Giving the Finger to Modernity

I practice at being out of step with modernity.

The mercury is already pushing the mid-80s by afternoon, and clouds are beginning to build in the west. I sit in my car in a Pennsylvania parking lot next to a mattress store, watching. Across a field, a boy is perched on the bench seat of a hay wagon, holding the reins to a team of Belgians. Farther back stands an older boy. He is reaching down and catching square bales as they are tossed up to him from other boys on the ground. He already has stacked a layer three-high on the 16-foot wagon. The driver, maybe 8 to 10 years old, twitches the reins and moves the load forward every few minutes before again coming to a stop. Up ahead, the father is driving a second team that pulls a gasoline-powered baler, spitting bales onto the ground at regular intervals as it tracks the windrows of hay.

The scene I observe is a Hieronymus Bosch painting with a twist: In the background of the tableau, the family of man and boys gathers forage for the winter. At the forefront, a stoplight blinks commands on a four-lane highway, the center of a tortured world of strip mall architecture, where the obese and the tattooed pour onto the roads and the pavement groans under bumper-to-bumper traffic. A boy, the same age as the ones working the field, sits in a car, screen-staring his young years away. A man in the front passenger seat stares ahead, oblivious to any other way of living. A Chick-fil-A and an Olive Garden shoehorn the paved landscape and the fields of the family at work.

Farther down the road, back in the stream of modernity, I pass three different buggies of Amish women, all driving teams, their children aboard, moving down the highway at five to eight miles an hour. If the journey is indeed more important than the destination, then these women and their children have learned the lesson well. They are chatting and laughing, as their fellow travelers, mere feet away, are entombed and unsmiling.

Do they ever glance at the cars and wonder, May Swenson-like: “Those soft shapes, 
shadowy inside the hard bodies — are they their guts or their brains?”

I pull into my hotel parking lot, retrieve my luggage, check in, and go up to my room. I open the curtains to glimpse the last of the day. Across another parking lot, across a road, lies another field. In the dying evening light, another man and a team of Percherons pull a manure spreader across the pastures back to the barn. On the seat, on either side of him, are his two sons, sharing an unheard conversation.

Standing at the window of the third floor, in isolation and sadness and cowardice, I think, we chase our lives across the decades seeking a sense of purpose. Yet our gaze is averted from the possibilities and the wisdom gained from living slowly, at five to eight miles an hour.


Reading this weekend: The Ends of the World: volcanic apocalypses, lethal oceans, and our quest to understand earth’s past mass extinctions, by Peter Brannen. An interesting read about all the ways life has been wiped out in the past on this planet. And, it gives you a nice perch from which to contemplate the same.

12 thoughts on “Giving the Finger to Modernity

  1. Part of me wanted to offer a simple little phrase such as “the grass is always greener”…
    but that might be taken as unintended slight or insult. And for that matter I’ve long held a grudge with the aphorism in the first place…. the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.

    We have a handful of places here in Ohio where the Amish ply their livelihoods – and this by definition creates frontiers where their existence butts up against the English, or non Amish. Gene Logsdon often wrote of both this interface and, from the outside looking in, of the life the Amish lead here in Ohio. Your piece here fits that genre nicely.

    It seems fairly common for us to wax (almost lyrically) about the life of the Amish. And I mean no disrespect in calling out some of the short comings observed “across the fence” but to me there are a handful we might consider. Health care comes to the top of my list. To be fair, when matters of faith rearrange priorities such that a short coming to me is merely the way of the world to them, then one’s position relative to the fence is indeed going to sway which shade of green is more significant. And thus I manage to respect their ways, their dedication, and their fortitude. Would that the ‘face in the device’ youth of our side of the fence might look up now and then to ponder a horse drawn manure spreader. Might they ever consider that the electronic version of the same resides right there in their hands?

    • They might – if they’re playing a farming simulator whilst driving past real ones. And probably think that their’s is much shinier.
      Do the Amish generally embrace chemical fertilizers?

      • Michael and Clem,

        I’m not sure whether I was waxing lyrical about the Amish? I was hopefully conveying two things. One, that our modern life is destructive to the planet. Two, that our modern life is destructive to the fabric of our families and communities. And, I do admire the ability of a culture to so clearly stand outside the bounds of our consumer society. I can’t even muster the will to avoid social media for a few days.

        I know this wasn’t either of your intents. But, I have found that as soon as one says something positive about the Amish, others feel duty bound to start pointing out perceived ills.

        I’m always delighted to have you comment. Both of you enlighten and amuse.

        • You are right of course; forgive me for choosing an inappropriate moment. I’m still interested in the answer though.

          I am a hardcore user of mobile technology, yet I could easily forgo its use – so long as there’s enough else to do that justifies the abstinence. If I had to choose between awkward (and heated) discussions about politics on the long train ride to work and quietly grinning for a solid hour because the political podcast in my ear is delivering the goods, I’d know what to do.

          Modern technology helps some to defend themselves against the abyss of boredom that is modernity.

          Modernity is equal shares of God and Flying Spegetti Monster.

          I’m not concerned about fighting for modernity or against it.
          We do not need unacknowledged externalities for the sake of anything.

          • I really don’t know that much about their overall farming practices. I would imagine some have carved out a niche in organic markets while some adhere to chemical fertilizers. My interest primarily is in their scale, pacing, and community cohesion.

            And, of course I remain concerned with any sightings of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

          • Ah, but then you’ll miss the REAL one, as foreseen in the gospel of P., ‘Spegetti Western’!

            ‘Scale, pacing, and community cohesion’ is excellent.

            In addition, I’d want people to say that their practices, with medieval trade routes for horse and mule carts reopened, the kind of inputs they’ll need will be available until the next ice age.

            Stating that electricity is the devil, but DAP is manna from heaven falls short.
            (Complaining about urbanites picking and choosing should probably extend to everyone.)
            I guess I only see the new Völkerwanderung and the emerging religions ahead and see our present bouquet of approaches to the long descent as mere raw material, bar none.

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for this thoughtful essay.

    I admire the Amish for collectively trying to pick and choose which technology is good for the community, and which technology (in their opinion) is not. I recall a conversation with my brother-in-law that was eye opening to me. He stated that when cell phones came out he got one right away and his construction business became more timely and efficient. But then something funny happened-everyone got a cell phone. He no longer had the short lived economic benefit from instant communication. Now he was in the position of needing a cell phone to compete and having a monthly cell phone bill. He not only lost any competitive advantage but picked up an added expense. How is that working out for him?

Any thoughts or questions?