Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dispatch from Amish country

Amish countryside in autumn. (Photo by my friend and talented photographer Jeffrey Goodman)

As California transplants, we have had much to explore here in Ohio. One of my favorite trips so far has been to Amish country. I'm fascinated by different cultures, especially when they are worlds apart from mine. Add layers of religion and insularity and it's all the more intriguing. 

You've probably heard of the Amish thanks to reality shows like "Amish Mafia" (so terrible I couldn't even finish watching the commercial) and national headlines about the Amish beard-cutting ringleader who got 15 years in prison for terrorizing others in his community. My introduction was the 1985 Harrison Ford movie "Witness," which I admit is a terrible Amish primer but I was 11 years old and it made an impression.

The Amish are known for simple living, plain dress and a reluctance to embrace many conveniences of modern technology (television, radio, computers and cars, for instance, are considered "distractions" that take away from Amish values of family, community and God). They've been living an unfettered life for more than 300 years and are 249,000 strong here in the US (a recent study suggests their population has grown by 10 percent in the past two years).

Ohio has the largest Amish settlements in the US (followed by Pennsylvania and Indiana).
Above are a few snaps I took as we explored communities in Middlefield and Mesopotamia, OH.
My fave is the one in the top left corner. Love the contrast of the horse and buggy with the gas station.

We recently visited Amish settlements in Middlefield and Mesopotamia, Ohio. Just 45 minutes outside Cleveland, these are the picturesque communities you see on postcards: rustic landscapes, quaint farmhouses and plenty of horse and buggies.     

Exploring Amish country: (clockwise from top left) The Salaffs in front of End of the Commons
General Store, which first opened in 1840; yellow crocuses -- first signs of spring; Izzy sports a
traditional Amish hat and proudly displays her ice cream cone; what you can buy at the General Store;
me and fellow Californian-now-Ohioan Julie Goodman; the kids hitch a ride in an Amish buggy
(not really, it's just a display for the tourists); the Amish warn motorists to "share the road."      

My son asked me the other day, "Mom, why do the Amish not drive cars or use iPhones?" I told him it was because they desire to live a simple life. "What?!" he asked, baffled. "But technology DOES make life simple!" 

He has a good point (as a 7-year-old know it all, he always has a good point). Got a pile of dirty clothes? Throw them in the washing machine. Not sure how many feet make a mile? Look it up on the Internet. Miss friends who live on the other side of the planet? Just text them or Skype. I guess "simple" is how you define it.

Though I could never imagine living an Amish kind of life, there is much about their culture and values I admire: as farmers, their oneness with the land; their devotion to family and community; their deep-rooted faith. Beautiful things we can all strive for even in our modern, technology-driven existence.

Simplicity is a matter of perspective.  

"Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, 
and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!" Mark 4:8. (Photo by Jeff Goodman)

A clothesline was a news forecast
To neighbors passing by.
There were no secrets you could keep
When clothes were hung to dry.
I really miss that way of life.
It was a friendly sign
When neighbors knew each other best
By what hung on the line!

Excerpt from "The Clothesline Said So Much" by Marilyn K. Walker
(Photo by Jeff Goodman)


To learn more about the Amish, check out this fantastic 60-minute BBC documentary called Amish: A Secret Life.