Saturday November 24, 2012

I don’t claim to know a great deal about the Amish. I’ve read a couple of books about Amish people, even a book about a fellow who walked away from his Amish roots only to return years later. I’ve been to the Amish country in Pennsylvania a couple of times, and two years ago had a flat tire near an Amish community in Ohio. It was pitch black and I’m standing next to my truck when an Amish horse and buggy rig with a young man and woman aboard blew right by me. All they had for light was a dim red lantern in the back so they wouldn’t get rear ended by a car. That brief encounter was like stepping back a hundred and twenty years in the span of thirty seconds. That’s the extent of my Amish knowledge, except for the reputation and lore that we all seem to accept.

When we think of Amish people, we envision black hats, beards, long dresses, and an almost ancient style of living in the midst of the twenty first century. Like fashion, every now and then some aspect of Amish life gets a spotlight for a brief moment. Remember the Harrison Ford movie "The Witness"? I’ll never forget the barn raising scene, where the entire community got together and put up a huge barn in a day. Modern society cast off that sort of notion a couple of generations ago, yet the practicality of many Amish practices remain attractive to certain people.


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I recall the barn raising done at the Bliss Farm in Chester many years ago, where the entire community got together and replaced Bill and Alice Bliss’s barn that had tragically burned. How about the popularity of "Extreme Makeover, Home Edition"? That was a modern day version of a barn raising that also generated a profit for the ABC television network through advertising dollars. My question is this; why are these cooperative community events so rare?

We live in a society of personalization. Instead of going out to see a film, we can watch a movie on a big screen at home. Many of the luxuries in life that were only affordable to the wealthy have become attainable for the average American. Why go to the public pool when you can have one in your own back yard? We have the ability to educate our children at home with nothing more than a computer. You can shop at home on your computer. The social burdens we face are theoretically taken care of with tax dollars. We work, we contribute through payroll taxes, and we keep to ourselves. It’s easier to focus inward and let the world go by. However, our economic situation has opened the door to more group efforts and cooperation.

This self imposed isolation, the explosion of the internet, along with a struggling economy is like a triple whammy for society. Even the act of going shopping is being radically changed. Yet Vermont is filled with interesting people who understand what is going on. They see the impact on society, and many of them have been successful in reversing the trend. I think this mind-set needs to become more mainstream. Call it a mass Amish mimic, doing cooperative things on blind faith until they become second nature. Farmer’s markets, local craft tours, buying groups, all of these things contribute to the trend reversal, but they could still use a boost.

If any place in this country has an opportunity to find solutions to brain drains and big retailers siphoning off money, and internet sales closing local businesses, it is Vermont. When you put together the can-do and make-it-do attitude of us Vermont natives with the fertile minds and hearts of those who have adopted Vermont, how can you lose? We are a state of Amish Woodchucks, here because we want a simpler life, here because it is the only life we know, and here by choice. OK, so enough of the Polyanna hyperbole. It all boils down to doing things locally, and this time of the year is when you can do it to the max.

More and more local stores are offering locally produced items. As much as I get annoyed by the commercialism that has become the holidays, we can at least strike a blow against it all by purchasing stuff that is locally produced. That’s probably the closest a lot of us are going to get to the imagined ideal of Amish interdependence and harmony. It’s also a great way to feel good about the holidays without getting caught up in the hype. I’m going to do my best to be an Amish Woodchuck this holiday season because it is a form of exercising power for a society that often feels powerless.

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for 20 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM every weekday morning at 8 a.m.