Sitting in a chair in my new home in Ohio, thinking about Via Lucis, I realized that the project is as much about my beloved France as it is about medieval architecture. To me, these churches and places are infused with history and the collective memories of the millions who have passed through the stone portals.
Now PJ and I have moved to rural Ohio, just about 40 miles south of Columbus and every day we are moved by the beauty of the countryside around us.
We are continually reminded of France as we drive in the countryside around. Most of Ohio near us is flat farmland, rich with crops as far as the eye can see. From the town of Lithopolis, with a modest elevation of 945 feet, one gets a clear view of the high-rises of Columbus, 20 miles distant. But in our little corner near the Hocking Hills, there are small farms, small roads, and small villages, much like we see in France.
But it doesn’t take long to realize that there is something here that we don’t see in France. The first hints are signs on the back roads. We discovered that we live in the midst of a conservative Amish farming community.
PJ and I were familiar with the Amish to a degree – in 2009 we bought some lovely Amish furniture, and this spring we bought a full set of living room and dining room furniture built by Amish craftsmen.
The word “craftsmen” is an understatement, however, because this solid oak furniture is of extraordinary workmanship and quality. Even in close, detailed inspection the seam in our dining room table is invisible when closed, so finely matched are the wood grains and so perfect is the fit. And when we opened up the table for the first time to put in the leaf (stored in a special compartment), we were surprised to see that the slides are geared so that the table opens and closes with smooth action.
In the Bremen area, where we live, these are farmers. We see them working in their fields early in the morning and late into the evening. They grow, harvest, and provide for their families. They sell in farm stands, at the local farmers’ auction, and to local businesses. Everywhere is a bounty of vegetables and fruit, baked and canned goods, and occasional hand crafts. I bought a beautiful hand-turned cherry wood rolling-pin.
And what can I say about the quality of the produce? The watermelon was a revelation – unctuously sweet and ripe. All of the fruit – peaches, nectarines, Shinseiki pears, blackberries that we picked from their bushes ourselves (“we don’t have any picked but you can take a flat and do a ‘you-pickum'”), strawberries and ginger gold apples! Vegetables like we’ve never seen, even though PJ is an accomplished gardener. Farm corn here is unlike anything that I had ever tasted before.
The prices for these fruits, vegetables and farm eggs are remarkable. In the village of Bremen, I approached an Amish farmer who was in the town meat market to sell his leftover produce after the bi-weekly farmers’ auction. He sold me a flat of 25 perfectly ripe tomatoes for $5.00! The price list on the farm stand will give you an idea of what we pay for this bounty. On Tuesdays and Friday we can go to the auction and bid for lots if we need to.
In a world of unbridled materialism and brand consumption, the Amish are conspicuous exceptions. Nothing is wasted. The brimmed straw hats worn by the men are converted into brimless caps for the boys when they wear out. One small boy of about nine or ten wore a hat that was composed of at least ten other hat remnants, woven together for him. It was a patchwork of different colors and weaves, but it worked. His clothes were hand-me-downs and the pant cuffs were at his calves instead of his ankles. In the summer, the entire families are barefoot – men, women and children. This is not poverty but thrift.
There is a purity and openness in these people. The piercing blue eyes of the children are clear and unafraid, utterly without guile or pretense. The older children marshal the younger and everyone has a chore. When PJ and I stopped at our favorite Amish roadside stand, two young girls attended to us. One disappeared into the fields and returned with a cabbage – the most perfect cabbage either of us had ever seen, the size of a bowling ball. The girl held it in her hands like an offering, an angel offering a gift. PJ was moved almost to tears at the sight. How much we want to photograph them, to capture just these fleeting moments, but that would be a violation.
This is a different world, co-existing with our own materialistic culture. We – “the English” – are foreigners here. These people belong to their land, God, families, and laws. We are so moved to see this around us.
Yesterday there was a cow lying next to the road near the farm stand and I made bold to pet her like I had seen the children do. The cow was completely calm and I could almost swear that in her soft brown eyes I saw the same shy modesty that shone in the eyes of the children.
Somehow, we feel close to rural France that we’ve always loved when we are among these people, we feel the same echoes of the past.
And not a tourist to be seen …