I have been driving the back roads to and from work ever since winter broke. I have done that for all the 17 years I have lived in Massillon, 25 miles from Wooster, where I work. In the winter the country roads can be treacherous and dark, so I mostly drive the freeway. But when the roads are dry and it is daylight, and I am not running late, I drive the back roads. The pastoral Ohio landscape is soothing, all rolling cropland and fields and woods, and I find the ride more calming than the highway.
This summer I have been driving what are to me new routes, south of US 30, because my usual route is being repaved, which means a couple of months of delays, loose gravel, and reduced speed limits. I had not travelled these roads for a while and was surprised to see the growth of the number of Amish farms. I had realized that the Amish were expanding: my usual route to and from work passes by numerous conservative Mennonite farms, large, industrialized affairs, but until recently there were only a couple of Amish farms and buggy traffic was rare. Not any more; there are many Amish farmsteads and buggies are an everyday sight.
When I first moved to Ohio twenty years ago I lived in the heart of Amish country, right on the Wayne/Holmes county line. At that time the Amish always acknowledged passing traffic, raising their index finger in greeting. This, according to local lore, is pointing heavenward, and I always returned the salutation.
No more. The Amish these days do not look at you, let alone greet you as they ride by in their buggies. I raise my finger, pointing to heaven, but there is no response.
I am puzzled by this and wonder what it means. I doubt it is a concerted effort, that all the Amish bishops instructed their congregations to cease greeting the ‘English’. It more likely is a spontaneous effect of modernity’s permeation of Amish culture, a subtle indication of a more atomized existence.
To many outsiders the Amish seem stuck in another time, and for the really conservative churches this can seem to be true. But for most congregations, especially the New Order Amish, the changes of the last couple of decades have been radical. Few New Order men, for example, make a living from farming these days. They work at construction, many of them, and those who manage to work at home are cabinet makers or basket weavers or masters of some other craft.
To cite another example of radical change, tractors were strictly forbidden a few decades ago, even for the New Order, but by the time I lived there it was common for New Order farms to have a tractor. It was used in the barn for its power train and for transportation on the roads.
These days it is common to see New Order men routinely using tractors for field work.
New Order homes often appear indistinguishable from the sprawling houses that the affluent ‘English’ build, aside from the lack of power lines. But they feature most of the conveniences of modern technology, only powered by propane and solar.
Young people in the community are particularly prone to the influence of the modern world with the advent of easily hidden devices that open a wider portal to the world – and the flesh and the devil – than ever their forebears could have dreamed.
And while what makes the news, fortunately, are the times the Amish practice the beatitudes, forgiving the killers of their children, it is also true that modern Amish are much more likely to report crime, even Amish on Amish crime, than ever before, as well as to participate in local elections.
I am thinking that the gradual inroads of modernity may have led to increased individualism, at least insofar as that can coexist with the demands of a highly communitarian religious tradition. In the case of the New Order Amish, that tradition had already been eroded by the influence of American evangelicalism and its highly individualistic emphasis on personal salvation.
Put it all together and it is not unlikely that the Amish have subtly altered their fundamental outlook, that while oddly ‘more open’ to modernity they have become less open to ordinary moderns driving down country roads.
They are becoming ‘normal’ Americans.
This cannot be good.
Painting by Coshocton Ohio artist Megan Lightell