
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