How do Amish religious beliefs shape their views of nature? What outdoor recreational activities do they favor? What can be learned about their approach to gardening, animal husbandry, and agriculture?
David McConnell and Lyn Loveless are exploring many questions like these in a new book project on the Amish and nature.
Lyn Loveless is a professor of biology at the College of Wooster, and David is professor of anthropology at the same institution, as well as co-author of An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the World’s Largest Amish Community.
I’ve asked David and Lyn to share with us about their project. They also plan to share more posts on this and related topics as they are able. I hope you enjoy learning a little more about this interesting project from David and Lyn.
Amish Views of Nature
First of all, we would like to thank Erik for inviting us to be guest bloggers. We have to confess, though, that we are a bit nervous about doing this because we have no experience with blogging. So please bear with us as we try this out.
In our first post, we want tell you how we got interested in our new project, give you a quick overview of some of our thoughts, and then ask for comments and suggestions from you about interesting questions that you think arise from this approach.
The idea for a book on Amish views of nature first emerged when I (David) was just beginning work on An Amish Paradox. Through a series of introductions, I had agreed to pick up 5 Amish acquaintances at 4 am near Mt. Hope, OH to go on an all-day birding trip along the Lake Erie shoreline. I’m a moderately serious birder, but as daylight came and we piled out of the van at our first stop, I soon realized I was completely overmatched.
First, my $75 Bushnell binoculars paled in comparison to the approximately $3000 worth of optical equipment, including state-of-the-art Swarovski spotting scopes, that each of my birding companions had brought with them. One of them even had a hand-held GPS to help us map out our birding stops. I remember being mildly shocked at this mobilization of “un-natural” technology in the pursuit of the appreciation of nature.
Second, I immediately realized this was not going to be a leisurely stroll in the park. My Amish companions were extremely skilled at spotting and identifying birds, and they birded at a torrid pace. They were keenly attuned to weather, habitat, songs and calls, behavior, and other environmental cues of bird life. Most kept life lists, year lists, county lists, state lists, and yard lists of all the birds they had seen. By the end of the day, I was both exhausted and exhilarated—but I do remember thinking I had stumbled on an interesting puzzle worth exploring further down the line.
Fast forward ten years. Paradox was finished, and it was time to pick a new project. My co-author Charles Hurst had retired. In the meantime, I had agreed to be the driver for an Amish family (dad, mom and three teenage children) vacationing in the Southwest U.S.
As it turned out, Lyn, a long-time birding friend and botanist, was living in Tucson that summer, and she invited all of us to stay at her house for a week while visiting local points of interest. This was Lyn’s first in-depth interaction with the Amish, and she hit it off fabulously with the family. As we visited Cave Creek Canyon, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and other natural sites of interest, she too became interested in how the Amish viewed and interacted with natural landscapes. A year later the two of us decided to collaborate on this project.
We all appreciate that the Amish are a rural population, usually living simply within an agricultural landscape. This understanding has generated the widespread image of the Amish as “all-natural,” with a way of life that is local, self-sufficient, and in harmony with the earth. But how do the Amish think about the natural world, and in what ways do they see themselves as part of—or separate from—the non-human landscape and the ecological processes around them? How do they interpret natural events that surround them, and how does their understanding of their relationship with nature guide their choices in how they live on the landscape?
In the broadest terms, we are interested in how Amish situate themselves within nature, as observers of nature, as users of natural resources, as people whose livelihoods come from nature, and perhaps as a part of nature and natural cycles. From this starting point, we can identify many different specific topics that we hope to pursue.
At this point, we are in the early stages of our fieldwork. We’ve done some initial interviews and made observations at a variety of different events in the Holmes County Settlement, such as Family Farm Field Day and the Northeast Ohio Sportsman’s Show. But we are still refining our questions and trying to organize our thinking about the important factors that guide how the Amish relate to their natural environment.
For example, how people think about their ecological surroundings is deeply influenced by religion. Religious beliefs often spell out quite clearly the obligations that we do or do not have to other people or other things. We’ve been thinking a lot about how the Amish interpretation of Christianity, especially their literal reading of the account of Creation in Genesis, shapes their views of nature and of their place in the natural world. How exactly does Genesis serve as a template for interacting with the natural world?
In your observations, do the Amish view themselves as apart from nature? If so, do they see themselves as controlling and dominating nature, or do they see themselves more as stewards and shepherds of God’s creation? Does their “dual kingdom” theology lead the Amish to be relatively unconcerned about what happens on this planet because they are more focused on the next life?
We are excited about this project and look forward to any comments or suggestions readers of this blog may have.