Some things will never change, some things will always be the same.
Lean down your ear upon the earth, and listen.
I get those calls, oh, maybe half a dozen times a year or so. From some Amish guy, usually a farmer. Hey, I need some advice on a project. Maybe you can help me out. Any way you could stop by sometime? And usually I say, sure. We figure out a time that works, Saturday afternoons, most often. And I’ll drive right on out to the farm to see him.
Which is what came down, a few weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon, when I headed out to a farm in the Leola area. A little snow squall had swept through the night before, and the roads were a slick and treacherous. But navigable. I nursed Big Blue along, off the main highway and up the hills and around the curves of the narrow ribbon of a side road. More like a path, really. Someone told me years ago that some of the roads around here were born as cow paths. Never found any reason to doubt that tale. I slowly crept up a long hill, keeping a sharp eye out for a little country school house. And there it came. I passed it, then turned onto the long drive that led to an old farmstead tucked away almost out of sight. Lancaster has quite a few of those. Old farms set so far off the road that it’s like another world in there.
The lane was unplowed, but something had tracked in, probably the milk truck. I drove in, parked my truck, and got out. Not a soul around. It had to be the right place. I walked up to the house. Knocked. A teenage girl appeared, broom in hand. Cleaning time on a Saturday afternoon, I figured. She opened the door and smiled at me. Are your parents home? I asked. I’m supposed to be here around one. The girl smiled some more and invited me in. I stepped inside. She disappeared into another room, and her mother emerged a moment later.
The woman was very pleasant. And quite apologetic. “I’m sorry you drove all the way over here on those snowy roads,” she said. Not a problem, I said. I have a truck, and it’s not that bad. “My husband’s working out in the barn. I can take you out there,” she continued. Sure, I said. I waited as she bundled up, and we walked out across the drive and yard toward the massive old barn.
It was an old place, this homestead. The original stone house had been expanded and extended with a new wing here and there over the years. Daudy house, no question, part of it. The outbuildings, too, were big and old. This land had been farmed by Lancaster County Amish for a hundred years, probably more. And it showed. Everything was maintained, kept up, cleaned up, spic and span. We approached the barn, and she tugged open the large hinged door. We walked in.
The interior was a classic stanchion cow barn. Two long rows of Holstein cows stood there, facing each other. The feeding aisle connected them. The cows were clean, the barn was clean. These people milked, and they took care of their livestock. My mind flashed back to those Bloomfield days, back when I was trapped and hapless on the farm. Milking cows by hand. My memories in no way connected with what I saw before me now, though. This place was just spotless. The cows were groomed and gleaming and, well, clean is the only word I can use to describe them. Clean and content. Munching their feed and hay. The odor of animals permeated, sure, but it wasn’t that strong. Not overwhelming, like I remembered from my farming days.
And I wondered fleetingly. Would I have liked farming, or at least tolerated it, had we been raised with a setup like this? Maybe it wouldn’t have been all that bad. But nah, I thought. I still would have hated it. Especially milking. I always hated milking. You’re stuck. No freedom. You have to be there twice a day. No exceptions. And we walked through the connecting aisle, toward the back of the barn.
The goodwife led me to a door on the far wall. Opened it, and disappeared inside. I stood there with the cows. Still marveling. The Lancaster Amish milk with mechanical milkers, not by hand. I have never milked a cow, other than by hand. How much easier it would have been, I thought, if we could have used milkers. A moment later, the Amishman emerged with his wife. He looked a trifle stern and grim, but he was really quite friendly. He walked up to me, shook my hand and smiled. We exchanged greetings and a few pleasantries. Then I peered back into the room he’d been working in. What are you doing back there? “Come on in and see,” he said. I followed him into the room. And walked into a scene that has remained unchanged for over two hundred years.
The barn was old. And this room was old, too. A wing, kind of fit into one corner and flung out. The only light came from rows of large windows on two walls. A table lined those two walls by the windows. In the center of the room were four large cardboard bins. A little crackling wood stove sat over close to the opposite wall. The room was comfortably warm, warm enough to work in shirt sleeves. Four or five children, ranging from teenagers to a five-year-old, stood there by the tables, working. Well, except the little guy, the five-year-old. He flitted around, half working, half playing. And I just stood and stared. This was a scene I’d heard told, but had never seen before. And what I was seeing could have come right out of the early 1800s. The way the room was laid out, the way the people were dressed. Even the air smelled the same, a rank but not unpleasant odor. An Amish father and his children were working in that room, doing what fathers and their sons and daughters have been doing for many generations in these parts. They were stripping tobacco.
I stood there and just drank it all in. I was seeing a slice of Amish life that was totally foreign to me, growing up. Sure, I knew the Lancaster Amish raised tobacco. And I had seen many stages of how tobacco is raised and harvested. I had seen the farmers planting in the fields, in spring. Seen them out there hoeing and trimming in summer. I had seen them in the fields in the stifling August heat, cutting the plants by hand for harvest. And I had seen the bundles of tobacco hanging from barn rafters, drying in the natural air. All that I had seen in the past, just driving by. But I had never seen this process, the final process. The stripping of the dried tobacco leaves.
The thing is, seeing it all from the road, driving by, is a lot different than actually being there. A lot different. Here, in this room, I could not only see it, I could sense it, feel it, smell it. What it was, this ancient tradition, and what it meant.
And I told the man. Wow. That is just fascinating. I’ve never seen this before. How do you do it? Why are there four bins, here? How long has the tobacco dried? How much does an acre produce? Doesn’t it deplete the land, raising tobacco? That’s what I’ve always heard. And he beamed and smiled, very pleased at my interest. I was in his world. And he was eager to tell me the things he knew and lived.
“Every tobacco stalk has four different grades of leaf. So we have four bins,” he said. And he showed me the different grades, from rough to fine. The children all looked at me with large eyes, but kept right on working. Stripping leaves and throwing them in the proper bins. Soon, though, they paused and gathered around this funny English man who could talk PA Dutch. Smiled at me and my questions. They could not imagine how I could be so dense and ignorant of the things they had seen and known from the day they could walk and speak.
And the Amishman chatted right along. “It’s a lot of work, from seeding to harvest to stripping,” he said. “It keeps the children busy. They’re getting a little tired of it right now, but we have to have this shipment ready by next Tuesday. They’re doing pretty well.” And he told me of how they bale the loose tobacco into great 600 pound blocks. “The baler is set up over there in the other room,” he said. “No one wants to use the old tobacco presses any more. Too much work, cranking the press by hand, and tying the bales by hand. The baler does it a lot faster, in bigger bales. They come out with their trucks and load the bales.” To my next obvious question: “It all gets shipped down south somewhere. We contract in the spring, to produce a certain amount.”
“And no,” he said. “The things people say are wrong. Tobacco doesn’t deplete the land. Alfalfa takes more from the soil than tobacco does. Of course, we rotate the crops every year. This year, we raised six acres of tobacco.” Wow, again, I thought. Six acres. Six acres of heavy labor-intensive work. Six acres of planting by hand, harvesting by hand. Six acres of tobacco leaves, to hang in the rafters to dry. Six acres of tobacco to strip. Yeah, he keeps his children busy, all right.
And time was winding down, in that room. I could feel it. I pulled out my iPhone. I want to take a picture of the tobacco bins, I said. If the children need to move out of the way, that’s fine. And all the children kind of edged off to the side. Except one. The little guy. He stayed there, unmoving. Didn’t budge. I quickly lifted the phone and snapped the pic. The little boy looked right at me. And his father did not scold him.
And I thought a good bit about it later, absorbed it, turned the thing over in my mind, why that simple scene spoke to me so deeply. The father and his children, out there on a Saturday afternoon, laboring at a job the Amish have done ever since they settled here in the 1700s. Providing a cash crop for the market. Thinking nothing of it, really. Perplexed by my fascination.
Coming from where I came from, the experience put a human face on an activity that was always taught to me as evil. Tobacco. The devil’s weed. Everything we hear in our time screams condemnation of anything associated with the word. I grew up hearing that condemnation. Grew up reading it, from my father’s writings. I heard it preached from countless sermons in church. It’s bad stuff. It’s evil. No Christian could ever raise or sell it. No Christian could ever use it. There can be no understanding of it. And there can be no defense.
And yet, here are people from the same culture that birthed me, raising and selling tobacco. Just as they always have. A different sliver of that culture, sure. These are the offspring of the blue bloods, the first wave of Amish to come over from the old world. The second wave came later, around a hundred years later, and that wave included my ancestors. People who pushed on out west, restless people who tended not to stay too long in one place. Not so the Lancaster Amish. Most of them were content where they had settled, and they’ve always raised tobacco. The mortgage lifter, they called it. Because they considered that money as extra, as a bonus, that could go to pay off the farm.
They’ve always raised tobacco, and they’ve always withstood criticism from within from people like my father. And they’ve stood strong against criticism from the outside world, too. In recent decades, the winds of public opinion never bothered them one bit. The market has, though. A decade or so ago, the bottom dropped out of tobacco prices. For a few years, it wasn’t worth raising. Their crops sat unsold in their barns for years, or they sold it at a huge loss. And a good many Amish farmers in Lancaster County quit tobacco and went to raising “truck” crops, vegetables and such. But when the market prices rose again, quite a few of them returned.
And there are some farmers, too, who have quit raising tobacco because of moral reasons. Because they decided it’s wrong. Maybe they read my father’s writings way back, some of them. And got convinced. Maybe there were other influences. Whatever the case, some local farmers decided it’s wrong and don’t do it anymore. But those are a minority, I think. And either way, it’s fine. To each his own conscience, to each his own choices.
I have no moral qualms about tobacco use of any kind. None. It’s a choice, that’s all it is, and what you do with that choice is none of my business. I’m not saying, go start smoking cigarettes. But I am saying it’s not the evil it has been portrayed to be, an evil that will cost your salvation if you are a Christian. And any church that claims otherwise is preaching a message based on fear and not the true freedom the gospel brings us.
I’m not saying anyone should raise or use any form of tobacco, or approve of it in any way. I am saying, stop judging those who do. And please spare me that tired old “Your body is a temple” song and dance. Let me ask this. Are you overweight at all? 10 pounds? 20? 50? 100? Do you eat the poisonous junk they serve at fast food joints? Do you use refined sugar, or any of a host of artificial additives in your food and drink? If so, why? Your body is a temple. Stop judging others. Judge yourself instead. Honestly, I mean. And learn what it is to live.
I enjoy the occasional pipe or cigar, mostly in the summer months when I can sit outside and relax and puff at leisure. I smoked cigarettes pretty heavily off and on for ten years, a long time ago. That was a choice, too. A choice I made back then. I might still die from lung cancer because of that choice. If I do, I do. I wouldn’t dream of blaming anyone but myself.
Certainly I wouldn’t blame God for being unfair or blame the big tobacco companies for producing a product I enjoyed. The tobacco companies have been blatantly robbed of billions of dollars by sniveling plaintiffs in frivolous lawsuits, egged on by greedy shyster lawyers, the massive verdicts handed down by idiotic, brain-dead juries. The shame of that stain, how the courts collaborated in flat out “legal” theft, will one day be told for what it is in the story of what was once passed off as law in this morally bankrupt society.
I resent and detest the nanny state that demonizes smoking to hysterical heights and relegates smokers to leper status, all while grabbing more and more of their rights and freedoms. All the while inflicting increasingly onerous taxes on tobacco products. All the while inflicting ever heavier burdens on the poor, many of whom tend to smoke and can least afford the ridiculous, state-mandated cost of a single pack of cigarettes.
I deeply resent the anti-smoking Nazis who have created a world where the tobacco companies make around 30 cents a pack in profit, while the state, which produces nothing but force and fear, imposes a tax of several dollars per pack. That’s just outright theft. It’s all “for the children,” of course. And for public health. It never was about health, and it never was for the children. It was always about money and control. Follow the money, and follow the threads of control, any time the state prates about the good it will do for anyone or anything.
I am proud that one segment of the Old Order Amish has kept it right, when it comes to tobacco. By holding on to what they have always done long before the fickle winds of state-orchestrated public opinion derided and demonized this particular tradition. They keep this tradition as they have always kept it, as a family unit on the family farm. These people have not been moved, they have not been swayed. Instead, they quietly and stubbornly insist on being who they are. Which can be a bit frustrating, sometimes, depending on the situation. Maddening, even, when you’re inside trying to break out. Believe me, I know all about how that can be.
But now and then, their quiet stubbornness shines like a beacon in the darkness because they are standing for something bigger than themselves. And that is always a beautiful thing.
And how about that Super Bowl? Wild, wild game. And, ahem, if you go back and check my last blog post, you’ll see how I called it. Ravens by a field goal. Which, by some miracle, is exactly how it all came down. I’m no prophet, and will not claim to be one. But still, it feels good, to have called the game right on.
Someone in New Orleans should get fired. Period. Of course, the NFL is way too PC to acknowledge that. But there was and is no excuse for the power to go off during the most watched sporting event in the world. For more than half an hour. That delay almost cost the Ravens their hard-fought win. But the football gods stood tall, and justice was meted out. In one of the best Super Bowl games in history. Congrats to the Ravens and Ray Lewis.
All that said, I loathe the Ravens just a shade less than I loathe the Patriots or the Steelers, or a handful of other teams. All are evil. And I’m happy to go back to my normal settings. Go, Jets, next season. Ah, what the heck. Who am I kidding?
And finally, a note about the blog. I am getting dangerously close to my 500,000th hit. I figure it might come before the next post. That’s not a huge number for the big boys. But for a guy just walking around out there, sometimes living intensely, sometimes not, a guy who throws out a story and some thoughts every couple of weeks, it’s not bad. I’m getting between 3500 and 5000 hits between posts. And to me, it’s pretty wild, that the half-millionth hit is coming right up.
As always, I’m grateful for every reader. I know full well there are thousands and thousands of other sites you could be checking instead of mine. I take nothing for granted. So, thank you. Without you, the numbers would not be what they are. Thanks for reading my stuff.Share