January is a long month. In northern New England, it’s 31 days of snow, cold, rain, ice, and other hydrologic formations. There’s a nostalgic last look at the past year (probably while preparing taxes) and an energetic step forward into the future.
Many times, that step forward is straight into a waiting snow bank.
Each January, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry host a “trade show” at the Augusta Civic Center. It’s like a home show for farmers. There are tractor sales, fencing experts, and seed companies. Various agricultural organizations hold their “annual meetings” during this 3-day conference and there are also lectures and seminars about more topics than you can imagine. “High Tunnel Construction,” “Aerial Drone Mapping of Farm, Forest & Fields,” and “Getting Started In Commercial Hops Production” are a sampling of the topics presented for 2017.
This year, as always, there was a wide array of flannel shirts and muddy boots; consistent with Maine’s population in general, there was also a lot of gray interwoven…beards and ponytails.
In the middle of all this, on the bucket attached to a shiny and tempting new tractor, sat a young Amish woman cradling a baby. She wore the traditional simple black long dress and white bonnet. She was serene, occasionally rocking the baby in her arms. Her countenance was striking in contrast to the bustling auditorium.
I didn’t want to stare. I was curious, though, and I wanted to speak to her. Not to ask awkward post-modern questions like “how do you live without a Tee Vee?” or “do you make your own bonnets?” Something more along the lines of “tell me about the joy of your faith and your life.”
Then I put my reporter’s notebook away and remembered this woman was a private person. Her appearance was curious by its difference, but this did not make her a public figure.
Handy and I continued visiting the display booths at the trade show and ended up at the small demonstration area. We planted ourselves in front row seats for the 1:00 p.m. presentation called “How Sweet It Is: All the Many Uses of Maple” by syrup producer Kristi Brannen and chef Cynthia Finnemore Simonds. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Amish woman in the back row of the demonstration area, now with an Amish man.
I sat down and started taking a few notes. The editor at the Sun Journal thought maple cooking would be a good topic for my February EATS column and I was hopeful this presentation could be turned into some foodie golden amber. Settling into my seat, I was reminded of the curse of good hearing. My eyesight might require assistance, but I can still hear a pin drop from time to time and usually it’s some bizarre conversation that has no merit.
“…no insult intended. I was just curious about your beard.”
A non-Amish man was asking questions of the Amish couple, specifically about the Amish man’s beard. I didn’t want to turn around and more people were filling in the seats, muffling the conversation.
“bla bla bla…mustache…bla bla…Thirty Years War…”
I couldn’t make out the whole conversation. Maybe the young Amish man had not shaved his morning mustache in a rush to get to the trade show. Maybe his facial hair wasn’t looking Amish enough for his inquisitor. Maybe Mr. Twenty Questions was just too curious.
That’s all I heard.
Since I am fortunate enough to have the acquaintance of an Amish family who chose their way (he did not grow up in the Anabaptists), I know the desire to ask questions. I did some research on my own and was pleasantly surprised by much of what I learned. For example, there is no one single code for all the Amish. Colors, beards, dress, use of motors and phones, all are determined not by one standard code, but by a local council implementing and adapting a set of principles to their own local needs. My friend, for example, has a full beard, mustache and all, but other councils forbid the mustache because of its connection with the German military, and still other councils forbid the beard altogether because of all the tomfoolery young men can get up to shaping and styling a beard. Up here phones are allowed for business; my friend doesn’t have one, but he goes a half-mile up the road to an Amish business when he has need of one. He gets amused that that one Amish brother who has a phone at his business won’t walk the quarter-mile down the road to talk to another Amish brother at his business, but must call instead–and there is the principle in action. The prohibition of phones necessitates face-to-face contact, making visits, and when one visits one stays for meals, one brings news, pies or other goods. It is about maintaining community, and the Amish saw early the threat that “technology” poses to community.
I was reminded of this when listening yesterday to a podcast by Neil Kramer, hardly an Anabaptist of any color, but a spiritual guide I’ve learned much from. He was talking to a pair of Tibetan Buddhists, and he was insistent that spiritual growth is completely dependent on personal contact, on choosing wisely who one spends time with and then spending that time with them. He then stressed that if one has a “smart” phone, one should configure it so that it tells one nothing, ever. He has all the alerts turned off, all the alarms turned off, and it’s in airplane mode most of the time. This is not fear of surveillance, but is recognition that our ability to concentrate, to focus, is constantly disrupted and interrupted by an endless torrent of distractions (I should point out here that Gatto stresses that this is one of the key purposes of schooling, to condition us to constantly being distracted, because if one remembers school correctly one remembers that there was never any consistent focus in any direction for more than 40 minutes).
When I heard Kramer expound on these points, I was immediately struck by how much my Amish friend and his family live these principles. They are not distracted by any of the shiny objects of our lives, not elections, not MTV, not anything that you and I think of as the “meat” of daily life.
Today I am struggling to figure out how to fix that imbalance in my own life. All I can come up with is the old saw (no less true for it) “Consume less, create more.” Something that Amish family you saw just does naturally by the way they live.
Great insight, LP, and I knew your associations with local Amish would help draw a worthy comment from you. I am familiar with the Amish concept of “Ordnung” or local group principals.
I also think the movement of plain people into Maine is a very good thing.