Column: Amish ‘Radical Neighborliness’ Offers Calm in Sea of Political Troubles

  • A farmer works his fields in Lancaster County. ‘It’s that type of person, with a hard-work ethic and that family orientation, that creates the perfect breeding ground for field hockey,’ U.S. field hockey captain Lauren Crandall said. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.

For the Valley News
Saturday, August 11, 2018

One Sunday in the summer of 1990, our next-door neighbor in Ohio, June Kraus, came through our back door praising David Kline’s most recent book, Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer’s Journal. Both of our families had moved to Ohio in 1966, and the Krauses had come to seem more like family than neighbors. My wife, Nancy, and I were already taking credit for helping to raise their sons, Joe and Ed, and they seldom denied their crucial role in raising our daughters, Judy and Annie.

But June and Dick also attended lots of plays and films — sometimes prompting us to take in shows we might have happily missed. So I was undoubtedly skeptical about Great Possessions.

That summer, I was planning a course in environmental studies with Juliana Mulroy, a plant ecologist at Denison University, and June’s review this time must have been convincing because I immediately bought Kline’s book and quickly concluded we should adopt it for our course. We were planning to focus partly on the Dust Bowl, which included Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Great Possessions would allow us to consider agriculture in Ohio, too.

Once Mulroy encountered Kline’s impressive knowledge of natural history, we agreed to use Great Possessions and to ask the author if we could bring our class to see Larksong, his farm near Fredericksburg, Ohio.

A few days ago, while driving back to Ohio with my wife and daughters for June’s memorial service, I thought of how she and her enthusiasm for Great Possessions continues to influence our family.

Our visit to Larksong that October began a friendship with David and Elsie Kline that steadies our family now in the political typhoon that is this time of Donald Trump’s presidency. Reading David’s most recent book, The Round of a Country Year: A Farmer’s Day Book, I’ve begun to understand how the Klines, on their beautiful Ohio farm, still bring hope into our lives here in New Hampshire.

Wendell Berry’s preface to David’s most recent book helped me understand.

After describing the “radical neighborliness” of the Amish, their wish to live at peace with “all of their neighbors,” he tells of a day when he drove up from Kentucky to visit the Klines on their farm. David was baling hay behind a four-horse team, and Berry joined David’s daughter Ann loading bales.

“Nobody, including the horses, was working too hard,” he wrote, “and Ann and I talked as we worked.” He concluded his preface with something Ann said that he took care to remember: “Of all the places in the world to be, I would rather be right here.”

If I had to pick a single idea from all our conversations with David and Elsie Kline, as well as from his books — which include Scratching the Woodchuck (1997) and Letters from Larksong (2010) — it would be what Ann told Berry. It’s an exceptionally comforting thought right now. Who hasn’t glimpsed a recent headline and considered relocating to Toronto? One of the most important things the Kline family shows us is how rich life can be when you are fully present in a place despite its troubles.

They all, including the grandchildren, pay close attention to the animals and plants on their farm. They celebrate the arrival of the first monarch butterfly of summer and mourn their diminishing numbers. They provide habitat for butterflies and birds. David has been known to adjust a mowing to avoid disturbing a nest at a crucial time in the bird’s life cycle.

As much as their “radical neighborliness” includes wildlife, it encompasses many people who aren’t Amish. Although they don’t vote in elections, just as they don’t join the electrical grid, choosing to stand apart from our dominant culture, the Amish pay attention to politics and take pleasure in talking with people even when they disagree. And though the talk is likely to touch on weather, it is seldom small talk.

When we visited the Klines in March, David mentioned that if he got a chance to talk with Ken Harbaugh, the Democratic candidate for Congress in their congressional district, he’d advise him not to spend too much time campaigning in Holmes County. He worries about climate change, economic injustice and war, so he wishes Harbaugh well. But even though David has deep affection for his neighbors and often spends his days talking and working with them, he knows they are unlikely ever to vote for a Democrat.

June Kraus, who loved to talk with anyone, would have understood the challenge. Many of us live in political bubbles, talking mainly with like-minded people. We’re often left accepting stereotypes of those we oppose. The Amish, who insulate themselves from some of the most powerful influences in American culture, have learned how to be true friends and neighbors in spite of fundamental disagreements. It’s a skill we all need to acquire in this troubled and polarized time.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.