One of the things I quickly came to love about my new postal route last year when I started it was my morning walk by the woods. One of the first deliveries is a retirement community, 150 small apartments nestled on 20 or so rolling acres, surrounded on three sides by forest, right in the middle of town. In the summer it is the coolest time of day and the hour or so it takes to deliver it became a soothing part of my routine, the deep green of the woods, the bird-songs, and the Jesus Prayer proved a great preparation for the rest of the day. Of course, in the winter mornings are cold, but in all but the most inclement weather a brisk walk will warm you in about fifteen minutes.
I don’t know if you know any postal workers, but in the last year or so things have gotten bad in the workplace. With diminished volume we have been losing a lot of money. I like to say that the Postal Service is like a cross between “Dilbert” and “Beetle Bailey”: it is a government bureaucracy trying to act like a corporation. So you end up with the worst aspects of socialism wedded to the dumbest parts of capitalism. Postal management is a bastion of mediocrity, and the response to the crisis consists of micromanagement from afar combined with an effort to squeeze ever more out of the workers. Morale is the worst I have seen in 25 years. All of this has served to confirm my aversion to bigness and centralization in all its forms, not to mention the necessity of labor unions. Faceless bureaucrats in Cleveland, an hour away, who have never delivered mail, send down decisions telling us how to do our jobs, which would be comical were it not for the fact that it often hinders our attempts to deliver the mail efficiently. I won’t bore you with the details, but mail is actually delayed daily by managerial fiat, just so their numbers look good. And as I said, they are putting the squeeze on postal workers. When someone retires now, they most often eliminate their route, splitting the deliveries among the other carriers. I recently had roughly an hour added to my route, for example, and am expected to “absorb” it; that is, do it in the same amount of time as before. This has led, as you can imagine, to increased stress and frequent conflict with supervisors.
And I used to love my job.
So I really came to appreciate my contemplative morning walk by the woods. But there is a good reason the Salve Regina calls this world a valley of tears: things can always get worse.
About two months ago an unfamiliar noise was coming from the east end of the small city forest. When I got near I saw men in trucks and bulldozers. In a few days they had constructed a sawmill. When I asked the ladies in the office what was going on, they told me that a logging crew was thinning the woods. I was relieved; it just sounded like good stewardship. But they have proceeded to clear-cut the entire woods, stripping the land down to bare earth. In another week or two the whole piece of land will resemble a moonscape. Thinning? It would be more like walking into the barbershop, asking for a trim, and walking out with a bald and bleeding scalp. Apparently the owners, a corporation in- where else?- Cleveland, decided to milk as much profit as possible before selling the land for development.
Now I realize that we need lumber. But it seems shameful to harvest it from one of the few stands of timber in the city. Among other things, I feel bad for all the old people, whose birdfeeders now stand silent. And I have never liked clear-cutting. I remember once, hiking the wooded hills of northwest Michigan, a green landscape broken only by deep crystalline lakes, I came across a beech forest that had been clear-cut. Beech trees have a smooth bark, like grey skin, and the limbs lying scattered about looked like severed arms and legs, as if silver giants had been slaughtered and dismembered.
What will sound strange to someone not in an area like this is that the men on the bulldozers were wearing straw hats: it was an Amish logging crew. But, most will object, the Amish don’t use machines, do they? Well, there are Amish and then there are Amish, roughly divided into “Old Order” and “New Order” branches. The strictest Old Order community is not technically Amish; they are Hoover Old Order Mennonite, and they do not use any machines at all. They live in Ontario and in Kentucky. Around here, the most austere sect is the Swartzentruber Amish, who eschew all machinery except the diesel washing machine, which tells you something about the power of women in this patriarchal society.
Old Order Amish are easy to spot: men wear their hair in a distinctive earlobe-length bowl cut and their beards are untrimmed. All but the Hoovers shave the mustache, which smacks of the military to these pacifists. Clothing is homemade and dark in color, unlike the bright colors the New Orders wear (with short sleeves, no less). Old Order buggies have no lights except a lantern, and no reflective tape. In hilly eastern Ohio this is a safety hazard, it is true, but a matter of conscience as well.
New Order communities are marked by a more evangelical faith as well as greater openness to modernity and technology. Amish praxis is a continuum, and decisions about technology are made at the congregational level, but the most lax of the New Order groups use tractors in the field- though they still travel by horse and buggy- buy clothes off the rack, trim their hair and beards, and unlike the Old Orders, eschew tobacco and liquor. Among the more affluent, homes look like conventional suburban houses, and while they do not use electricity from the grid, they do have propane powered refrigerators and other appliances and gas lights that flick on with a switch.
New Order Amish allow even greater freedom in using technology for business. Moses Miller, a farmer who runs a vegetable market I stop at in the summer, uses a calculator, for example. I know too of an Amish cement contractor who has a fleet of trucks and all the other machinery associated with modern masonry.
Hence the logging crew.
The second thing that might puzzle those who don’t live near them is that these Amishmen plundered this pretty little forest for the profit they could pocket. The Amish are widely regarded as environmentally aware, after all. The “English” tend to romanticize the Amish. Indeed, I edited a magazine that was frequently accused of this because we saw Amish culture as a model of sustainability. But it wasn’t true; my moment of disillusion came in the late 70s, long before Caelum et Terra, when I lived in St Mary’s County, Maryland, were there are small Amish and Mennonite communities. I remember being shocked when I saw buggies parked at McDonald’s and KMart. I don’t know what I expected, but this was a surprise. Maybe I thought the Amish so different that they would never succumb to a Big Mac or a blue light special.
But if you live in an area with a large Amish population it doesn’t take long to realize that, as in every community, there are both saints and sinners among them. Indeed, among the local “English” the sins are exaggerated: like everywhere with a visible minority there is a good deal of prejudice around here. Much of this revolves around the practice of “rumspringa”, the “running around” period when much misbehavior is tolerated among Amish young people, before they have been baptized and obliged to follow the Ordung, the Amish rule of life. This causes a good deal of scandal among the locals, though most of the mischief is petty: drinking and carousing, traffic tickets while driving their illicit cars. But sometimes crimes are more serious. There are a couple of Amishmen listed on the local sex offender registry, for example. And in the last year or so the area was racked by two violent crimes, a rarity among the Amish.
In the first, an Amishman murdered his wife and son, then turned the gun on himself. In the second, an Amishman and his Mennonite lover- apparently one of several adulterous relationships he was involved in- were convicted of plotting the murder of his wife, the mother of his five children. The woman pulled the trigger while he established an alibi, fishing with some friends. They were convicted quickly, as the crime had been plotted in easily retrievable text messages (he was a New Order businessman). As the names of the criminals- Mullet and Weaver- were not stereotypically Amish- Yoder or Hostetler, say- the national media never picked up on the stories and there was little attention paid beyond the Wooster Daily Record. I was surprised by this; murder among the Amish is such an anomaly I thought someone would notice.
What is more likely to draw national attention is the community’s other anomalies, like when the Pennsylvania Amish reached out in forgiveness to the man who gunned down their schoolchildren and to his family. This is more typical of the ethos of the community, whatever the sins of individuals.
Indeed, on a purely cultural level it is hard not to idealize the Amish. To drive through the countryside just south of where I live is to pass mile after mile of well-tended farms and productive homesteads, with hundreds of small workshops. It is a distributist dream; a garden-like landscape. Or, with all the long beards and wide-brimmed hats, like the Shire, only filled with wizards instead of hobbits. Just don’t generalize from this to notions of sinless Amish environmentalists.
After all, the Amish loggers, after violating that little forest in a fit of ironic destruction, went home to those idyllic small farms. Whatever ugliness they worked they did not take it home with them. They left it with us, the 150 old people and I, our once verdant corner of the city now barren. I wonder if any of them even gave it a second thought.
At least no one can take the Jesus Prayer away from me.
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