Under the Black Blanket

04/02/11

Looking Backwards

Lancaster Buggy.jpg

I spent some of my formative years on a farm in southwestern Michigan in a stretch of America inhabited by the Amish. On summer nights fat June bugs banged against the screens, and horses' hooves clattered by on the paved road as the simple people in black rode home from their Wednesday night church meetings. An Amish farmer worked the fields behind our house. We used to play on the great metal plows he hooked up to horses.

Sometimes they would invite us to their candle-lit houses, where we played Scrabble with make-up free women in bonnets and hook-and-eye fastened homemade dresses who fed us homemade pie and fresh-churned ice cream. Needless to say, we waited to get home before using the bathroom, avoiding their outhouses at all costs.
Recently, I saw the movie Jane Eyre.  It made me weepy and it wasn't just the doomed romance, but something much more embarrassing. I realized I was nostalgic for the 19th Century.

In the little more than a century since our forebears lived like the Amish, our lives have changed utterly. We don't worry anymore about heat or light, and we don't worry about travel times, just the security delay.

In exchange: A science fiction future now looms before us, becoming reality faster than we can say "Whoa!" No turning back. Whole swathes of earth are polluted and poisoned thanks to our love of warmth, artificial light, and speed.

In the movie, Jane Eyre reads to her little charge and makes "pressings" of flowers.  There was a time when people amused themselves with conversation, reading, playing non-electronic games. 

There was time when our forebears were content within their communities. They had to be, they couldn't get very far on foot and horseback. How different would our world now be if none of us could just get in a car and go away, or get in a plane and go even farther? Would we care more about our gardens, our schools, and our friends and our parents and our friends' children and parents?

We may or may not be watching the worst-case scenario: huge areas of an entire industrialized country becoming unlive-able.  The poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico already seems to pale in comparison to the radioactive Pacific.

Recently I saw a documentary about young people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania who have taken up horse farming. Some of them worked on Amish farms for several years to learn how it's done.

Horse farming remains a pastime for young hippie poseurs and trust fund New Agers with lots of time on their hands. But experts say that to avoid climate change, we must reduce our fossil fuel usage by 85 percent. That's unthinkable because it means horses, donkeys, walking, staying put, darkness, candles, and cold.         

And yet: there are the Amish.

A return to nineteenth century living terrifies us because of how much remedial education we need. We have lost all of the elemental skills that only two or three generations back, most people possessed. We don't know how to warm or light our homes, how to grow and preserve food, and what it feels like to live with cold, and without indoor plumbing. Most of all, we don't know how to stay home.

Modern life has so many benefits, most of them medical: Women don't regularly die in childbirth, children survive all manner of illnesses that would have felled half of them before they turned five. Millions who would have died of cardiac arrest are walking among us, beneficiaries of surgery. And on and on.          

I don't really long for the dreadful days before antibiotics and anesthesia, but sometimes I wonder if they posed an easier passage off the mortal coil than what lies before us, in this world that we have re-made so rapidly and with so little heed - imagination -  for the costs.

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