Back about 2014 or so, an Amish couple – David and Miriam – moved onto an abandoned farm a few miles from our place. This is the first Amish family to move to Manitoulin Island, Canada, and more have come since. I think this is great. The Amish are a Christian group that trace their origins back to 1693 and a man named Jakob Ammann. For more than four hundred years they’ve practiced sa life eparate from the world to preserve their faith and communities, and the Amish community is growing.
One spring, shortly after they moved to our area of Manitoulin Island, I was at David and Miriam’s house just as they finished making maple syrup for the season. “We’ve never made syrup before”, David told me, in his classic Amish accent, “ but we read how to do it in a newspaper called Plain Interests.” He gave me a little bowl of syrup to try while he got a copy for me to see.
I’d never heard of Plain Interests before, but as he handed me the newspaper I realized something. In a world where most of us have access to way more information than is good for us, David and Miriam choose only to have a very few sources. And this simple, printed newspaper was one of them. That’s a photo of the opening page below.
Plain Interests gets its name from the fact that Amish and Mennonite people aim to be plain. Plain in dress, plain in lifestyle and just plain humble. To most of us in the wider world, “plain” has a slightly negative tone. Perhaps a better way to think of the word in this case is “simple” or “humble”. Humble lifestyle, humble needs, and simply happy with the humble basics.
Although I have no shortage of access to information on how to make maple syrup, grow a garden or any other topic under the sun, I subscribed to Plain Interests just to see what it was like. I’d hoped it would give me a glimpse into the lives of people who have completely sidestepped the usual sorts of annoying and addictive information products that saturate the world these days. After reading half a dozen copies during evenings before shutting off my bedside light for the night, I’ve found more than I bargained for.
Plain Interests is made up of contributions from Plain people everywhere Amish communities exist in the US and Canada. Articles range from tiny requests for advice on how to raise kids, run a household or deal with a garden, all the way to multi-part recollections of how the Amish locked horns with the federal government over the issue of home schooling in the 1950s, and how some Amish went to jail for it. Although I was introduced to Plain Interests because of an article on making maple syrup, most of the articles are actually about thoughts and ideas and experiences of people living the “plain” life. It’s a fascinating cultural journey reading this newspaper.
For instance, there are the thoughts of a young mother on how much she likes wash days, and the chance to see the clean clothes of her family blowing on the line outside. And this from a woman whose washing chores probably take her 5x as long as anyone with an automatic front loader and electric tumble dryer. This is the kind of thing that can only come from a loving, humble heart.
In another issue there was a very moving story about an Amish man who just happened to be traveling on a road by horse and wagon after a day of work on someone else’s farm when he saw a run-away buggy up ahead. The woman in the driver’s seat had lost the reins and the horse was pulling her and some children out of control into a busy highway intersection. It was the man’s own family . . .
One of my favourite stories was from a woman writing about an old shed on her family farm. She was explaining how she probably won’t like the new shed as much when the old, bent, cracked and “airy” shed finally goes down.
Even the advertisements in Plain Interest make me sit up and take notice. They’re different because they’re a window into a world where people understand that technology affects human souls and it needs to be approached cautiously. And just because a technology is effective on one level, doesn’t mean it should be embraced on every level.
As you’d expect, there are no web addresses on any of the ads, because many Plain people choose not to use computers or the internet. And while there are ads for the usual products you’d expect – big cooking kettles, lantern fuel, “the world’s most comfortable rubber boot”, horse tonic, and a German-English translation of The Ausbund hymn book, there are ads that surprise me somehow, too.
Dr. Mike in Millersburg, Pennsylvania is a “brain-based” chiropractor (whatever that is) who took out a half-page ad in Plain Interests. There’s also an ad for a herbal bed wetting remedy, Fountain of Life Infection Purge, and Dr. Martin’s “How Toxic Are You” handbook. The whole herbal healing, natural health angle was bigger than I thought with the readership of Plain Interests, and it has the aire of “snake oil” sales from years ago. I’m not sure why, but this surprises me.
As I was writing this article, my copy of Plain Interests was open to a page with a quote from Abraham Lincoln running along the bottom. It’s a good quote.
The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time”, Mr. Lincoln noted.
In a world that seems designed to have us all live many days at a time, it’s good to remember that real life was never intended to come at us from so many angles, all at once. Amish or not, we could all do well to remember this idea.