The sun was warm on his face and the air smelled of green growing things. From the yard, he heard the bleat of a goat and the flapping sound of clothes drying on a line.
– Courting Ruth by Emma Miller
“Reading is very important, Ida,” he says. “The secret to a long life is to escape it as often as you can.”
– The Saint of Lost Things by Christopher Castellani
When we lived in Maryland and I was a bicyclist, one of my favorite training rides was called “Hidden Amish.” I drove south an hour from our College Park home into the rural landscape of southern Maryland, and then I got out of my car and pedaled with friends through 50 miles of rolling hills and sunshine. Sometimes, in July, the asphalt sizzled and became gooey under our bike tires.
If we were lucky on our Hidden Amish tour, the roads of which were quiet except for buzz of insects and the whir of our bike wheels, we saw a horse and buggy ahead through the shimmer of heat. A wagon was always something to look forward to – a goal to strive towards on the empty roads – and when we finally reeled it in, we passed on the left, smiling and saying hi to the gentle people on the wooden wagon bench as we pedaled by.
The thing that always struck me about the buggies was the sounds they made. As we whirred past on our metal-spoked wheels we heard the steady clomping of horse hooves and the occasional creak of wood planks as the driver shifted in his seat. The wagons were close – we could see the whiskers in the buggy driver’s beard, the hairs on the back of his hands as he held the leather reins, the ruffles of the Kapp on the woman’s head – and our voices connected with their ears and their voices with ours. Our eyes held their eyes and we could see their teeth shine in smiles as we pedaled slowly by because they weren’t in a car zooming past that roared with engine noise. Their wagon did not race past with a wind that buffeted our bikes and pushed us toward the edge of the road as we clenched our shoulders and turned our heads away.
Being around the Amish always gave me a sense of peace and, ironically, a craving to live closer to the earth. Ironic because as I learned in my first Delaware-set read, the Amish romance Courting Ruth, it is not the earthly life that matters but the life that comes next:
In the Amish faith, it was the hereafter that was important, not this earthly existence.
It is for this reason that the Amish live apart from the world. They avoid the sins of pride and vanity, they cooperate within a tightly knit faith-based community, and they shun technology in their homes, making it necessary that they live off the land.
It’s interesting to me that these good people, “Plain” as they call their ways in Emma Miller’s novel, live closer to the earth than most of us who claim passions for environmental issues and global warming and ecological preservation. Their way of life is focused on the spiritual, not on saving the planet, but their ways are rooted in the earth: in farming and animal husbandry, in harvesting and baking, in picnicking and enjoying the quiet of the countryside.
Perhaps it was their earthiness, the wholesome quiet with which the Amish live, or perhaps it was their deep faith, that “it was the hereafter that was important, not this earthly existence,” or perhaps it was a combination of the two – a fusion of earth and spirit – but I always drove away from the Hidden Amish ride with a feeling of serenity. I pulled out of the parking lot tired and content, with my bike on the roof rack, my windows down, and my foot lighter on the gas pedal in the evening than it had been when I zoomed to the start that morning.
Courting Ruth, an Amish romance set in Delaware by Amish-raised Emma Miller, is filled with beautiful scenes of a simple life, of bare feet on grass, of buggy rides, of baking pies and selling strawberries at market. The Delaware landscape reminded me of bike rides through southern Maryland, and Miller’s novel gave me the same feeling of serenity that the Hidden Amish bike ride always did.