International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: USA
many another film fan seeing 'Witness' a few years ago, I was quite
charmed by its portrayal of the Amish way of life; quite curious
to confirm what was shown of it on the screen and to learn more
about what was left out. Then I have my chance while on holiday
in Philadelphia, joining a group of other visitors on a bus tour
for the two hour drive out to Lancaster County, home of the Pennsylvania
knowledgeable driver-guide prepared us for what we were about to see
with a history lesson that began by disposing of the 'Dutch' misnomer
given by an 18th century immigration officer mistaking the word Deutch
when registering these newcomers from Germany.
The Amish, also known as Amish-Mennonites, dissenting entirely from
the state church and partly from their Mennonite forebears in following
the teaching of Elder Jacob Amanne, came in 1720 to find religious freedom
in America, founding communities first in Pennsylvania and later in
other parts of the United States and Canada, all more or less 'Christian
The 'Old Order Amish', preferring self-sufficiency to the spiritual
corruption of worldliness, have withdrawn from what we call the
rat race, rejecting much of modern technology and devoting themselves
to the service - in this order - of God, the land and their community.
Driving between level fields of spring wheat and silage already cut,
with here and there an implement drawn by horses or mules, and by barn-yard
with full corn cribs and hugely-uddered cows, we could se for ourselves
their second devotion at work, and were not surprised to hear how successful
and widely respected for their organic agriculture the Amish are.
The land, we learned, is individually owned, with farms averaging about
65 acres per family living in neat white houses among immaculate gardens
of flowers and vegetables. There is a good deal of cooperation
between farms, but each is financially independent and amply provides
for the family's very simple needs, with the surplus pooled - their
third devotion - in a health and welfare fund for the entire community.
Some of the houses had additional accommodation built alongside for
retiring parents handing the farm over to the youngest (!) of their
first devotion - that to God - we were shortly to discover at an
old Quaker farm house, converted and authentically furnished, where
we were handed over to the people responsible for this part of the
tour, and ushered into a large plain parlour with rows of hard benches
on either side of a wood-burning stove. In such a room the
Amish, rejecting churches, hold their Sunday services, worshippers
and wooden benches going each week to a different house where the
bishop and elders speak to men and women sitting apart and
opposite for several hours before a large communal meal.
Here we learned
of the Amish Anabaptist tradition of 'religious commitment', not in
infancy but by baptism at an age of discretion sometime before marriage,
after which serious deviation from the chosen path resulted in 'shunning'
- what we might call being sent to Coventry - not temporarily as with
the more forgiving Mennonites, but excluded from all social activity
the parlour we were taken to the kitchen, equally unadorned except
by charming old chinaware and brightly beautiful vegetables and
fruit bottled, we were told, next door in the cooler summer kitchen,
by gas in preference to the wood stove which, apart from the
Sunday parlour's, was the only source of winter heat. Lucky
in that case, we said to ourselves, whoever sleeps overhead, and
found that it was not the children, although their bedrooms provided
the most interesting glimpses of Amish life in the house.
Up a narrow bare
wood stair to the little girls' room with an iron bedstead 'sprung'
with criss-crossed rope and covered with a simple patchwork quilt.
No curtains, no carpet, no wardrobe for the clothes that were hung by
hooks around the walls: plain red and blue dresses - colours allowed
for children but not patterns - with aprons traditionally and still
fastened at waist and shoulder by 'straight pins' substituting for buttons
(the origin of the word pinafore?) one would suppose restricting freedom
of movement a good deal. Weekdays a black apron, Sundays white
until the wearer's wedding day when it (the white one) is put away until
death and worn at her burial. Likewise with the neat black or white
stringed cap worn to cover the hair, the white one, though, discarded
before marriage as a signal to eligible young men of willingness to
For Amish boys, maturity is measured in the leg length of their black
serge trousers, which we saw in their similarly furnished bedroom, and
noticed incidentally the drop-front, as it is called, more comfortably
fastened without the aid of pins! Shorts for little boys getting
longer, and a collar added to the matching black jacket worn over a
white shirt and under a wide-brimmed straw or black felt hat.
Here too, a different style of hat signalled the wearer's readiness
for courtship as well as the chin beard (no moustache) which once started
will not afterwards be shaved or cut.
The parent's' room differed from the children's only in the size and
comfort of its double box-spring bed with wooden cradle alongside, and
in its situation usually above or next to the heated kitchen for
the sake of the cradle's current occupant. With families averaging
8 - 10 children, it is clear that the Amish aren't in favour of birth-control,
nor - we were told - of inoculation, and there is a significant infant
mortality due to small-pox even today.
This house had no running water or toilet facilities, which apparently
would be typical except for the public health requirement of modern
plumbing for all premises associated with the sale of food and milk
which would, in fact, include most of the community, as we saw at our
next stop: a large and lively roadside market with busloads of tourists
like ourselves getting their instruction in several different languages.
Here, as well as carvings, candles, cook-ware and every conceivable
household item covered in quilting, was a wonderful display of fresh
fruit and vegetables, jams and jellies, pickles, eggs, cheese, honey,
hams, pastries, pies and a hundred different kinds of sausage and sliced
meats served by Amish men and women and quite a few young girls.
After this, the little town of Intercourse that was the scene in 'Witness'
of the famous ice-cream fight: its once-worthy now mockable name not
nearly so much in evidence as the many folksy, crafty signs everywhere
welcoming tourists to restaurants and cafés and homes converted
into shops exploiting the Amish connection with whatever their merchandise
from food to furniture, from bedding plants to books. Really,
apart from the sociological interest of so much commercial activity
fossilising and sentimentalising a flourishing and very practical culture,
this was far less finteresting than the things we were told by our driver
and what we could see for ourselves from the windows of our bus.
Passing the one-room school houses, for instance, where children are
taught mostly by ex-pupils, and learning of the long and bitter fight
with the government to limit education to grade 8 (age 13) and to opt
out of the state school tax, successful on the first but not the second
point in spite of a precedent with the Social Fund to which the Amish
do not contribute, taking - as they do - such reliable and good care
of their own.,
Without hospitals, they do have occasional recourse to (usually) Mennonite
doctors, but convalesce and certainly bear their children at home.
Nor are there any churches, as we have already learned, but they need
cemeteries of course: one we saw with plain, identical head and foot
stones in rows, and a pathetic few out of line against and partly under
the surrounding fence. This ambiguous position, we were told,
was for the shunned whose ultimate forgiveness was for God to decide.
As we travelled around and between the well-tended farms and fields,
we met or passed a number of neat little closed carts, horse-drawn and
spanking along the roads on metal wheels denied rubber tyres for the
comfort that might encourage their owners to travel far from home.
The Amish of course don't use cars, but we did see a few tractors with
metal-lugged wheels which aren't allowed on the road, and we learned
of other mechanical implements in common use though not powered by mains
gas or electricity.
There seem to be two guiding principles involved with possessions,
namely: none that facilitate travel, and none that connect directly
with the outside world, so that batteries and bottled gas are acceptable,
but no mains power, newspapers, telephone or TV and this may have as
much to do with limiting the 10-15% annual loss of members as with old
fashioned piety. As it is, numbers keep up and even rise with
the high birth rate, although the small farms don't support all family
members, and some young men have to find work outside.
this we learned from our guide who was so well informed we wondered
if he might be one such, until he was stumped for an answer - which
he certainly would have known - whether artificial insemination
is used in the breeding of cows. Lacking only that small detail
- and without so much as speaking to an actual Amish - we now felt
thoroughly knowledgeable about their way of life, thought it very
well represented by the film, and wondered what they themselves
had thought of it.,
Not too much, was
the answer, although we thought it showed their 'civilisation' relative
to ours in a rather favourable light., Perhaps they feared the
undeniable allure of Harrison Ford and his ilk for any of their number
who had access to a battery-powered TV.
© Virginia Hobart Feb 2009
vhobart at toucansurf.com
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