Friday, March 20, 2009

Not-so-low-tech (after all)

By Tracy

When we were living in Ohio, USA, just over four years ago, there was a severe ice storm just before Christmas and about 9000 homes in our area were left without electricity. (Ours was out for five days.)

Many of us who had no alternative heating spent that Christmas displaced. Especially bizarre was the fact that on any one street, some had power and some did not, depending on which company you were hooked up through. This meant that while some families had to sleep on the floor at the YMCA, others had their houses ablaze with decorative lighting.

The people who, from the outside, seemed least affected were the Amish, who had never relied on the grid in the first place.

During our time there, I had been with our daughter on a trip (organised by the college’s Jewish student group; anyone could go along) to nearby Holmes County to experience Amish diplomacy/hospitality. The aim was to increase understanding, to give a little insight into how Amish people live, with a “host” well accustomed to explaining and interacting at the interface between his culture and the wider world. There’s much to admire in the Amish emphasis on community and small-scale living.

(As vegans, Katherine and I were a little adrift in the Amish restaurant, sticking to the side salads in an incredibly meat-heavy environment; while veganism was an unfamiliar idea to our Amish host, he had – of course! – no problem with the idea of strong principles that might put you at odds with your surroundings...)

It’s easy to romanticise the notion of Amish living, especially when it’s portrayed with the kind of moral idealism of a film like Peter Weir’s Witness. But the reality is always more complex.

There’s a fascinating investigation of Amish attitudes to technology on Kevin Kelly's site The Technium. Many of the responses posted below his article are also interesting.

Particularly disturbing is the readiness to take up GM technology in a kind of functional-utilitarian manner, as it’s depicted there. Of course, as Kelly shows, the Amish are not homogeneous. What happens in one group may not happen in another.


Anonymous said...

Here's to Amish being known for something other than their quilts! I always have such mixed feelings for the Amish. They're the only Anabaptists anyone's heard of. In their alternative communities they live with an authenticity that most 'intellectual' Anabaptists only talk about. But they are so conservative in their theology and controlling/conforming within their communities. I didn't realise you'd stayed with them. What an interesting story!

Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist said...

Actually it was only a day trip, but a pretty intensive one. And as a family, we went quite often to Berlin in Holmes County because the Amish stores were pretty good for vegan items.

There were also smaller groups of Amish living in the county where we were based -- they would come into the centre of town on Saturdays to sell their (you guessed it) quilts, as well as intricately made baskets.

In addition, one of the workers at our local health food store was raised Mennonite and gave us some insights into their ways of life too.

So living in that area was quite an education about some strands of this tradition.

Barbara Temperton said...

Hi, Tracy,
Congratulations on winning the ABR Poetry Prize. A well deserved win, lovley poem!

Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist said...

Thanks, Barbara!