THE AMISH IN WINTER

The Amish live close to the land, necessarily incorporating seasonal rhythms into their lives. After all the plowing and planting and nurturing and harvesting, the landscape breathes a sigh of relief as the world enters winter dormancy.

But not the Amish. Their lives are still busy with the daily rhythms of farm life. The horses and chickens must be fed. The children must walk to their one-room schools. Ice must be harvested. Laundry must be washed and then dried out on the line. The sawmills continue operating. Wood must be cut for warmth. Barns are built. Quilts are sewn. Sunday worship is not to be missed, as the believers gather in one home, converging from nearby homes by foot and by buggy.

It is a life apart, and that’s what those of us viewing from the outside find enchanting and ultimately unknowable, because we can only view the surface.

The photographs here represent six winters of quietly and respectfully observing these families at an undisclosed location in central Michigan.

SCHOOL CHILDREN BLIZZARD WHITE BORDER MASTER
Girls and boys walking home from school in a blizzard
Barn Raising in an Amish Community in Central Michigan
Amish men from the community come together for a barn-raising
Amish Clothesline in Central Michigan
Amish laundry in black and white
BUGGY TRACKS WHITE BORDER MASTER
Buggy tracks in fresh snow
CORN SHOCKS WHITE BORDER MASTER
Amish corn shocks in a blizzard
DEEP SNOW BUGGY WHITE BORDER MASTER
Deep snow passage
Michigan
Affection among the work horses
ICE WAGON WHITE BORDERS MASTER
Transporting ice blocks freshly cut from a pond
Clothesline in an Amish Community in Central Michigan
Towels drying in a winter breeze
Amish One-Room Schoolhouse
One room school
SUNDAY SERVICES WHITE BORDER MASTER
Coming together for Sunday Services
THREE SHEEP WHITE BORDERS MASTER
Three sheep with greenhouses
TURNING BUGGY WHITE BORDERS MASTER
Heading home in a blizzard
TWO HORSES WHITE BORDER MASTER
Two sleek horses taking a break from hauling buggies
Horse-drawn Buggy in an Amish Community in Central Michigan
Ready to leave
Michigan
Mother and child in an Amish barn

For more information about my photography, go to leerentz.com

MICHIGAN AMISH: A Timeless Way of Life

In Central Michigan, there is an Amish community that harkens back to America’s 19th Century, where horse-drawn buggies share the roads with Chevrolets, and life takes on traditional rhythms.

Stopping by a farm on a snowy morning

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.

Stacks of cornstalks enduring a November snowstorm

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!

An Amish one-room schoolhouse after the children have left for the day

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.

Amish farmers stack their cornstalks in the field in this distinctive manner, creating a series of pyramids through the cornfield

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.

Horses are a daily part of Amish life; they plow the fields and pull the buggies and assist in much of the other work around these farms that harken back to an earlier time

Stacks of cornstalks after a snowstorm

Amish horses grazing in a cornfield

Buggies share the road with cars; the warning triangles on the backs of the buggies were a reluctant concession to safety

Cornstalks bending away from the wind-borne snow


To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

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/


April 23, 2008 Putting the Fun Back in Fundamentalism

Sometimes a good church sign is just too funny for this photographer to pass up. In my recent travels in the American South, I encountered four church signs that made me laugh.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography.  I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Sometimes a good church sign is just too funny for this photographer to pass up.  In my recent travels in the American South, I encountered four church signs that made me laugh.  One is intentionally funny; the others are based on quirky place names. 

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.