Tablet Life & Arts

The Garden Guru: Simple lessons of a foreign lifestyle

(This week’s column is a slight departure from the norm. It’s about farming and families and fabulous scenery. I hope you enjoy it. Next week I’ll get back to grasshoppers and grassburs and the glories of a Texas summer.)

My wife and I were in Ohio two weeks ago, and we repeated a trip we’ve made for each of the past three summers. Even though we both graduated from Ohio State University, and even though she’s a native Ohioan (I’m from College Station), neither of us had ever been to Holmes County, aka “the Amish Country” just south of Canton. We decided to give it a whirl two summers ago, and we keep going back. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the prettiest counties in America.

Now, part of the beauty of Holmes County comes from its native terrain. It is hilly, verdant ground with an abundance of streams. But there are lots of other places in America (some right here in Texas) that would fit that description.

However, there are two things quite different about this county of 40,000 people. First, it’s clean. Sparklingly, cheerfully, gorgeously clean. And it’s also home to about 20,000 Amish residents. One website I saw says this is the largest Amish population in the world. And it seems like it while you’re there.

You drive through miles of pristine farms and colorful gardens, and you realize that there’s not a power line in sight. So because those are Amish farms that are so beautiful, I’m willing to assume that the Amish residents deserve the credit for keeping their county gloriously maintained.

This is not a column on religion. In fact, I’m just as naive about the Amish faith as almost anyone else. But all that aside, there are some terrific messages I’ve brought home from my visits. These are a few of the things that I learned from the Amish.

Simplicity can be beautiful. “Lavish” doesn’t always translate to “lovely.” Amish homes are plain, but they’re kept spotless. Not a speck of trash or old tools or equipment is visible. Every country road opened up new vistas. My wife and I kept remarking, “It’s just like a painting of Americana.”

Everywhere you look, there’s the feeling of family. Children playing in their yards. Mothers on their way to the store, small children in their buggies beside them. Fathers and sons working the farm fields together. Daughters helping their mothers. Toward the end of our day, one farmer came home on his wagon. As he rounded the corner into his barnyard, out flocked the children to greet him. You couldn’t see it without being touched.

The feeling of community. When a barn needs to be built, the Amish join their resources and forces, and the job is done within days (or less). They work for the betterment of their families, friends and neighbors. What an unusual concept in our fractured “English” (how they refer to us) society. We might do well to use them as our models.

The importance of worship. Churches predominate the rural Holmes County landscape. Amish churches, like their homes, are quite simple. Mennonites are also numerous. Their churches are larger and somewhat more traditional. It’s obvious that this county worships regularly. I have to admire people who are so stalwart in their faith.

Seeing a job through. As we admired one lovely farm after another, I kept thinking about how they did all of that with manual labor and old-fashioned (by our standards) tools and equipment. I just kept saying, “If they can do it, I can too.”

And speaking of tools, if you’re ever in Amish Country in northeastern Ohio, stop by the tiny town of Kidron. That’s where you’ll find Lehman’s Hardware. It’s huge, and it’s fabulous. It’s the store of the Amish.

You can buy 40 kinds of wood-fired ovens, but there’s not an electric appliance in the place. The room that has replacement glasses for kerosene lanterns is as large as many homes. And you can find more types of clothespins and clothes-drying racks than you ever imagined.

There’s a hand-operated washing machine (you do the spinning) and probably 20 kinds of crank-powered ice cream freezers. Garden tools of all kinds, and kitchen utensils and simple toys unlike any other place you’ve ever been. But they do have electric lights in the store, and they do use computers. Why, they even have a website, But don’t try to get cellphone reception while you’re in Kidron. It just isn’t to happen. Enjoy your time out-of-touch.

If you’re ever in Ohio and you want a day trip to remember, head to Berlin (pronounced “BER-lynn”), heartland of it all, and work your way out from there. And I can only imagine how glorious Amish Country must be when the fall color hits peak around mid-October. A good friend was up there on a late-fall Sunday morning, and she said it was breathtaking to see the scores of buggies guided by lanterns making their way to church in the pre-dawn hours.

If you want to learn more, there are very helpful websites, maps and brochures. Plan your trip ahead of time, and take it all in. You will be changed for the better.