I decided to focus on Pennsylvania's Lancaster County because it has a large population of Amish and because it's the only place I'm certain the Amish live, thanks to that movie Witness. I figured I'd put out a call to the Amish's publicist and hear a pleasant tale about how Ezekiel is planning a big wedding and now that Mrs. Ezekiel is taking time off, the town will be getting a new schoolmarm. At worst, I thought maybe I'd discover that Weird Al Yankovic was poking at them again, planning something like Let's Get It Amish in Here. I quickly learned that information is not so easy to ferret out from the Amish, since it turns out they don't have e-mail. Or phones in their homes. Or any interest in talking to the media. They still feel pretty screwed over by that Witness movie.
I finally tracked down Donald Kraybill, a professor in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. Kraybill, to my chagrin, told me there is in fact a lot of stuff going on with the Amish. Far more, I had to admit, than is going on with me. Amish churches, he said, will spend the next year wrestling over whether to allow members to own cell phones. This seemed odd to me, since Amish beliefs forbid members to drive a car, go to school past eighth grade or have phones in their homes. But someone found a loophole in the phone rule, discovering it was very specific about not allowing wires from the outside world into their houses. They can't use electricity from public-utility grids either, which you would think would mean having to buy a new cell phone every two days. It turns out, though, that while the Amish shun cars, they are actually pretty clever about jury-rigging car batteries.
Kraybill told me the churches next year will rule on the use of Rollerblades, which the Amish of Lancaster are increasingly getting into via another loophole, involving rules on rubber wheels for transportation. This, I think, could be a boon for Lancaster tourism. Sure, handcrafted furniture and farm-fresh produce is nice, but if I'm driving all the way to Pennsylvania, I want to see bearded men in eight-piece suits blading around while chatting on their cellies. Kraybill also said Wal-Mart is poised to come to the Buck, a new local shopping center. Should its proposal get past the zoning committee, 75% of Amish near the site say they'll consider leaving. I'm guessing that's just talk, especially once they see the prices on buggy whips.
If any Amish do leave, they could join a migration of farmers from Lancaster, where land prices have skyrocketed, to Wisconsin, where many Amish are now dairy farmers. The Lancaster farmers who have stayed are increasingly going organic, not for religious reasons but because they have found that the public will buy any product that contains the words Amish and organic because it seems extra wholesome. Though a little less so when you realize your organic millet was made in a mill where workers were barely paying attention, Rollerblading around, gabbing on their Amish party lines. "Oh, no, you didn't, Jebediah! No man can drink that much buttermilk and keep his beard so silky clean."
That's just the beginning of the turmoil brewing in Amish country. Some men are upset that an increasing number of Amish businesses are owned by women. And there may be a fight ahead with the U.S. government. Homeland Security technically requires photo IDs for interstate travel, and the Amish aren't allowed to have their pictures taken. Again, Witness isn't helping.
The Amish are even finding themselves at the forefront of science. A genetic-disease research project at the University of Maryland is focusing on the Amish, since they keep detailed family records that go back generations. And though the Amish tend to be suspicious of psychology, a new mental-health facility just opened outside Lancaster. It's decorated in traditional Amish style to make patients feel comfortable, and so that when they role-play, they can do it with a real butter churn.
I couldn't help feeling depressed by all this new stuff the Amish are doing. Not just because yet again a little bit of reporting had ruined a simple, elegant joke, but because if the Amish can't stay the same, what hope is there for the rest of us? How can we have any expectations of being able to predict and control our careers, our marriages, our beliefs? It makes me realize the appeal of throwing away my razor, putting on 28 layers of clothes and never sipping Coke again. As long as I can keep my cellie.