MICHIGAN AMISH: A Timeless Way of Life
Imagine rural America as it was in the late autumn of 1875. Horse-drawn buggies pass by, the drivers greeting passers-by with a wave. Children play in the snow outside a one-room schoolhouse. Farmers are out on the pond, cutting ice to put away for the distant summer. Eggs and quilts are for sale at a roadside farm. Men pitch in to build a new house for one that burned down …
Except it is not 1875: it is 2010, in a pastoral landscape in central Michigan where scores of Amish farms and families have established a community during the past 25 years. This is the area where my mother lives, though she is not Amish. I remember when the first families arrived and bought some old and tired farms; my mother was talking to a man who had experienced the Amish arriving in other areas, and he said something to the effect of “You are going to experience a wonderful renaissance here, as the Amish bring the worn-out soil back to life.” He was right, and I’ve watched through the years as the numbers of Amish rose and the landscape came back to life.
My photographs here were all taken on several brief late autumn and early winter drives through the Amish landscape, so they comprise just a snapshot of a different way of life. I wish I could spend time getting to know these people, but I live half a continent away and it isn’t easy to strike up a conversation between buggy and Buick.
While there, I watched three different Amish wagons, drawn by draft horses, coming across the fields from unseen ponds, each carrying a shiny load of freshly cut ice. The blocks of ice were perhaps 8″ thick, reflecting a long and cold December, and they had the slight blue-green tint hinting at their pond origin. I watched one pair of men putting the blocks into an insulated shed using big, steel ice tongs.
This brings me back to a childhood memory of my family buying ice during a circa 1960 camping trip in the Upper Peninsula. Along the waterfront in Copper Harbor, on the Keweenaw Peninsula which juts jauntily into Lake Superior, there was an old-timer selling his ice from an insulated shed. He hauled it out with tongs, and rinsed off the insulating layer of sawdust by dunking the block in a galvanized tub of lake water. My dad then put the block in our green Coleman ice chest to take back to the campground at Fort Wilkins State Park. That kind of experience has pretty much vanished in 21st century America.
When I toured the Amish landscape on a Monday, nearly every farmer’s wife had set out her wash to dry in the sub-freezing winds. Some had lines strung up on the farmhouse porch; others had lines in the yard, where blue denim overalls shared the breeze with colorful quilts.
Signs in front of the old white farmhouses proclaim what is for sale, usually with the disclaimer “No Sunday Sales.” Some will be selling brown eggs and honey; others might have quilts or deer blinds or maple syrup or freshly-baked pies. The families make plenty of time for these enterprises; after all, there aren’t umpteen hours of television per day, or 300 tweets per day, or email, or shopping for the latest fashions. These people live off the electric grid. In fact, should catastrophe hit America, we will be looking to the Amish to see what we can emulate from their self-sufficient way of life.
While driving one gravel road, I came upon a big wagon with two draft horses parked in one lane of the narrow road. Two Amish men were cutting firewood from roadside trees and loading it on the wagon. Their dog sat looking at me
A cow grazes among the cornstalks of an Amish farm, cleaning up the cornfield and fertilizing it at the same time; the red barn in the distance is probably not Amish unless recently acquired, since the Amish paint their barns white
from the other lane, blocking it, so I waited patiently for one of the men to see why I was parked there. He realized that the dog was in the way and called it. He laughed; I laughed; and we had a moment of human connection.
I saw three one-room schoolhouses in the area. Through the windows of one, I could see children praying. Later, I saw about ten children, clad entirely in black, playing in the white snow during recess outside another schoolhouse. Amish children clearly enjoy their snowball fights!
Had it been late spring, I would have seen the Amish children walking to school in their traditional clothes, complete with straw hats. Amish men also wear straw hats, and Amish women wear long dresses, even while working in their beautiful gardens. The ladies wear hair coverings in the summer and black bonnets in the winter. Many Amish go barefoot in warm weather.
On this trip I saw the spread of sawmills among the Amish–at least a half-dozen farms had associated sawmills. This is a good fit for the Amish, because many of the farms have woodlots where the farmers can take a sustainable harvest of hardwood oaks and maples. One woodlot was set up as a sugarbush, where each March the farmer would tap the Sugar Maples, collect the sap, and boil off the excess water to make one of the most flavorful products on earth–maple syrup.
As I sit here at my computer typing this story, I realize one of the aspects of Amish life that I envy: the Amish men spend their lives outdoors doing hard physical work. They plow fields, stack corn, milk cows, split firewood, and accomplish all the other necessary chores around a farm. These men stay in great shape from their work, while I have to jog mindlessly along a road or work out on a fitness machine as a necessary counterpoint to my digital life. I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs … or would I? Probably not.
The Amish life would work for many, but for me the rules of the religion would be something of a straightjacket. Creative expression does not often blend well with fundamentalism. So here I am, living an imperfect life, but one that allows me as much flexibility and creativity as I can muster. And there they are, living satisfying lives in the shelter of a like-minded community. We are essentially different, and I love this diversity of lives that America encourages.
To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.
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For another of my weblogs celebrating the rural traditions of America, go to https://leerentz.wordpress.com/2010/09/10/cades-cove-app…the-past-tense/