Wednesday, April 27, 2005


I made my first Amish friend long before I bought a house in Lancaster. I still was in West Chester, Pennsylvania, researching local history, writing books, editing and freelancing. For reasons I can't recall now I needed to answer some questions about early German settlements in Berks County.

Overall, West Chester was a great place to do history; the historical society had tapped into some philanthropists in the horsey townships, and it had fantastic resources; the courthouse had never known a fire, so the records there ran intact back to Billy Penn; and the early settlers had belonged to congregations that were scrupulous about tracking births, marriages, and deaths.

The Amish, surprisingly to me, were an exception. They had had very little interest in genealogies. But that was where my research pointed me. The county historic preservation officer was a good friend and ally, and she had been raised in a Plain family and still had many contacts in that world. She was the one who put me in touch with Abner Beiler.

By "put me in touch" I mean she drove me out to his farm north of Intercourse and introduced me. Being Amish, he didn't have a phone. He was retired from active farming, but his house sat amid an acre of garden rows, and over his porch a thick grapevine twined itself. He also had a shop beside the house where he bound books. But his hobby was Amish genealogy.

I don't remember what path led him to research it, but the bishops must have approved, because Abner started taking the bus up to the Reading courthouse and combing through the records there. Back home, by the light of propane lamps, he pieced together the trees of the German families that had lived in the Tulpehocken Valley since they pioneered it in the 18th century.

At one point he got hold of a stack of microfilm records -- censuses, deeds, ships' passenger lists, that sort of thing. I thought he must be taking them to the local library to find a machine to read them, but he said, "I built an Amish one." And he showed me a contraption he had rigged up that, somehow, illuminated and magnified microfilm using a gas engine.

I visited him several times that summer, copying down information and chatting. We'd sit on his porch toward dusk, under the vine, and drink cold glasses of the best root beer I ever had, which he had bottled himself and stashed in his underground cellar. We'd watch the tourist buses -- "caterpillars," he called them -- out of Intercourse trying to navigate the hairpin turns on the country road. And we'd talk about the Amish and how they were seen in the wider world.

I thought of those days again this week when contemplating the "other" quality in terms of American Indians, or Vietnamese during the war. I don't have much direct experience with either of those groups, but I do know how it is with the Amish, who live in a parallel culture beside the one I inhabit here.

It's a common error to think they are deliberately anachronistic. They do many modern things; as I drive down the roads here I see them playing pick-up basketball or roller-blading, and their clothes are all polyester. But they choose to reject certain modern technologies, including the big ones like cars and household electricity and public schools and television.

Many people here dislike them intensely. The worst Amish-bashers seem to be the less-prosperous and less-educated denizens of the trailer parks and diners and mud bog race tracks. Their dislike is intense, and irrational. It often comes down to "they stink" (you would, too, if you worked a farm by hand every day), "they don't pay taxes" (a myth; they pay the bulk of school taxes for schools they never use), "their buggy wheels tear up the roads" (not more than tractor trailers do). That sort of thing.

After a while, I understood that the real objection is to "otherness." By choosing not to participate in our common, modern, American consumer culture, the Amish are seen as passing a judgment on it, whether they mean to or not. If they're saying these things are sinful or unhealthy to them, what does that say about those of us who do them?

I should hasten to add that most local folks get along with their Amish neighbors just fine, and the Amish and the English around here do business and socialize regularly, like Abner and I did.

But beyond this region, the Amish often are elevated to a cultish holiness. The movie "Witness" got that ball rolling. One day Abner showed me a letter that had found its way to him, from a devout California man seeking -- pleading -- to be admitted into the Amish church.

The Amish don't seek converts. They haven't had any for centuries, I imagine. But this fellow had read certain books -- I think I can even identify which ones they were -- and decided that the Amish faith was the antidote to everything wrong with modern culture. The deliberate slowness, the communality, the faith, the earthiness of it, all appealed directly to a mind chock full of New Age sensibilities.

Students of American Indian culture will recognize this, too. The intensity of America drives its disaffected members to find and embrace alternative cultures. But the clutching embrace warps the "others." Those who want to roll their bodies in the alternative culture and wrap themselves in it as an antidote to America are insulting the realities they claim to love.

I tried to explain the letter to Abner, as I saw it; who this deluded young fellow was and what he really saw when he looked at the pictures of Amish life. How it was something like the flip side of the bad caricatures that occasionally cropped up closer to home.

"Angels or monkeys," he sighed. "Anything but human beings."