Amish

Bear Meadows blueberriesPicking highbush blueberries with the Amish, we discover that, unlike the other pickers scattered around the bog, they don’t like to shout back and forth to each other. My brother tells me they prefer to whistle. Steve loves to pick, and takes Amish with him every time he goes — it’s too far to drive in a horse and buggy.

This is a bog where occasional holes in the sphagnum can pull you in up to your waist. Some people wear hip-waders like trout fishermen; others, like me, wear old shoes and long pants and plan on getting wet. The Amish women pull on short rubber boots for better traction and wade out into the bog in the same dresses they wear for everything else. I guess they’re able to find areas free of sawgrass to do their picking in. On their return from the bog, they pour the water out of their boots, wash their legs in the creek, and change back into their shoes.

The Amish men and boys pick a little apart from their female relatives, I think. The day I went out with them, I twice heard the teenaged boy roaring like a bear, and each time his sister obligingly shrieked.

I was picking out toward the middle of the bog. It was on one of the last days of July, and I counted myself fortunate to hear the distant songs of both a veery and a hermit thrush from the fringe of old-growth spruce and hemlock that encircles the bog. Flocks of cedar waxwings coursed back and forth as always, catbirds and red squirrels scolded from nearby hummocks of blueberry bushes, and dozens of tree swallows swooped and circled over the sea of sawgrass at the center of the bog. Now and then I heard the croaking cry of a raven high overhead. Surrounded by ridges on three sides and protected as a network of State Forest Natural Areas and Wild Areas, this is as close to true wilderness as one can get in the valley-and-ridge province of central Pennsylvania.

Our Amish friends were too far away for me to pick up more than an occasional murmur — not that I understand a word of Pennsylvania German in any case. But I heard them clearly enough when the singing started: the 50-something maiden aunt’s voice raised in what I took to be a hymn, the only form of music their brand of fundamentalism permits. It was a haunting melody in a minor key, and I was disappointed when she stopped after a single verse. I suppose she might’ve been singing to illustrate some point she was making to her neice, because I heard two more, all-too-brief snatches of song in the next ten minutes.

By that time it had turned into a very hot day, and I was glad to see that my bucket was almost full. The slog back to the car was exhausting. My mother was already there, panting in the shade, and our car was the last vehicle left in the small parking area. We blew the horn in the agreed-upon signal — three series of three short blasts — and waited for the Amish to return. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that the older woman — the one who’d been singing — had picked about three gallons to my two and a half, while the boy had picked close to five and was disappointed to have to leave so soon.

On the way down out of the mountains, as we passed the ski lodge, we saw some people out on the go-cart course despite the heat. I tried to explain the attraction of driving in circles in tiny little cars as best I could. “Why would anyone come all the way here and not want to go for a hike in the woods?” said S. in her slightly clipped English, and I had to smile — it was exactly the sort of thing my mother would say. On the long drive back, she asked us to be sure and tell them as soon as the mountain that looms over their farms came into view.

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Near where I found the dead man’s fingers, a murder of crows — as they say — harassed the treetops, shrill with complaint and denunciation, rage rattling in dozens of crow throats. I couldn’t see what they were mobbing, even after I climbed the slope to the base of the tree that seemed to be at the center of the swirling and diving shapes. It was around ten o’clock on a chilly morning. The sky was gray, and the birch and witch hazel leaves glowed yellow under the dark canopy where darker wings clipped against oak leaves, precipitating a rain of acorns. I never heard the wings of their foe, whose changing position I could only infer when all the crows suddenly rose at once and moved downridge, but by that very silence knew it could only have been an owl.

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High winds a week ago felled a few trees seemingly at random. Not far from where the crows had been, I discovered a good-sized red oak tree that had snapped near the base and lay head-down against the mountainside, its entire green city of leaves upended. I hiked up to the stump and peered in at a chaos of red-brown wood. I saw no sign of rot, no carpenter ant galleries, nothing to explain why an 80-year-old tree would snap like that, in the prime of life. As I stood there — without my camera, forced to take a long, close look — a chipmunk popped up right in front of me and ran straight down into the center of the rent. I held my breath — what if the tree suddenly settled a few inches? But the chipmunk came back out, saw me, and froze. I took a few slow steps backwards. These leaves would turn brown in a few weeks, I knew, but it would be a year or more before they fell. Having fallen itself, the tree would hold tight to the very sails that caused it to capsize.

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We drive by an Amish schoolhouse every time we go to buy vegetables and dry goods at our favorite Amish farmstand and store in the neighboring valley. In fact, the very first time we went out there, following a map that one of the proprietors had made for us when we stopped by her booth at the farmer’s market, we were surprised to find that the Amish kids already seemed to know us. The school had just let out, and kids of all ages were running along the road. “Hi, Mrs. Bonta!” one of them shouted to my mother as we drove past, waving.

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Two autumns ago, the township supervisors in their wisdom decided to park a heavy truck right on top of a large culvert pipe under the gravel road that leads into the farmstand, to try and keep it from washing out in the flood from Hurricane Ivan. The usually dry creekbed turned into a torrent and, as the bemused Amish neighbors watched, in the middle of the night the back of the truck slowly sank from sight.

We happened by a few days later, on the very morning the township decided to try and raise the truck, which stood almost on end in the creek where the poorly constructed culvert-bridge had been. Close to a hundred local residents, Amish and non-Amish alike, gathered around. Some brought lawn chairs and video cameras. Suddenly I saw kids pouring out of the schoolhouse a quarter mile away. Their teacher had obviously given up trying to keep them focused on their lessons; here was education of a different sort. I watched as they romped and played in the pasture next to the creek, little different from any other kids their age. At one point, one of the smallest boys picked up a large rock and held it over his head, unsteadily. Then he heaved it a girl. It looked as if it landed on her foot, or pretty close to it. I saw her turn and yell. He wandered off, the brim of his straw hat tipped down at a thoughtful angle.

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Early last week, when I accompanied my mother on a vegetable run, the kids were all out on recess behind the schoolhouse. They were playing softball, boys and girls together. Just as we drove by, I saw a lanky kid of ten or eleven swing at the ball, then start for first base with one hand on his hat, bare feet flying.
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My apologies to dial-up users for the size of the photos in this post, which may be my last post until Sunday or Monday.

All five photos were taken on the northwest side of our barn. The barn has been painted twice since it was built a hundred years ago: first red, then, sometime in the fifties or sixties, white to match the houses. I was thinking of the quote in yesterday’s post: “In good weather, funerals are often held in barns.”

What happens in the meantime has nothing to do with us. The wide-eyed stories about angelic visitations are all beside the point, and here’s why. All day Tuesday the tundra swans streamed north, great “V”s each some fifty birds strong, with two, three, sometimes as many as four flocks strung out across the sky at the same time. You hear them first, high notes from a tuneless music of the soul, as if all the klezmer clarinets in the world had decided to start talking at the same time.

Hearing the first few distant notes you scan the sky, clear but for a scrim of cloud along the horizon. There! Bring the binoculars up: my god. Long white tireless wings going wft wft wft, outstretched necks tipped in a black you can’t quite see against the blue, bodies white, so white the contrast with the sky almost hurts the eyes. They’re rowing, you think. They’re singing as they go, like all good boatmen. Flotillas of kayaks in the sky’s unending lake.

They’ve spent the winter in the inland waterways of the mid-Atlantic coast and now the tundra is calling them from two thousand miles away. Get a map and draw a straight line between the huge impoundment at Middle Creek in southeastern Pennsylvania and Lake Erie: it’ll go right over our mountaintop farm. And when the swans go they all go together, lifting off from Middle Creek in a dizzying rush of thousands all at once, I’m told. Some spring I will have to go there with our birder friends who make the pilgrimage every year – not to watch so much as to listen. I want to hear how such liquid fluting gets transformed all of a sudden into a rhythmless symphony for brushes on still air.

I went for a walk in the starlight around 8:00 p.m., stood in the woods for a while and listened as the flocks kept going over, straining my eyes, focusing on one part of the sky to try and catch the blink of stars crossed by wings. A great-horned owl was booming from just over the ridge: odd juxtaposition, but of course in Nature there’s no such thing as dissonance (though no harmony, either, except in retrospect).

Wednesday morning when I sat outside at 5 a.m. the swans were still going over. I thought about the day ahead in which I would go off to a conference held by and for biologists and bureaucrats from the state and federal wildlife agencies. Long talks filled with acronyms and plastic words like develop, manage, enhance. Language like a cold fog. Power that points, projected toward horizons that can by definition never be reached. If we could only leap – just for a moment! – into the unimaginable waters of the mind of a swan! I am reminded of the title of a book I once looked at, on the history of Buddhism in America: How the White Swans Came to the Lake. Does Buddhism tell us anything useful about the minds of animals, I wonder? I think it merely repeats that old rumor, the one so many wildlife managers regard as the most dangerous heresy: that animal minds are no different from ours in their original clarity, their wildness.

So all night while we slept there were swans going over the house, way up over everything. This thought is beyond humbling. I think of some of what they have to cross in the course of their journey and it makes me weep, right there on the porch, clutching my coffee cup.

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The evening before, during a lull in the music I had walked on up to the top of the ridge and looked at the lights for a while. It’s a farm valley; the lights are yard lights put up supposedly to discourage burglars and vandals. Over the past 10 years as the Amish have moved in these lights have dwindled, at the same time that the town on the other side of the ridge has installed street lights so bright the whole northern portion of the night sky is lost. The spreading darkness in this valley seems especially friendly to me because we’ve gotten to know these new neighbors better than we ever knew our old ones, whom we never had much reason to know because their only thought is cows. The Amish, by contrast, have dozens of different ventures going on at every farm. The ultimate conservatives, they are, paradoxically, among the most imaginative of farmers.

I can easily picture one of the maiden aunts
at the farm across the valley walking
back to her cottage from the main house
and hearing the swans. She pauses
long enough to wipe the last of the dish soap
from her hands onto her apron, smiling to
herself, not bothering to look up because
what’s to see? And after a moment
goes back to tell the others, who will also
want to come listen.

I will keep their names out of this, but
respect still permits I hope a sketch –
unadorned, of course – employing
only shades of black and navy blue
and saying nothing of the white strands
tucked primly under the bonnet.
The constellations all have names
in German. Venus would’ve already set
behind the horizon, which for them
is this very ridge where I stand, busy
with my embroidering.

This lady I’m telling you about keeps a store
stocked with wholegrains, kitchenware
and quilts, quilts. She and the others
have spent all winter at them: in March
they bulge from the shelves. But
her store has in addition a rack of books;
the books include field guides to the birds.
She knows plenty about swans, I’ll bet –
as much as anyone.

But about some things she knows a bit less,
and at times I suspect she feels that lack
as a sadness, maybe a hurt. Think of it:
even a radio is off-limits. Spring
comes unheralded except by signs
like this. What has she heard
in the course of her fifty years?
Her faith forbids all music made
by the too-clever hand of man.
Teenaged boys can run wild until
they get married and baptized – thus
some of the men may once
have corrupted their hearing
with instruments beyond the plain voice.

But for an Amish woman, standing outside
in early evening with her tired eyes
grateful for the darkness, pausing
for a long moment to be
alone with it, this
swan music must sound
like the purest praise.