The sun flames red and bloody as it sets, there are old
red glintings on the battered pails, the great barn gets
the ancient light as the boy slops homeward with warm
It flashed through the Facebook world earlier this week. Another Amish study of some sort. Those things seem to pop up like magic, right along. And it might even have been an older study, because stuff like that gets recycled on Facebook all the time. I never bothered to check the date. And, yeah, I linked it and threw it out there to my world. The report was all breathless and excited. Concluding what should be common sense, really. Amish children are amazingly resistant to allergies, it proclaimed. A way lower percentage of them are afflicted than are children in mainstream society.
Oh my, I thought. What a surprise. Wonder what kind of genius came up with that. And how could it even be, such a thing? Those people are so primitive. Why would their children be healthier than mainstream children, at least when it comes to allergies? And why don’t their children get sick as much?
I knew the reason before I even read the story. The reason Amish children as a group are resistant to allergies and such is simple. One word. Dirt. They grow up in it. They play in it, they work in it. And some of it, no doubt, finds its way through the mouth into the digestive system, too, at times. It doesn’t seem to faze them one bit. There are exceptions, as always, of course. There are sickly Amish children. But I’m talking as a group. With all that exposure to whatever germs and other evils lurking about, those children develop a natural resistance. Tough, is what they are. And in an increasingly urban world, such a thing is now considered a wonder. An aberration, not the norm.
And nah, this is not an indictment of urbanization, or “sprawl,” as the statists love to call it (they won the language war with that one). Not a call to return to the land. Such things always sound nice and flowery, and logical almost, in theory. But mostly it’s just fluffy words, words that ignore the market and the division of labor. The simple fact is, people have to live somewhere, and not everyone can grow up on a farm. It’s not possible, or desirable, even. The best use for land, any land, is whatever the truly free market decides, be it houses or factories or shopping centers (yep, including Wal Marts) or crop fields. People have to live somewhere and they have to work somewhere, and they can’t all be on the farm.
I looked at the stock photo accompanying the article. A line of young Amish kids standing there, from toddlers to probably twelve years old. Plainly Lancaster County children. And I thought to myself, they look awfully clean. Slicked up. Compared to the world I grew up in, they were.
And I think back to how it was. I don’t think very many children on this Continent today, Amish or otherwise, see and live the things I saw and lived. If they did, the Children-and-Youth folks would have a heart attack. And a field day, with many arrests and interventions and tearing families apart, the kinds of things they do. All soothed over with sanctimonious press releases about abused children being rescued from unacceptable conditions. Such conditions, of course, always defined by them.
I grew up on the farm and I grew up dirty. Gloriously grimy. I’m not talking Pigpen in the Peanuts comic strip filthy, walking around with clouds of dust hovering like a tiny sandstorm. It wasn’t anything like that. But we were grimy. Still, some basic rules of sanitation applied. We were taught to always wash our faces and hands before coming to the table to eat. And we always had to wash our feet at bedtime, after running around barefoot all day in summer. Although sometimes our sisters forgot to check and we managed to slip through without endurng that little ordeal.
By today’s standards, well, if we stood before the world now as we were back then, we’d probably shock a lot of English people. And maybe some Amish people, too. I’m thinking we couldn’t have smelled that great, either. But we didn’t know any better. We took a bath once a week. I detested having my hair washed, that was done probably every couple of weeks or so. My curls got so tangled up that when my sisters cornered me of a Sunday morning and tried to comb my hair for church, I cried and cried and begged them to stop.
It was a different time, obviously. Even a different age, maybe. I don’t know. We were who we were, in that time and place. In Aylmer, as Amish children. The community was the world we knew. The farm was our home within that world. And I have a host of fond memories of the journey through my childhood.
I remember how it felt, as the bitter cold of winter receded and spring approached. The seething stormy days of March, as the snow banks settled into the earth and the ice slowly melted in the pond. Great flocks of geese and ducks swept northward in gigantic Vs. Then April, and rain. The warmth crept in, slowly, pushing back the memories of winter. To us, there was always a looming magical day. Sometime in May, usually, when Mom checked the thermometer. If it read around 70 degrees outside, she issued a very important proclamation. The children may go outside barefoot. We savored the delicious joy of the rush of that first moment, of running barefoot through the grass for the first time in spring. I can still feel it. And, gloriously barefoot, we ran everywhere, through the fields, through mud and manure and over rocks and gravel. And within weeks, the bare soles of our feet were as tough as the shoe leather they had replaced.
I give the adults in that world a lot of credit. They pretty much allowed us to run free. Not that we weren’t told what was what. The dangers to stay away from. We were told. Sternly admonished about a lot of things. And spanked, if we got caught not obeying. My sister Maggie, the most protective soul in the family, always imagined the very worst scenario that could possibly happen. She kept tabs on us, as much as possible, and because of her, we probably got into a bit less trouble than we would have otherwise.
And we ran as I wish all children would be allowed to run, into a world of real adventure. The cow paths winding through the pasture fields were our highways. The gloomy shadows of the south woods were our magical realms. The pond was our great sea. And the dry creek behind the barn was our raging river after a hard rain. We snuck up on groundhogs in the fields. Shot at sparrows with homemade slingshots and BB guns, and after age 12, with rifles.
Stephen, Titus and I built many a raft from old fence posts, cobbled together with rusty nails. And we poled our way across the pond, again and again, right over the deepest places. With no such thing as a life jacket. We didn’t even know what a life jacket was. We fished the pond and the gravel pits a half mile east. We went swimming with our friends. We salvaged old lumber and constructed a dam across the dry creek. It held up well, and years later we could still see remnants of it along the banks on each side.
It wasn’t all play, though. Far from it. We learned to work, and work hard, while very young. And I look back and marvel sometimes. It’s a wonder, if not a miracle, that we didn’t get seriously hurt somewhere along the way, or even killed. Not because the Amish are particularly careless or anything, but because farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. You always hear about firefighters and cops, the dangers they face. Not saying they don’t. But that hand’s way overplayed, in my opinion. Farming is more dangerous.
Farms have animals. Big animals. And Amish farms have big horses instead of tractors. By the time I was nine or ten years old, it wasn’t at all unusual for me to take a team to a field by myself, hitch the horses to a disc harrow, and till the earth. I thought nothing of it. Our horses were generally a pretty shabby lot, but the teams I drove at that age were calm and tame. I don’t remember that I particularly liked or disliked horses at the time. It was just all I knew. There were no other options. No other possibilities.
We helped Mom in her large garden just west of the yard west of the house. At planting time, she called us to come help plant the seeds. She cut up potato chunks that we dropped in long shallow trenches, then covered with a hoe. One of my very earliest memories was in that garden, about mid morning one day. I was out there with my Mom and sisters, too small to work, just running about underfoot. Dark clouds roiled in the west as a thunderstorm approached. I heard the rumbles and thought it sounded like a steel-wheeled horse drawn farm wagon, the kind we had on the farm, bumping down the road. I hear a wagon coming, I told Mom. “No, no,” she said, smiling. “That’s not a wagon. That’s thunder, coming from those clouds. It’s going to rain. We have to go inside soon.” And that was my introduction to what approaching thunder sounds like.
At milking time, we trudged to the far pastures and herded home the cows. Milked by hand, and strained the milk into aluminum cans sitting in the concrete water tank in the milk house. And yeah, we drank that raw milk, too. You bet we did. We knew nothing else. And it’s one of the greatest outrages of our time, a symptom of far deeper issues, what the state is doing to Amish farmers who insist on providing raw milk for the market. They are prosecuted worse than real hardened criminals. Because of absolutely arbitrary and senseless state decrees, backed by the state’s blatantly criminal actions. One of these days, I will go off and write a blog about all that. And some readers wonder why I so deeply detest the state as an entity of pure evil. Raw milk is only one of the myriad reasons why.
We harvested loose hay from the fields, an ancient contraption of a hayloader hooked behind the wagon. Not many people alive today have ever seen a hayloader work. I remember trucks and cars slowing and even stopping along the road, the drivers gaping at this odd sight from another age. Often, my job was to drive the team as one of my brothers stacked the loose hay that came pouring on. And once, I hung on helplessly as a wild young team kind of took control and plunged away from the windrowed hay. The horses could feel a child’s hand, and decided to step out a bit. My brother Joseph was working at the back of the wagon, guiding and stacking the loose hay. As the team lunged forward, the hayloader lunged along with it. Poor Joseph was almost buried as great waves of hay suddenly cascaded onto the wagon from above.
“What’s going on?” he shouted. I can’t hold the horses, I hollered back.
He stabbed his fork into the hay and dropped down over the front of the one man rack. Strode in about two steps to the front of the wagon, where I was hanging helplessly on to the reins, pulling straight back with all my might. Joseph grabbed the reins from my locked-in fingers. He seesawed the reins back and forth rather savagely, speaking firmly to the team. The horses, sensing and feeling a real adult’s hands, instantly became docile. Joseph guided them back onto the hay row and stopped the team. Handed me the reins again. Then he instructed me, and I never forgot.
“When the horses are pulling at the bit like that, you can’t just hang on and pull straight back,” he said. “They’re way bigger and stronger than you. You have to yank the reins sideways, back and forth, to let them know you’re in control.” Oh, OK, I said, timidly taking the reins from him. And back we went, trundling down the hay row. His advice seemed to work very well.
It’s a dangerous place, the farm. And I remember the story that was always told in hushed tones, a story of how I almost lost an older brother. Not that I would ever have known, because it happened when I was an infant.
It was winter, and Dad had cut blocks of ice from the pond on the deep end. Maybe the neighbors came and helped, as they did years later in my memory. But that day, at dusk, there were still blocks of ice in the water. My sister Maggie was seventeen. And my brother Joseph was fifteen. The two of them were out on the pond just as darkness came creeping in, loading one more sleigh with ice to take to the icehouse. I’m not sure what Dad was thinking, sending his children out there unsupervised like that. But there they were.
Joseph was just a skinny kid. He leaned over with the ice tongs to pull the blocks from the water. Maggie held onto him as he did it, so he wouldn’t fall in. And things rolled right along. Joseph stepped onto a row of blocks that had not broken loose. He leaned over and stabled the tongs into a loose block in the water. And the blocks he was standing on gave way. He plunged straight down into the icy darkness.
Maggie screamed for help. Joseph slipped below the surface and came back up. Clawed at the solid ice Maggie was standing on. And slipped back in and under again. Slipped sideways, almost under the frozen solid ice. And Maggie moved without thinking. She knelt and reached down and grabbed her brother by the collar with one hand. And with that one hand and arm, she literally yanked him to the surface and safety. There’s no way she could have had the natural strength to do that. Not by a long shot. No way. But she did it.
Joseph was soaked and freezing. The two of them ran into the house, and told the others what had happened. And just that close, I might have had an older brother I never knew, except for his name. And just that close, his own children were never born.
And, of course, the farm was dangerous in many lesser ways. Not a summer went by that most of us children didn’t step onto a nail at least once outside somewhere, protruding from junk lumber. One day, we were hauling trash to be burned on the fire pile. I was riding Molly, an old gray mare so tame you could have fallen asleep on her back and not fallen off. Pulling a “sled,” a wooden contraption on runners, with sides for hauling things like firewood and trash. I guided Molly up to the fire pile and stopped. Flipped my one leg over her back and jumped to the ground. My right foot landed smack on a 16 penny spike protruding from an old piece of wood.
The nail didn’t stab quite all the way through my foot, but it sure was stuck in there pretty deep. I recoiled in horror, sat flat on the ground on my butt, and howled in pain. Molly the horse stood there placidly, switching her tail. My brother Stephen was right there, along with Rhoda, I think. He grabbed the piece of wood and tugged. The nail slid back out, and I hobbled, screaming, to the house. Mom met me with soothing words and did what she always did when we stepped on a nail. Filled a basin with hot water and mixed in a handful of Epsom Salt. I sat there and soaked my foot, and the salt extracted whatever poisons might have been clinging to the nail. Then she applied her homemade Union salve and bandaged my foot. In about a week, I was good as new.
To this day, I swear by Epsom Salt and Mom’s homemade salve. The salve isn’t available anymore, sadly, at least not Mom’s. Her’s was the best healing salve there ever was, simply because she made it. But the Epsom Salt is available. It’s the best thing on the market that you can use for puncture wounds and sprained muscles and such. I always keep a supply in store. And I use it once or twice a year.
All of us had our share of accidents, of cuts and scrapes and bruises. From falling off wagons, struggling with runaway horses, dodging charging cows that had just calved, stepping on nails, falling into the pond, whatever. One summer evening, right at dusk, my brother Titus, barefoot as usual, stepped on the prong of a manure fork in the barn. The prong went into the bottom of his foot and came out in the back, above the heel. I was right there with him. He let out a startled yelp and sprinted to the house, leaving a spotted trail of blood behind him. I don’t remember if that incident required a visit to the doctor or not. I think it might have, to get some sort of shot of vaccine or penicillin. We figured Titus got the best of the deal, because he got to go to town.
Through it all, we strode forward into life, because it was the only life we knew. There is one thing I don’t recall. I don’t remember being sick a lot. Sure, we all got the chicken pox and the measles, as young children. And once in a blue moon, a fever swept through, a flu or a cold or some such thing. But those were rare. We just never got sick much. I still don’t, to this day. Knocking on wood, here. I’ve done some hard living since those days. Some real hard living. I still live pretty intensely, now and then.
Life is risk. So is freedom. And it doesn’t work, to attempt to remove every conceivable risk from your children, by decree or by legislation. Sure, there will be accidents. Sure, sometimes there will be tragedies. And sometimes, there will be loss. But it’s far better to live in a world with risks, and really live, than it is to trudge along in the bleak dreariness of smothering protection from every imaginable ill that might befall us.
And that’s why Amish children are more resilient and resistant to allergies. Because of how they are raised, close to the earth. Because they play in the dirt and drink raw milk and work the soil that sustains them. In a world where they are taught to work when very young, a world of risks that are simply accepted as a factor of daily life. As are the consequences of those risks.
That’s how I see it, anyway. But what do I know? I have no children. I remember what it was to be one, though. And I do know this much. From what I’ve seen of the English world around me, I am grateful that my childhood world was just exactly what it was.
My memories of that world greatly impact the way I choose to live in this one.
To me, March has always been the endless month. The month of transition from one season to the next. I’ve even called it the cruelest month in the past. But this year, I think, the title of “endless month” must be awarded to February. Of course, March hasn’t arrived yet, and may prove worse. If it does, I figure I’ll call it something like “the eternal month.”
Anyway, this month has been blah. February. Blech. I don’t know why. It just seems to drag on and on, and it’s even the shortest month in actual days, yet. One thing, it’s the month of sports drought for me. I’m used to writing with some sort of game going on off to one side, on TV. Now I don’t have my normal noise to work with. (If this blog was sub par, blame it on that.) Football passed on after the Super Bowl. I don’t consider basketball a sport, and I refuse to watch it. Hockey kicks in now and then, sporadically. But it’s not worth watching until the playoffs start. Baseball won’t be here until April. Only good old Nascar is coming to the rescue, with the Daytona 500 this weekend. But that’s only one day a week. It’s enough to drive me to distraction.
Oh, well. Whatever March turns out to be, one thing will happen. Spring and baseball will come soon after. And this year, I am way beyond ready for that.Share