Friday, June 11, 2010

Paved roads to heaven

This photo, not mine but swiped from elsewhere on the Internet, is an exercise in personal hypocrisy. I don’t take pictures of our Old Order Amish neighbors in Lucas and Wayne counties or elsewhere because I know of their aversion to being photographed --- based partly on the Biblical injunction against graven images and also on a belief that to willingly become the subject of a photographer is an exercise in self-pride.

On the other hand, in need of an illustration, I went straight to “Google Image” and downloaded this one, taken elsewhere by someone else. It’s his fault that it’s here, not mine.


I’ve been following a modest controversy in Mitchell County (far north central Iowa; Osage is the county seat) where a county ordinance enacted last year has banned from hard-surfaced roads the steel-cleated (apparently cushioned with rubber bands) tractor tires used there by members of Groffdale Conference Mennonite church districts.

Mennonites, like the Amish, are Anabaptist. But unlike the Amish, the range of belief and practice among Mennonites is broader. Groffdale Mennonites are old order --- they travel by horse and carriage and avoid many of what the rest of us consider modern conveniences, but allow some. Most Groffdale Mennonites have electricity and land-line telephones in their homes, for example, but no computers, televisions, radios or sound systems. Cell phone use also is unlikely.

While the Amish depend upon horse power supplemented sometimes by gasoline engines to get the farm work done, Groffdale Mennonites allow horsepower-powered tractors and the like in farming operations. The point of insisting that conventional rubber tires be removed from these vehicles and rubber-band-backed steel cleats installed is to slow them down down --- to prevent tractors from becoming quick and comfortable transport to town or from being used to facilitate the development of farms larger than those that can be operated by a family with cooperative assistance at harvest or other times from neighbors.

But with many miles of recently resurfaced county roads, the Mitchell County Supervisors decided that those steel-cleated tractor tires --- used to transport items to market or to get from field to field --- were causing undue damage to road surfaces. So they banned them from hard-surfaced roads, even from crossing those surfaces. Fines have been imposed, appealed and the situation has the potential to end up before the Iowa Supreme Court or elsewhere since Mitchell County courts have upheld the ban’s constitutionality.


Like too many things these days, the situation takes me back to the good old days, Iowa in the 1960s, when Amish schools were the issue. Anyone else remember that?

Prior to the great school consolidation movement of the 1960s, most Amish and “English” children attended the same rural schools, the Amish leaving after eighth-grade graduation, the English, going off to high school in town.

When it became clear that those rural schools would be closed down and all children bused off to town, the Amish objected. Buchanan County became the focal point as school officials declared non-cooperating Amish children truant and tried to force them --- in the nicest possible way --- onto school buses.

That generated one of the iconic photos of the 1960s --- Amish children fleeing a one-room country school in Buchanan County and heading into the cornfields after a teacher or parent yelled “run” during one of those confrontations between belief, practice and officialdom.

The situation was resolved in 1966-67 after much dispute when Amish schools were exempted from some state education standards and a parallel parochial system allowed to develop. Those exemptions continue and Iowa’s Amish and Mennonite communities still are dotted with one-room schools. I like that.

Hopefully, the situation in Mitchell County can be resolved without as much fuss. It doesn’t look like Mitchell County actually has proved that the steel cleats cause more damage to pavement than, for example, the far larger and heavier farm equipment piloted by non-Mennonite farmers, semi trailers with extremely heavy loads or snow plows that pour on toxic de-icers before scraping ice and snow off paved surfaces. Photos of alleged damage probably aren’t going to carry too much weight in higher courts without objective study-based testimony to back them up. There’s probably wiggle room on both sides of the issue; hopefully it’ll be utilized.


One of the great pleasures of life in Iowa in this 21st century from my point of view at least is having around an increasing number of Anabaptists who still live in some respects as if it were the 19th. I’m not a good enough Christian to be one of them, but appreciate the benchmarks amid increasing complexity that they’re trying to set and maintain for themselves to conserve their ways of life and faith and, by doing that, offer others for comparison.

There certainly are misunderstandings among the rest of us about the Anabaptists, and perhaps vice versa. Although their practice often is considerably different than ours, their theology isn’t. Apparent simplicity quite often isn’t, and an old order lifestyle is not insurance against trial and tribulation. Their practices are designed, church district to church district, to nurture and protect the community --- not just to keep technology out; and by protecting their communities, to nurture faith.

Glancing through comments on various stories about the Mitchell County controversy, I came across a few scolding the Mennonites about the inefficiencies of fuel and time involved in farming with steel-wheeled equipment. Somehow the commentators missed the point that the purpose of those steel-wheeled vehicles is inefficiency --- to slow things down; control farm expansion; to foster the community needed to support a way of life not based on technology.

I like the conservative Anabaptist practice of looking carefully at each new innovation in a culture that has canonized technology, then deciding consciously rather than instinctively whether to accept it, reject it or develop a workable compromise. We should all do more of that.


Here’s another example of personal hypocrisy. After complaining about and self-justifying the reasons for it, I’ve been admiring my front and side yards lately, doused regularly in poison to keep out vegetative undesirables. It’s beautiful --- just like Astroturf that grows. It mows well, since the grass is thin, and never clumps. And when I’m done, that green surface looks as if it’s been painted on rather than grown.

The back yard, sill wild and free, is lush and unruly, overrun here and there by clumps of clover and marjoram that escaped an herb garden once. Even when kept in check with a mower, it clumps when cut and sometimes looks like a hay field ripe for baling.

It only takes a couple of hundred bucks a year to preserve that Astroturf look. Ain’t progress grand?


Ed said...

I've been watching the Mitchell County controversy too. Although I don't know if the cleated wheel do any more damage than other big trucks and equipment, I do know they can and do cause damage. The highway near my parent's place (on a side note, they are General Conference Mennonite) was resurfaced back in the 80's with a nice layer of asphalt. Probably less than a week later, perhaps before it was fully cured, an Amish drove a steel wheeled wagon with steel nubs around the perimeter down it causing two rows of indentations about an inch deep every three inches or so to form for almost a mile. Rain got into pockets in the asphalt, froze and that section was nothing but a mass of cracks and potholes well before the rest (which still exists) and had to eventually be resurfaced again on that mile.

My solution would be to ban them from hard surface roads but to allow them to cross where necessary. You can go quite far using back roads but eventually you would need to cross the road to get to the other side. Then use the money they have deposited (I believe around $25,000) to replace those small sections as necessary.

Frank D. Myers said...

Hopefully, a compormise like that can be reached. There's no doubt about the hazards steel wheels present to asphalt --- although around here it's mostly buggy trails. The major Groffdale concern in Mitchell County seems to be crossing hard-surfaced roads to get to other farms and fields and the route to the produce market near Elma. Shame on both sides in this issue if it ends up expensively in higher courts.