I know an Amish man who uses a cellphone.
Fact is, I strongly suspect that Enos may even make calls while driving — driving his horse-drawn buggy, that is, uphill and down along the dusty gravel roads of Fillmore County in southeastern Minnesota. I asked Enos once whether employing the signature totem of digital age connectivity didn’t constitute “jumping the fence” in his devoutly traditional, simplicity-loving sect. But by then I knew that Amish attitudes toward modern technology are subtler and more interesting than we “English” (i.e., modern Americans) often assume. In fact, we could learn something from them about flexibility and freedom of choice.
For 20 years I’ve divided my time between the Twin Cities and the rustic bluff country along the Iowa border. There is one stoplight in all of Fillmore County, last I checked, and the place has an informal motto: “If you’re stressed out in Fillmore County, it’s your own damn fault.”
But nothing better symbolizes the humane pace of life down in the country than the image of the Amish, who migrated to the bucolic area from back East some 40 years ago. Ever since, they’ve made regional emblems of clip-clopping buggies and hay wagons, of bonnets and flat-brimmed hats, and of neat, whitewashed farmsteads where a whole family’s worth of dark-hued laundry often flutters in the breeze like an array of rebel flags from clotheslines stretching from front porch to barn.
That the Amish are in a kind of gentle rebellion from the frenetic modern world around them has been reflected in the appearance of several prominent Star Tribune stories about the community in recent weeks. Naturally, it’s a controversy that has brought them to our attention.
It seems that some officials in the picturesque town of Lanesboro — the heart of a prosperous bluff country tourism industry — are trying to patch up a conflict with the Amish that has removed them, with their baskets and baked goods, from the town’s popular farmers market for several years. The town poobahs had decreed that all market vendors must carry liability insurance, but the Amish don’t believe in insurance; they believe in taking care of one another. And now it seems their absence from the market is hurting everyone’s business — and nobody believes in that.
One trusts they’ll work something out. But tension between English and Amish is not entirely unknown. The Amish community’s separateness and their underlying belief that the modern world is sinful, even while they benefit from it in many ways, rubs some the wrong way, as do other situations where the Amish claim religious exemptions from general obligations — Social Security, slow-moving-vehicle insignia on buggies, some business licensing, etc.
But mainly the Amish are a huge success in Minnesota and elsewhere in America (they number about 3,000 in the state and a quarter million in the U.S., with both numbers growing). And that confirms something pleasing and easy to take for granted about America.
Descended from Reformation-era “Anabaptists” who were cruelly persecuted for religious heresy centuries ago in Europe, the Amish have found tolerance in this country, even while daring to dissent from contemporary secular America’s most cherished belief — our faith in the saving power of consuming the very latest thing.
We chatter endlessly nowadays about the incalculable value of diversity. But if you’re really looking for people with an exotic set of priorities and a different approach to life, it’s hard to top the Amish — people who choose to turn their backs on automobiles and electricity and, above all, on nearly every expression of individual pride and individual autonomy.
The Amish way of life is not for most of us. My fellow hobby farmer, Cindy, and I have founded our own less-demanding “neo-Amish” doctrine. We’re fully dependent on the modern world — but we bad-mouth it constantly.
And yet, I do envy the simple life sometimes. I once jumped in my car and ran a quick errand to town for an Amish acquaintance named Ezra. When I returned 20 minutes later, he smiled ruefully and marveled: “That horse of yours runs pretty fast.”
Yes. But had Ezra traveled to town himself in his buggy, he would have been forced to spend several hours just watching the afternoon and the countryside pass by. Is the advantage all mine? Or am I, with my speedy horse, the one who is always running late?
What’s interesting is that the Amish think these kinds of questions through. They do not reject all modern inconveniences (as Mark Twain called them). As a community, through their leaders, they choose to accept some “latest things” and to reject others, depending on whether they believe an innovation would strengthen or threaten the kind of community life they believe they are called to lead. (And some choices differ from one local Amish community to another.)
Cars are out, for example, but most Amish have little trouble with engines to power various kinds of equipment. It’s that speedy travel they reject. In fact, it’s only automobile ownership that’s forbidden. An occasional ride is fine, so long as it’s necessary.
Necessity explains Enos and his cellphone, too. He’s a roofer, and he explained to the local Amish bishop that if you’re in a business like that nowadays, people expect to be able to reach you even when you’re out on a job. He got permission, so long as his use of the phone is strictly limited for business.
Maybe there’s more to “freedom” than individualism. Nothing about the Amish way seems more enviable than this simple, radical idea — that people can actually stop and think, and consciously decide how completely to let the latest gadget or consumer must-have take over their lives.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.