You have to work a little to see the photograph I intended here. First, imagine long rope lines hung with sheets and clothes in two palettes--fluttery pastels of pink, green and blue bracketed by somber navies, browns and blacks. Imagine next an amazing bounty of birdhouses on tall poles, maybe ten of them, white like the house and the other farm buildings, big as breadboxes for giants
, each with about twenty neat round openings for the birds. Finally, imagine a much more lavish garden planted near the road-- imagine it topped with brilliant red cockscombs, nearly iridescent in the bright October light.
We passed the perfect picture dozens of times on our weekend into unglaciated Ohio, as we drove along the narrow county roads through Ohio''s Amish country. There was always a reason I couldn't photograph the perfect farm. I didn't want to pull my camera out because there were people there, Amish people, in their buggies or behind their plows or on their bicycles. I didn't want them to think I was trying to photograph them--
you know, as if they're kittens, so cute in their straw hats and white bonnets that people like me can't resist leaning out their car windows and cooing; as if they're so quaint with their big-shouldered draft horses and aversion to zippers that they're not even going to know what a camera is. Anyone who thinks the Amish are childishly quaint should stop at the Amish Flea Market in Walnut Creek, Ohio. This is a county fair-sized spread of buildings containing miles of the worst kitch I've ever seen. I think those Amish merchants must be keeping half of China working.
But away from the monster flea market and some of the other monster Amish-themed tourist attractions in Holmes County--according to a brochure, the largest continuous Amish community in the country--there are still the Amish farmlands. And what farms they are! There's almost nothing I love more than a beautiful, well-tended farm, and I don't think we passed one that didn't send me into rapture. There is something almost sacred about applying that much care to the ordinary--each gleaming white fence as if it had just been scrubbed, each dry leaf and spent blossom patiently plucked away.
We hadn't really intended this driving-around-aimlessly kind of weekend. Years ago, I wrote an article about one-day trips from Cleveland to places that offer some sort of educational experience. One of the places I wrote about was The White Oak Inn
near Mount Vernon, a B&B where they had special weekends with naturalists who taught you to hunt wild mushrooms and archeologists who let guests help out with a dig on the White Oak grounds. I never got to go there myself, but always wanted to. So we finally went for my husband's birthday. It is much lovelier than its online pictures suggest and is perched just above one of the valleys now filled with corn, not the ancient waters that created it. This gives the impression of a golden river passing by, just beyond the trees. The archeological dig is finished, all covered up, but Ian the innkeeper told me that the researchers think the grounds were the site of an ancient flint knapping workshop. Farmers below still turn up the occasional blade when they plow. So, yeah, I spent a few hours pacing through the mud at the edge of the cornfield looking--aside from anything else, I have this magical thinking that my novel will sell if I find an arrowhead, as my main character does. And I'm always looking for that stuff anyway. I did find three pieces of flint, but none of them appear to be worked. And they're not the gorgeous rainbow flint from Flint Ridge, even though Ian's neighbors have found some.
I thought we'd spend most of our weekend riding bikes. Since my knee is still cranky, we rode around on tiny back roads and looked at farms instead. Every time we passed a buggy, the driver waved. We waved back. My husband loved this. I felt as if his beard was getting longer with every mile.
At one point, we stopped at an Amish general store to find something for lunch. There wasn't much food, although JD did find a bag of excessively sweet, generic M&Ms. Then we wandered around looking at the rest of the merchandise. There was a whole room devoted to fabrics, straw hats, bonnets and sturdy shoes. There were shelves of tools and cooking supplies and lots of what looked like spiritual novels featuring pretty Amish girls. Nothing we wanted. As I waited for JD to pay for the faux M's, I noticed a display selling cigarette lighters in the shape of small handguns.
Coming so soon after the recent shootings in that Amish schoolhouse, it gave me a chill.