5 questions with Gracy Olmstead
Gracy Olmstead is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. She was a 2015 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is currently writing a book about the Idaho farming community where she grew up. She also writes Granola, a monthly newsletter about place, books, and community.
Joe Waters (Co-Founder + CEO, Capita): You come from a farming community and, I gather, you grew up on a farm. What is the connection between human flourishing and the flourishing of the land?
Gracy Olmstead: I did not grow up on a farm—my grandfather and great-grandfather were both farmers, and so food from their farm filled our freezer and graced our dinner table. We lived in a rural town, surrounded by farmers, and so it was very natural for us to eat seasonally, and to participate in traditions like preserving, jam-making, pickling, and freezing. I learned, through many of these communal traditions, to value good food and to respect those who grow it.
It seems impossible to separate out human flourishing from the flourishing of the land. We depend on the land, and are constantly calling upon it for sustenance, support, and happiness. The food we eat cannot (or at least should not) be considered separate from the farmers, animals, plants, and soil which are responsible for its presence in our fridges or on our tables. Sadly, many modern Americans do not understand this, in large part because of the lack of connection and context offered when we buy our food from the supermarket.
Stewardship, then, is something we are innately called to as humans—and something that brings us a deep psychological, physical, and spiritual pleasure when we allow ourselves to embrace its responsibilities and limits. Climate change has made the connection between human flourishing and the flourishing of the land very obvious and immediate to many people today. But that scope can be overwhelming for some people, and lead them to feelings of despair. Stewardship and flourishing can and must also encompass a more immediate and personal vision. Whether it's tending a bevy of potted plants, or growing tomatoes in your backyard, there is ample evidence to show that nurturing a landscape also nurtures the soul—and allows us, even in a small way, to take part in bettering our world.
JW: A lot of our readers are children’s advocates and, I strongly suspect, that they don’t often advocate for farms and farming communities. Should they?
GO: All of us have our passions, and that is important. Advocating for children is a magnificent calling and passion, and I can see how it could easily take up the entirety of one's time and focus. But insofar as the wellbeing of the land, of rural towns, and of our food supply have very strong links to children's wellbeing and health, I do think we should learn at least a little bit more about them—and educate our children on them, as they grow older. These responsibilities will become theirs, soon enough.
JW: You wrote recently about the rhythms of feasting and fasting that one finds in many global religious traditions. It strikes me that those rhythms are deeply formative for young children, and teach a deeper respect and appreciation for nature, balance, limits that have broad implications for our health and the health of the planet. How might parents -- whether they be religious or not -- form their children to appreciate those rhythms and balance in a liquid world?
GO: There are simple ways to make seasonality and regionality tangible to a child. I love the fact that religion can imbue these facets of our world with a sacred light, and inspire wonder in our hearts. But there is much to wonder at and love, regardless of one's religious beliefs. Picking apples in the fall and making applesauce or apple butter will forever fill children with delight at the smell of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon with the smoky, crisp scents of autumn. Growing tomatoes and basil in the garden (and perhaps using them to make some canned or frozen tomato sauce!) might inspire their taste buds, while teaching them how to garden, how to enjoy the bounty of summer. Not eating fresh tomatoes in the dead of winter will, similarly, teach them to get all the more excited for that summertime season of feasting. Seasonal holidays (like Thanksgiving, for instance) can easily become opportunities to eat seasonally, if we're willing to take the time and effort to do so.
Of course, regionality impacts seasonality. The rhythms of seasonality in Florida will be very different from those we experience here in Virginia. But I think all of us—regardless of where we live—have important and exciting opportunities to learn more about the native plants and the food in our landscape, when they flower and produce fruit, and how to care for them.
JW: What’s a project you’ve dreamed about, but haven’t started yet?
GO: I would love to expand my garden significantly in the future, and to add chickens to our backyard operation. These sorts of endeavors are limited at present by the demands of my writing career and the needs of my young children—it's hard to imagine adding much more responsibility than we have right now, until they're a bit older. But we will see what the next couple years bring.
JW: What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to better understand contemporary threats to the well-being of America's families?
GO: I think Wendell Berry's book The Unsettling of America is a classic—it helps explain the shifts which have happened in rural America over the past several decades, and why they matter to all of us. I also would add that Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation is an important book for understanding the threats which modern technology and social media pose for our relationships with each other, and with the world beyond our heads.