The salt of the earth

Listen to this post.

The Amish community sits on either side of an awful highway. It is a road that says don’t leave that for this.

Along the strip are Chevrolet dealerships and China Buffets and payday loan, pawn your title places. Vinyl signs with ugly fonts glare in the heat of the day. Tinsel glitters from the car lots. We roll through this flat land, no trees, no relief. Here and there are old signs that have some character, like an enormous yellow muffler, but mostly it is Shoe Caravan, this-n-that crap for your home and Captain D’s Seafood.

It is a moat of modern life, the kind of thing the elders might contrive to keep folks on the farm.

We are looking for the general store, the portal, where you can find the map that says which houses sell what. It is 100°F, a heavy heat that drains your energy and a brightness that blurs your vision.

At the country store, a man washes his horse in the buggy port.

Down the road, behind the store and around the corner, we go back in time. The only roadway signs are now small white ones with black capital letters that identify the products for sale. Green peanuts, onions, okra, pies, harnesses. The first house we stop at sells furniture and produce. The houses are set in clusters of buildings, workshops and barns. Two farms may abut each other so that there is an almost urban proximity to the two houses and then acres of green. A friend later explained that the second house was for the parents when they retired, leaving the farm to the child most likely to succeed.

There has been drought. The ground is dusty and the dirt swirls around us as we pull into the yard. Turkeys squawk in the shade. Outside the house is a little hut with baskets of tomatoes and peppers, a sign for okra and a display case of bead necklaces, some patterned, some random, the crafts of the less skilled, children, or in the case of another house we go to, of a blind man, meant solely for visitors.

A woman comes out of the house. She wears a dark, long-sleeved dress, white bonnet and round, tinted glasses with metal frames that look like soldering, the earpiece curling out under one earlobe. Her accent is not heavy but the cadence of her speech and her accent are unfamiliar. A girl follows her out, and is then sent to find a child to pick more okra.

In the furniture workshop are two small children with their father. What you don’t see with the long dresses are the feet: bare, dirty, broad and muscular. The father is short, with curly blond hair cut in a Dutch boy bob and bangs—like the boy on the paint can—and a springy, uncut beard. The boy and the baby play with the pile of shavings. The father makes tables and chairs and a high chair that turns into a rocking horse when placed lengthwise on the floor one way and turns over to become a desk and chair.

He communicates more with smiles and gestures. He brackets his sentences so that we are guessing at the middles, like feeling our way along the wall of a dark corridor. He likes this, but would be happy to give up this. He gestures at a shelf of commercial stains. He could be 25 or 35. He has at least four children and he got the house.

When an older sister picks up her crying small sister, I see the baby’s long white bloomers. Their authenticity is more of  a surprise than had she been wearing Dora the Explorer pull-ups. The clotheslines are hung with rows of big-to-small white bloomers or dark blue long-sleeved shirts.

At the next house a girl pumps water in the front yard, making a flash of silver against the energetic, silhouette of her figure as she throws herself into her work. There is no electricity, they do not drive cars. The children are educated from first to eighth grade. They learn German first, then English.

“Imagine if they had turned their hand to wine-making,” I said.

The other shoppers/visitors: a black woman looking for collards. In her backseat, four small children press their faces against the window to see the Amish children. A white woman with some kind of slatted basket that needs repairs talks to the farmer at a table of produce, potholders and Indian corn necklaces. If you lived locally this would be your farmers market and your  alternative to Lowes for outdoor furniture.

We go from house to house and buy more produce.

An Amish man walks along the road carrying a gun.

Those of us who grew up reading and/or watching The Little House on the Prairie will remember wondering what Laura would have made of the modern world. And through my futuristically chauvinistic benevolence, I felt a twinge of conscience. Maybe they would have benefited from Thinsulate and radio, but then they wouldn’t have captured our imagination or enjoyed what they had otherwise, the maple syrup snow, Pa’s fiddle.

The next day I heard a radio diary of a trip to Mali where the mud used to build houses and the mosque is harvested at the end of the drought season. People were torn between a desire for modernization and regret for the loss of their traditions. The builder says the mud houses are much cooler in the heat and the people who live in them are healthier than those in concrete houses yet most aspire to a concrete house.

At one rather busier, more diversified shop they were selling car air fresheners to smell of things from nature, like kudzu or cut grass, but they didn’t; they smelled of air freshener. If you want to smell kudzu, drive a buggy. The freshly shelled beans are put in ziploc bags and there a few rustic little pots stamped China on the underside. Even so, I did not get the feeling that after we all departed, they were putting on their T-shirts and flip-flops and watching TV.

The Amish have been settled here since 1944 and the religion dates back to the 17th century. Where do they draw the line at technology? What must it be like to see us over the years, parking our cars in the driveway, our changing, immodest fashions? I found an ABC TV series about Amish teens and rumspringa, the year of “running wild” and deciding whether to become Amish or to leave their families and join the modern world. One of the boys had rigged his buggy with an iPod and speakers. The music he chose was 1980s heavy metal, as if he couldn’t bear to bring himself totally up to date. At the end of the year he decided to stay, content to ride to sound of his own horse.

The younger daughter likes the way the children have jobs and the older children look after the younger ones. The older daughter would be in her last year of school. They would enjoy the time spent out of doors. If we were to join the Amish, we would have no skills and a lot of catching up to do, as if our whole lives had been rumspringa.

Two days later summer is obliterated by a cold, dark, steady rain for Labor Day. I take the girls and a friend to the movies at our outdoor, town-styled mall that has no place to buy an apple or a pint of milk, no newsagent or chemist, only adornment, entertainment and dining. We arrive early and amuse ourselves as the only customers in Sephora, smelling funnel cake shampoo and Justin Bieber perfume. The message of the movie is one the Amish would appreciate, that you should spend the time you have now with your family over other pursuits. It is hard to imagine them now, in their simple houses with the rain pelting down and the fall coming, though I like to think I could give this all up if I had to.


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