Amish Way of Life, Pennsylvania (2006)

Amish Way of Life, Pennsylvania (2006)
Anti-Vaxxers Are Idolizing the Amish, Inexplicably - The Atlantic

LANCASTER COUNTY is situated on the rolling plains of Pennsylvania. At first sight, it seems no different from the rest of suburban United States. The same spaced-out two-storied houses with sloping roofs, neatly laid-out streets and well-tended farmlands with capsule like granary rising skywards. But then something is amiss. You wonder what it could be. As you cruise along the ribbon-like road, suddenly it strikes you – there are no cars except your own – something absolutely unique in the U.S. And then, you find there are no garages either, in any of the houses you pass. Instead, you find an occasional horse-drawn buggy, tethered to a peg. There are also clotheslines with neatly clipped clothes fluttering in the breeze – so unlike the rest of the U.S. where electrically operated dryer is the norm and clotheslines are considered unseemly.

In harmony with Nature

Actually, Lancaster county and its people could be from another planet altogether. Such is the difference in the lifestyles of the Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutch) who inhabit this region and the average American. Also called the Amish, these are people who have consciously chosen to live in harmony with Nature. They eschew most things that are integral to our lives today, such as electricity, telephones, automobiles, machines, chewing gum, even ready-made clothes… the list is endless. In fact, I was told that some Amish don’t even use matchboxes but instead light fires with flint stones! The Amish originally hailed from Germany and Switzerland who fled religious persecution in the early 16th century. Now there are a few Amish communities scattered in north America and Canada, the most conspicuous being the Lancaster County community.On the way, we passed many horse-drawn buggies with the rider sitting inside a black square box cage. We also passed many cyclists kick-pedalling their one-wheeled scooties. These scooties did not have a tyre, but rolled on metal rims, making a scraping noise. “Thus far, but no further” seems to be the motto of the Amish who, after endless debates and discussions, decided to adopt the wheel, but not the tyre! What cannot be fashioned by hand or hand-made machines are anathema to most Amish. Naturally, the Amish county has many workshops operated with handmade tools.We come across a potter’s shed, and many quilt shops selling gorgeous hand-made quilts with typical Amish designs. The Amish are somewhat ambivalent about mixing with non-Amish people, but do have shops selling stuff patronised almost exclusively by non-Amish. They also try to cultivate their own food. Almost every house has its own patch of land sewn with sweet pea, potato, wheat and corn. We encountered a middle-aged woman in an apron combing the earth with a hoe-like tool. She was quite glad to take a break to give us directions, but we engaged her in a long chat – to find out more about the Amish way of life. Her dress was a long single gown with a severe cut and absolutely no embellishment. She wore long hair, in a single plait and a colourful scarf covered half her head. We learned that almost all Amish women dress in a similar fashion. Their motto – never invite attention to oneself – applied to the men as well. The women don’t cut their hair, which they usually wear in a bun at the back. I was somewhat disappointed to find her wearing synthetic material, but she said the Amish don’t weave their own cloth, but buy it from the market. But they tailor their clothes, mostly by hand. Curiously, the Amish have a fetish about not using buttons. Our Amish acquaintance also wore spectacles, which I thought was rather incongruent. She would not let me photograph her saying the Amish are against photography. As if to assuage my disappointment, she explained that the Amish were not against all technology, but they don’t adopt modern technology automatically. They question every invention rigorously for its use, but more importantly, for its potential to hijack their lives and make them dependent on it. The Amish church meets to decide which technologies can be adopted and which should be rejected. The Amish do not use refrigerators, but do use electricity in the form of low-voltage batteries for specific purposes like welding etc. I would have liked to see how they illuminated their homes, but unfortunately, we had a long drive ahead and had to leave around sunset.

Community is primary

The bedrock of Amish identity is the primacy of community over the individual, a concept totally at variance with the highly individualistic lifestyles of most Americans. The Amish Church is another binding factor. Very often, the Amish people are mistaken for Menonites, another religious group that also traces its lineage to the Anabaptists. In fact, the name Amish is derived from Jacob Amman, a Swiss Anabaptist, who first established the community. The Amish don’t proselytise; one has to be born an Amish. The Amish are exempt from military service in the United States, they do not take insurance nor do they avail social security. Amish children attend their own community schools up to eighth grade; they don’t see the need for university education.Like the ` Ghotul’ tradition of the Marias and Murias of our Bastar, the Amish have a tradition of letting young adults live together for a while to enable them to choose their life-partner. Once a couple pair off, they marry for life. The youth are also allowed to go and try out mainstream life for a brief period and some elect not to go back to the Amish way of life. The dwindling numbers of Amish communities has given rise to concerns over possible inbreeding.On our way back, we stop at an Amish village – actually a touristy recreation of the authentic Amish way of life – with its watermill, manually operated lathe and a barn with pigs and chickens. These may be novelty for the mainstream Americans and the European tourists, but I found it all too familiar.

(Published in The Hindu dated July 23, 2006)

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