Sunday, September 2, 2012

Among the Amish

I’m spending a long weekend on Cloud, with no company but Rufus, the oldest and only male among our three cats. Rufus is the only one of the three who gets to make these trips, because he is the most unflappable of creatures, and also the most bonded to us. He endured the trip here – six hours in all when you count the border crossing and the meal and coffee stops – without a single whimper, but with much peering out and sniffing at the windows at the wonders of the roadways and the aromas of these new realms.

I feel a new and different person here, with so much space around me, the life I encounter in the forms of tiny frogs, hummingbirds and surreal denizens of the insect world. It was here – after arriving at Cloud in the early morning – that Rufus issued his first guttural growl, at creatures he sensed but could not see, nor, I suspect, understand. He has free reign of these 9 acres, but hasn’t strayed far from me, which I appreciate – not having ventured into the distant corners of our lot myself, just yet.
It’s such a different thing having this sort of relationship to a plot of land. So different than my lifelong experience of the city, where whatever nature is encountered has bent itself to the demands of ourselves: ever restless, too busy to see, dodging the rhythms that surround us.

Both I and Rufus – city cat that he is – are quieted by our encounter with this relatively untame place. Here, it seems that nature ignores us, as we ignore our potted plants and trees planted singly along boulevards as decoration. Here, nature explodes out of every untended place. I’m amazed at the proliferation of species. There’s something too about the wildness itself – this evidence of life thriving, without plan or regulation or the imposed order of what we call reason. I know some will say that this all points to some divine intelligence. All I know is that, whatever intelligence is indicated, if intelligence it be, is beyond my grasp, ultimately beyond the parsing and analysis of our infant sciences.
But enough of that. It’s the Amish I want to write about. Because I was moved by my encounter with these people who are legendary in America, though they’ve maintained their simple, grounded existence for centuries, relatively untouched amid the hustle and the bustle.

Nothing so exceptional about my “encounter” either. I simple drove downt he road a piece from cloud, to Lester’s yard, referred to hereabouts as the Amish Mall. Lester has an assortment of trailers and rvs parked around his barn, each bursting with what I guess to be surplus merchandise he buys, then sells. It seems – to some degree – a rather worldly pursuit for a member of a people I’d always thought of as maintaining a prideful separateness for our “consumer” reality. Be that as it may, Lester moves about his yard barefoot and in coveralls, with the long beard and the wide-brimmed straw hat I expected. He deals in cash, clumping and peeling bills to and from a wad he keeps in one of his deep pockets, and writes out all his transactions in the small empty gaps he finds in a wad of a notepad he carries in another. Though there are a half dozen other “outsiders” about his yard when I come by, he is unhurried, and he invites me to have a look around, including inside any of the trailers.
All I’m looking for on this stop are some nails, and I find them stacked willy-nilly in boxes and cartons, some of which are open and spilling their contents onto the trailer floor. I find what I need and then add to them a fat tomato - 75 - and a jar of strawberry jam - $4.50. I ask him if $10. will cover the lot, and after suggesting I might have weighed the nails for an accurate pricing, he shrugs and accepts the $10, implying that I’ve paid too much. But I tell him I’m in a hurry to get to his neighbor that he’s directed me to, who sells the rough lumber, so we part ways and I head over to Harry Troyer’s.

Harry is a more smiling man than Lester. He’s dressed about the same, though he wears shoes. And he’s mostly busy at his gasoline-powered saw while I’m there, among several others getting supplies at the last moment, before he closes down for the weekend. I mostly interact with Abe, a youngster of about 11 or twelve. Abe is smart and a lot more knowledgeable about wood than I am. When I tell him I’m constructing a few steps for the back of the cabin, he tells me that oak is better for outside jobs than pine, though more expensive. He helps me find the 2x4s and 2x6s I decide on, and load them into the back of the car. By the time we’re done, Harry is free to settle us up. My purchase comes to just over $21. and Harry too deals from a big wad of cash, though he writes out a proper receipt with his name printed on it.
I’m told that there are two different groups among the Amish, distinguished by the amount of technology and interaction with the wider world that they tolerate. I’m not sure to which these two households I’ve dealt with belong. They don’t seem particularly shy or wary of us outsiders. All the barefoot kids I encounter along the road - staw-hatted or bonneted, depending on the gender – offer a wave as I pass. I haven’t seem many brown-skinned folks in the vicinity, so I imagine I’m a bit of a novelty to them. But all is calm, low key and pleasant as I chat with Abe and Harry, and with the next-to-last customer, buying a truckload of lumber for a horse corral their building.

When we’re alone, Harry and I, I share – because I’ve been feeling the desire to share it, to honor it with him – my understanding of the debt my people owe to his. I recount what I’ve read, about how the  Amish were among the only early Americans who stood against slavery on principle, and about how they opened their homes to escaped blacks on their way to freedom along the Underground Railroad. I tell him that, until today, I’d never met an Amish person, but that I’ve always appreciated their principled stand, and was glad to acknowledge that, here, to him. Harry smiled at that, a pleasant smile, pleased and a little self-conscious. Yes, he said, he’d heard a little about that.
We chat a little more. He’s lived here for twenty-four years, having come from Pennsylvania, Harry says. The boy Abe, had come from Wisconsin, only five years before. This of course, checked my assumption, that these were people rooted generations deep into the soil of these particular hills. So again, as is so frequent when I’m in Toronto, I’m standing with people on land none of us was born to, that we’ve all come to from somewhere else. What dya know!? It’s enough of a tiny coincidence that I raise my eyes to the hills, glowing in the light of the descending sun. It’s so beautiful around here, I say. It’s one of the most beautiful views in the whole area, young Abe says.

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