Thursday, July 27, 2006

My Time Among the Amish

It had never occurred to me at the beginning of my trip that the Amish might so excellently represent agrarian and community ideals; the very heart of my interests in this journey. The simple explanation for this oversight is that I’d actually never encountered the Amish in any of my former travels and therefore knew absolutely nothing about them. As far as I know, the Amish have no settlements in Alabama or Georgia, the two states I have thus far claimed as home.

During my stay in Kentucky, people began talking about the Amish a little more, and even asked if I planned on visiting any of them. I instantly decided that I should. They interested me on several levels. First, they possess an uncanny commitment to limit their use of technology for the preservation of their community values. Secondly, they appear to have a strong land ethic, one which values creation and nurtures the environment as opposed to one that squeezes every ounce of productivity and profit out of their resources. And then, what seemed to tie this all together was a firm foundation on religious principles. I just had to know how the Amish interpreted Christian doctrine in their philosophy on stewardship and responsibility for the land.

By this point in the trip I have just about shed every ounce of shyness still lingering about, which is useful when your plan for meeting the Amish is to ride up to one of their homes and ask if you can live with them for a couple of days. I had asked a few questions about the area and learned that there was an Amish grocery store between the town of Marion and the Ohio River which separates Kentucky from Illinois. It was late Saturday afternoon and I was figuring that the store might be closed, but it seemed like a good starting point. The Hillside Grocery was interesting as it was practically built right into the side of a large, beautiful, white, wooden, two-story Amish home. I pulled up and peered into the closed store and was surprised to see boxes of Kellog’s cereal on the shelves, and boxes of Jell-O. I guess Amish eat some of the same stuff we do. The family also ran a sawmill on the property and you could hear the whirring of equipment coming from the lumberyard.

As I considered knocking on the door, a large, round, towering man in a bright, blue, long sleeved shirt came out. He had a cheerful gleam in his bright blue eyes and you could tell he was used to talking to people. I smiled, totally at ease with this particular fellow and told him my unusual errand at that hour of day. I explained that I was hoping to hook up with a farmer in the community and learn a bit from him if he would allow me to camp in his yard. The fellow’s name was John Miller and he had started the sawmill, started the store, built the fine house all within the last seven years. Before his arrival there had been only weeds and scrub on this land. He was familiar with cross-country bikers as one had paid him a visit. An Englishmen rider, failing to reach the Ohio River before the ferry closed for the day, came looking for a place to stay and John gave him a room for the evening. But I was another case entirely, I came with a specific purpose. He thought for a minute and said, “You should visit John Beechy.” He broke out a little brochure that the local Chamber of Commerce had developed that listed the locations of Amish businesses. It was interesting to see the tourism and economic value that the area attributed to the Amish community; some of this attention not totally welcome.

Beechy had formerly been a dairy farmer until the local dairy out of Paducah ceased coming out to pick up the milk. There just weren’t enough other small dairies in the area to make it worth the drive anymore so Mr. Beechy had sold his dairy cows. The plight of the small dairy had come up again and again on my trip so this sounded like the perfect place. I mounted up and rode a little deeper into Amish country.

Amish land is pretty. The pastures are well managed, the homes are white and gleaming, the yards neat and tidy, flowers adorn the garden; an air of health and respect rests upon the land. I passed houses with simple hand scrawled signs selling potted plants, rabbits, butter, sorghum, and milk. I saw children playing in the side yard in the last rays of the sun. I came into Beechy’s place and found a young man with curly blond hair, and the characteristic bushy long beard, sitting in an open wagon, loaded up with about four little girls, dressed to their ankles in pretty green dresses and black bonnets. I told him I was looking for John Beechy and he informed me that Beechy was his father-in-law, and he and his wife were house sitting for him and caring for the animals while he was away visiting family in Colorado. This fellow’s name was Allen, and he and his wife and their four kids were on their way home for the evening. I asked about other farmers in the area and he mentioned that Amos Mast was just up the road. I had passed his place and noticed his signs for butter, milk and sorghum and saw the dairy barn. The boy playing in the sunlight had been from that yard. That seemed like the place to go.

The hour was getting late now, approaching 8 o’clock. As I pulled in, Mr. Mast was walking towards the front door and looked skeptically at my arrival. “How are you today?” I asked. “Well, I’m pretty tired, but I guess I’m O.K.,” he answered. He looked tired and a bit grumpy. I knew I had a hard sell on my hands. I began to explain who I was and that I was looking for a farm family to stay with and had found the Beechy’s away. After hearing my introduction he said he needed to ask his son. When they returned I made a more elaborate plea. It was rather comical, this tall brightly colored, sweaty weirdo explaining how he’s studying farms during a 4500 mile journey across the country. The ability for Amos, the father, and Joseph, the son, to take it all in so quickly was too much for them. They kept looking at each other and saying, “What do you think?” “I don’t know, what do you think?” was pretty much the nature of the exchange. In between I would try and pepper them with something, anything that might make them trust me a little bit further. I finally told them my preference would be to just camp there, considering the hour, and I think we were all grateful to have a resolution to the dilemma.

I pitched camp, a little concerned that I had picked a family that wouldn’t really be comfortable sharing very much. Before dark, Amos came back out to check on me and was relaxed, friendly, and talkative. Things were going to work out fine. The following day being Sunday, it wouldn’t be a good day to ask them questions about business. The Sabbath is a holy day of rest. Amish church is a little peculiar. They don’t believe in fancy churches so services are just held in people’s homes. The lessons usually go on for about three hours and are entirely in Pennsylvanian Dutch which is derived from German. In fact, the Amish, when around one another speak Dutch exclusively. Children don’t begin learning English until they go to school around the age of six. I had already attempted to address several kids and wondered why they stood and stared at me expressionless. They couldn’t understand what I was saying to them. It’s very challenging to get an Amish child to smile, or an Amish adult for that matter. The Amish sense of humor is elusive at best.

Next morning after taking some photos I decided it wouldn’t be a good idea to impose myself too much on a holy day so I headed across the river for church with my own people, the Methodists. I awoke and arrived at Cave in Rock via a fun ride across the Ohio River on a ferry.

Cave in Rock has an infamous history. On the northern bank of the River sits an enormous cave carved through the limestone that was home to thieves, pirates and murderers over many years. Lewis and Clark knew to be wary when they reached this point as they entered the western frontier. In the 18th century, many visitors to the area would arrive at the ferry site and would be taken to the cave where they were parted with their possessions and often their lives.

I wandered around the cave before attending church. The congregation of 15 or so was exuberantly friendly and Don Joiner who sat behind me knew Amos well. In fact, Amos had reshingled the roof of the church. I relaxed for much of the day on the bluffs of the Ohio above Cave in Rock and headed back across the river in the afternoon.

On my way back to “the community” I stopped and introduced myself to three Amish ladies who were having a Sunday meeting next to the building selling potted plants. Again, they greeted me as the novelty that I was, a fellow wanting to spend time in their community and learn a bit about how they farmed. They spoke well of the Masts and said that they were some of the few that were still farming full time. This community had many other enterprises that supported it. There were quite a few woodworkers, cabinet makers, a buggy business, bakers, but not many farmers. “Joseph is a true farmer,” they said and I looked forward to the next day.

Before returning to the Mast’s I stopped back by the Beechy’s and found the same young man, Allen Byler, his wife Linda and their four kids. Allen and I got along amazingly. He had just started his own cabinet business and he was quite interested in my trip and the motivations behind it. I told him the whole long story about how I decided to do the trip including the story of Kevin Kelly (I need to tell this tale sometime). Allen had an interesting perspective. He firmly believed that a farm was the best place to raise children, even though he himself did very little farming. I inquired what he meant by that and he gave the following illustration. He described how a farmer may have a crop of corn, but a summer hail storm comes through and destroys a portion of the crop. There’s no reason to get mad, because what are you going to get mad at. When talking with farmers who had gone through such trials they would often explain how another crop would do really well that year, compensating for the loss. Without saying it directly, I think Allen valued the respect for nature and the perspective on gain and loss that comes from farming. We discussed how a person might learn about the mind of God by observing the patterns and laws of nature. In that way a person is more connected to the spiritual realm in their daily life. It was a beautiful conversation.

What is odd to me in many of my perceptions of the Amish is the similarities with so-called hippies. Don’t get me wrong there are some striking differences. The Amish are not sensual, they are practical and rational and disciplined. But they are deeply curious about the land and nature, and they are craftspeople and artists, but not in the sensual sense of these activities, always in the practical. They enjoy being directly involved in the daily aspects of their lives from their food, to their furniture, to their homes, to the instruction of their animals.

The next morning began before the sun crested the eastern hill. It was about 5:45 and it was time to start the morning chores. This is only the second family I have stayed with that follows the regular farm regimen of morning chores before breakfast. Having grown up in a household without so-called chores and in a society that no longer even knows what chores are, it took me a while to fully grasp the concept of chores. Chores are the activities that are required of you everyday, and they must be done before anything else.

Chores at the Mast house were primarily milking their three dairy cows. Amos has all but retired as he and his wife both have heart trouble and have had a number of surgeries, so I spent my time with his son Joseph who purchased the farm from him shortly after he and his wife Dorothy married six years prior. In an interesting and not uncommon arrangement, Joseph makes payments on the house and farm directly to his father, therefore providing for his fathers retirement as the Amish do not believe in Social Security, nor do they pay into it.

Having never spent time at a dairy before, everything I observed was new to me. All the milking was done by hand. Each cow was led into the milking stall where they were tied and their tails also fastened with rope. A mixture of corn meal and oats was fed to the cows to keep them occupied during the milking. Joseph then would wipe the four tits clean with a rag to remove dirt, hay and grass. A small wooden milking stool that sat balanced on one thick leg was all that Joseph used as he rapidly milked the four quarters of the udder. The cows are milked twice a day about twelve hours apart at 6AM and 6PM. The three cows yield about 12 gallons of milk a day. They sell whole milk to several customers who pick the milk up at their home in glass gallon jars (like pickle jars). After milking a small wagon is used to pull the milk to the basement where it is filtered and then placed in a large milk and cream separator that is operated by a hand crank, ignoring the electric option, as they have not electricity. The cream is often held in the cooler until there is enough to churn into butter. After the cream warms to 60 degrees it’s churned by an ingenious pully system that Joseph built that works off a gasoline engine which they only use for this purpose and to operate a compressor that makes ice in the cooler that keeps their milk from spoiling. Some concessions are required and gasoline is used on the farm, in amazingly small amounts.

One of Joseph’s daughters, only about four years old comes down stairs in her brown dress, buttons down the back, and her black bonnet, and silently helps her father with the chores. She stands on a plastic Seacrest Crate that has been flipped over so that she can reach the sink and helps stack the metal cones from the cream separator so that they will dry as her father rapidly washes all the buckets and stainless steel bowls and parts.

Joseph is about my age, maybe a year younger, 31. He’s a thin black haired man with blue eyes and a quiet personality. He has multiple patches on the seat of his denim pants.

The Amish do not allow photographs to be taken of them. They base this custom on scripture that says Thou shalt take no graven image….and worship it. Joseph explains in detail how they take the scripture to the fullest extent of taking no pictures at all, whether you worship that image or not. I mention to him that a modern Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias talks about how knowledge is passed on from generation to generation has changed from an oral tradition, to a written tradition, and we are now in an era where information is primarily conveyed via images. The concern is that each of these forms is a less direct way of understanding reality. be continued

This entry was posted on 7/27/2006 5:07 PM


7/28/2006 7:07 AM Glad wrote:
Whew! What incredibly good writing... I enjoy the details and descriptions of your life with the Amish people... and the photos are incredible! Thanks for sharing your journey.

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