Old-Order Amish Meet EPA

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Photo: Daniel Schwen / wikimedia

In Philadelphia’s steamy summers when I was a child, on Thursdays my mother would take me to the Reading Terminal Market, where she bought the week’s produce, eggs, and cheese from the Amish families from the area around Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We rode a trolley car and the Market Street elevated train to get there. This was during World War II; we didn’t have a car, and wouldn’t have burned gasoline to get where public transportation could take us if we’d had one.

Gasoline wasn’t an issue for the Amish folk whose market stalls we bought from. I never thought about it until I started writing this: They relied on horses for transportation, no internal combustion engines for them. They must have driven the eighty miles on Wednesday, slept in their wagons with the cabbages and kale, to be there for us when we came to shop on Thursday morning.

The Amish children were there for the same reason my older sister and I were: our mothers kept us close; we went where they went. It was years before I heard the term “baby sitter.”

The Old-Order Amish, those who were most rigorous about avoiding worldly ways, said they were “going out among them English” when they came to the city, and they came to the city only as far as the market. I was tickled pink to be called English; my grandparents were immigrant Russian and German Jews. “English” sounded so elegant – and acceptable.

We “English” children eyed the Amish kids, and they inspected us, curious as kittens about each other’s lives. Our mothers told us it was rude to stare, but the moment they looked away we couldn’t help ourselves. We never got close enough to talk, and probably would have been too shy – and afraid of what our mothers would say – if we had.

My father bought a car, a 1948 Hudson, three years after the war ended. Gasoline cost 10 cents a gallon – about $1.20 of today’s dollars. On pleasant Sundays my family – two adults and now three girls – went for a drive, sometimes doing what my father called “looking for Random” – driving anywhere as fancy took him – often to Amish country where, I realize now, we English stank up the country air and drowned out the clop-clop-clopping of the local folks’ horse-drawn buggies as they came home from church and went to visit neighbors, who were most often family.

I’m thinking as I write this how the car changed us from customers of the Amish people, people who valued the fruits of their labor, to invaders of their space, unthinkingly disrespectful aliens – which perhaps we had been in their eyes all along.

If you sense a certain sadness in my words, you’ve got it right. If we all lived as the Amish people – generically known as Pennsylvania Dutch – did then, and in many cases still do, we wouldn’t be in the environmental mess we find ourselves in. We wouldn’t be witnessing the spectacle of politicians apologizing to Big Oil, judges tossing out a president’s order to hold off on deep water drilling. (If I’m the first to tell you this, I’m sorry. It happened on Tuesday.) We wouldn’t be wondering what we’ll tell our grandchildren about how we let the world get so downright inhospitable – if we and they are around to talk about it at all.

And I wouldn’t be telling you about the coming confrontation between the peaceful, plain-living Amish people of Lancaster County and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Not all Amish people are Old-Order Amish, just as not all Christians are Evangelical Christians, nor all Jews Orthodox Jews. But if you’re Amish, you stay as far away from the “English” government as you can. You don’t ask for anything, you don’t pay into or collect Social Security. You don’t break the law, you just don’t have anything to do with it. Your law comes from the words of Jesus, and obeying that law never got anybody into trouble with legitimate authority. Old-Order Amish men fasten their clothing with hooks and eyes; less strict Amish men use buttons. Old-Order Amish heat their houses with wood and light it with candles and, at the most modern, kerosene lamps. Modern Amish folks use propane to power refrigerators. The use of electricity is still rare.

These are the people who, in October 2006 when a man grieving the death of his own little girl nine years earlier invaded one of their schools, ordered the adults and boys out and shot ten girls, killing five before he turned his weapon on himself – these people did not wait to express their forgiveness.

“In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family.

The afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer, Charles Roberts. That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.

Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.”

And these are the people whose cows are the major polluters of Chesapeake Bay. According to the change.org Environment blog, Amish farmers own half the farms in the area, and the EPA says Lancaster County’s cows generate 61 million tons of manure a year, pouring millions of tons of nitrogen and phosphorous into the bay, feeding algae that block sunlight and suck up oxygen from the water. Without oxygen there is no life, so the if the situation is allowed to stand, Chesapeake Bay and everything in it will eventually die.

Of course it won’t be allowed to stand. But the potential conflict between a centuries-old culture made up of otherwise ideal citizens – people who know the instruction was to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, who live lives almost entirely in harmony with nature, who only want to be let alone – and a government under orders to keep our waterways free of pollution, is one to be worried about.

The government’s solution in such cases is loans and grants to the farmers whom they want to build fences and berms to keep cattle and manure from the water. The Amish farmers want no such loans and grants, nor the interference and control that accompany them. After all, they might well be asking, how has that worked out for you, you English?

Read more…

…about the Amish way of life, here;

…about the shooting at the West Nickel Mines Amish School, here;

… and about the conflict between the two cultures, here and here.

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