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Amish barn raising

(Photograph) - A lot of people yearn for a simpler way of life, a closer relationship with the natural world and a stronger sense of fellowship with those around them. They are willing to give up the trappings of a consumerist society, to live apart from the rest of the world, to abide by a strict set of rules, and to work together to build a community.

The artificial communities created in programmes such as Survivor, Big Brother and Castaway rely for their appeal on our desire for a less complicated lifestyle and offer a vicarious escape from the man-made stress of our 21st-century existence. The latest batch of reality television won't have reached the Amish people of the United States, because they don't have televisions. Even if they did, they wouldn't be able to watch them, because they don't have electricity. Anyway, they are far too busy living that kind of life to be bothered watching other people playing at it.

The Amish people originate from the Anabaptists of 16th-century Switzerland who believed that people should enter the church only after being baptised as adults, a practice they continue. In the late 17th century, they formed their own church, named after their leader, Jacob Amman. Their belief in the separation of Church from state saw them persecuted and they fled Europe in the mid-18th century to settle in North America, where there are now around 130,000 Amish people, many of them living in Pennsylvania.

They speak Pennsylvania Dutch (originally Deutsch), a dialect of German, and their way of life is in many ways unchanged from that of their ancestors. They strive to live by the Biblical edict not to be "conformed to the world" and the unwritten code f conduct, the ordnung, which governs the behaviour of each autonomous community.

The Amish work the land using traditional methods rather than modern machinery, and travel by horse-drawn buggy. They make their own clothes, in plain unadorned materials, and do not wear make-up or jewellery. Married men grow beards but not moustaches, which have military associations and clash with their pacifist outlook.

This picture is a barn raising, the age-old practice whereby members of the community come together to build a barn in a day. In an era when building societies - which originally pooled the labour of local people to construct houses for each other - are shedding the last vestiges of their mutuality, it is a rare example of unselfish, brotherly love. Their no-frills, back-to-basics way of life has been preserved by such rituals and strong, simple rules. Those who break them are shunned and are readmitted only after a period of repentance.

Little by little the modern world has made incursions into their lives - telephones can be used for utilitarian reasons and Amish people will now accept a lift in a car in an emergency. Amish life was memorably portrayed in the 1985 film Witness, but they generally disapprove of photography, pictures or any other "graven" images. For now, their concepts of reality and television remain far apart.

Harvey McGavin. Photograph by William Albert Allard.


No links have been set up by Amish people, but for Amish origins and beliefs: http:religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edunrmsamish.html Frequently asked questions: www.800padutch.comatafaq.html Tourist information, food, fabrics and furniture:

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