On a recent trip to Tasmania we visited the Springfield Tea Rooms near Scottsdale. The small cafe is located on a quiet, picturesque property and is surrounded by veggie gardens. The menu features home-baked produce including scones, pies, slices and biscuits. Also available are a range of home-made jams, gifts, soaps, patchwork fabrics, wall-hangings and more.
The owners of the farm and Tea Rooms are committed to living self-sustainability and have done so for over thirty years. They have a telephone connection but operate without electricity. There were cows and goats grazing contentedly in nearby paddocks.
There is some suggestion the family may be ‘Amish’, but I haven’t been able to confirm this. On site, there is no attempt at self-promotion, and I haven’t been able to find an online presence. The Tea Rooms do feature on some travel blogs.
There are no Amish communities in Australia. The family may have chosen an Amish way of life or have ties with the Anabaptist tradition, who share similar beliefs.
The Amish originated in Europe after splitting from Mennonite Swiss Brethren in 1692 over the treatment of members who had been found guilty of breaches of doctrine.
The first Amish arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1730s to escape persecution in Europe.
There are around 250,000 Amish, who live in more than 28 US states and Ontario, with the largest communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. They are a growing group — it’s thought that their population doubles every 20 years.
The Amish have been practicing ‘cultural isolation’ for centuries in order to keep themselves from unnecessary temptation. They think secular culture has a polluting effect which promotes pride, greed, immorality and materialism.
Isolating themselves from the rest of society is one of their key beliefs. In certain circumstances, this can place the community at risk.
“Understand the needs of ‘vulnerable’ communities“
Mary Swander is a retired University of Iowa professor, an author and a poet. She has lived among the Amish and studied them for 30 years. Her house used to be a one-room schoolhouse used by Amish families.
She feared her neighbours might not appreciate the threat COVID-19 posed. She visited a store that caters to Amish customers and spoke to several women. It became clear they had no understanding of the danger.
Swander knew what exposure to the coronavirus could mean for a segment of society that hadn’t gotten the word about social distancing. Her strategy was twofold.
- Firstly, she made copies of the latest information about COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and placed them in the mailboxes of as many Amish families as she could.
- Secondly, she discussed her concerns with a close friend who has lived among they Amish for many years. They agreed that given the risk, it was wise to raise the matter with the public health department.
The experience of living separately puts the Amish in a unique position to instruct us in maintaining our physical and mental wellbeing while social distancing. Let us consider their example in relation to
- Our attitude to government
- Our experience of community
- Our attempts at self sufficiency
- Our use of technology
The Amish will not accept any form of state benefit because they believe that the community should care for its members.
They don’t use public or private health insurance and support each other to pay for outside medical treatment.
“Back government initiatives”
The Amish believe in the separation of church and state. The believe the constitution provides them the freedom to practice their faith. The Amish are a law-abiding group of individuals. They pay all the taxes — income, property, sales, estate, corporate, school — that other people do. But they don’t accept any form of state benefit nor do they use insurance. They believe they are entrusted with the responsibility to care for one another.
The Australian government spends billions of dollars on welfare services and supports. During the coronavirus crisis, the government has provided additional financial support to welfare recipients and workers who have lost their jobs.
It is our civic duty to follow the guidelines the government provides to keep us safe. If it is to limit our movement in public spaces, then we should adhere to that.
It is our civic responsibility to use whatever government payments we receive in a disciplined and orderly manner. If our economic situation is such that we don’t need the payment, then we should consider stopping it. In the case of a one-off handout, use the money as directed. If it is to buy locally, then let us do so.
Amish live in small rural communities where strong family and social ties allow them their own distinctive and separate way of life. The family is the heart of Amish community, individual identity and spiritual life.
A large part of the closeness and survival of Amish communities lies in the fact that members are mutually dependent upon each other. Neighbours helping neighbours has been a long-standing bedrock of the Amish lifestyle.
“Support your community”
Society, as we know it, places an emphasis on the individual and his or her ability to achieve personal success and fulfillment. So often our selfishness undermines any solidarity of purpose. Throughout the coronavirus crisis we have witnessed groups of people defying the social distancing guidelines, putting themselves and others at risk.
However, in the Amish culture all emphasis is on a community that cares for and protects its members. The Amish look out for one another.
For example, barn raisings are a cherished tradition in the Amish culture. It is a social event that strengthens the community bond and brings the community together in times of crisis—rebuilding after fires and various other disasters.
At times like this we need a community consciousness. We need to be exploring ways we can support each other. It might be as simple as offering to do a grocery shop for someone who is self-isolating.
The Amish produce many of their needs, rearing animals to produce meat, growing corn for food and for feeding animals, and growing vegetables both for food and for sale. Amish women make most of the clothes. But they are not totally self-sufficient and rely on the outside community for other requirements.
Although the Amish separate themselves from the mainstream communities around them, they aren’t exclusive and do business with their neighbours. The ideal Amish occupation is to be a farmer, but Amish men also do factory work.
“Learn a new skill“
The Amish live simply and efficiently. They are committed to… “a lifestyle that can be sustained without exhausting natural resources…” They use traditional farming methods and regard themselves as stewards of the land. They grow a large amount of the food they consume.
Food is only one aspect of self-sufficiency, but it is a good place to start. The coronavirus crisis has stirred people to consider buying chickens or growing vegetables.
Sustainability is also about minimising waste. It is having the necessary skills to preserve what you produce. For example, I have used my excess tomatoes to make tomato sauce.
The Amish avoid modern technology not because they want to live ascetic and uncomfortable lives but to preserve the uniqueness of their 19th century way of life.
New conveniences are assessed to see how they would affect the social patterns and cohesiveness of the Amish community, and anything that might damage their way of life is rejected. Less dangerous technology may be adapted to fit.
“Technology exists to
rule improve our lives“
Most Amish communities choose not to hook up to the electrical grid. Consequently, they can’t use television, radios, computers, and modern appliances. They regard most modern technology and conveniences as unhelpful to their chosen way of life. According to the Amish, “progress” is not assumed to mean “something better.”
We are beginning to see the mental health impact of the coronavirus. Support agencies like Beyond Blue are reporting increased rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness.
In normal circumstances, using social media to get more information can be a healthy way to cope. But that’s not the case here.
Alice Boyes, author of ‘The Anxiety Toolkit’ says,
‘Emotions can be contagious online as well as in real life.’
Social feeds expose us to a torrent of negative emotions – anxiety, fear, anger – that weigh us down and infect our day.
One way we can protect our mental health is to practice ‘social media distancing’. Limit the time you spend on social media. Replace it with something else. Start a jigsaw puzzle.
In her recent book, Almost Everything, Anne Lamott says,
‘Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.’Anne Lamott
Perhaps the coronavirus crisis is an unplugging and what awaits is a changed perspective on how we should live.