Making A Case For Simple Life In A Small Town
by Garrison Keillor
I bought a jar of elderberry jelly and an armload of rhubarb at a
small-town festival last week, simply because the seller was a slender,
fair-haired, luminous beauty who happened to be Amish, sitting, demure
in a black bonnet, at a table beside her horse and buggy.
There was a time I would’ve pitied her for her stern upbringing and all
the deprivations thereof, but nowadays I tend to pity the children of
heedless parents. Great romantic visionaries who leave a trail of
messed-up progeny and embittered lovers. The Amish focus on the
scriptural admonition to be “in the world but not of the world,” a
religious discipline based on prepositions which leads them into their
stubborn fetishism, which sets them apart and makes them a tourist
attraction, which they cannily exploit - and this young beauty sat,
eyes averted, a devout 19th-century girl in the midst of plaid-shorts,
cell-phone-toting, drive-by, feel-good America, and did a brisk
business in rhubarb and elderberry jelly, $4 a jar.
You look at the Amish and you see the past, but you might also be
looking at the future. Our great-grandchildren, faced with facts their
ancestors were able to ignore, might have to do without the
internal-combustion engine and figure out how to live the subsistence
life. Maybe someone will invent a car that runs on hydrogen or horse
manure, or maybe people will travel on beams of light like in old radio
serials, but the realist in you thinks otherwise.
Fred Thompson, a vanity candidate for president, goes around sneering
at the notion of global warming, pointing out that Mars is heating up
too, but nobody who has read the scientists’ latest report on climate
change is in a joking mood: It says that the situation will get a good
deal worse before it gets better, if it ever gets better, and nobody
knows just what “worse” means in this case.
The matter of greenhouse gases has to be addressed, and it won’t be
while the country is stuck in the disaster that is Iraq. The way to get
unstuck is for some intrepid Republicans to get off the bus and put
their shoulders to it and push. It needs to back up. The Current
Occupant has driven it into a mudhole and is spinning the tires. Human
lives are being tossed away carelessly, a country is bleeding, and the
big man behind the desk is dishonest, incoherent and incompetent. He
might do well as mayor of this little town, but he might also turn the
water department over to his buddy from high school and order the
police to search the cars of visitors.
As it is, it’s an idyllic town. A classic townscape: tree-shaded
boulevards, blocks of frame houses with spindle railings on the
porches, lovingly kept up by families who feel cheered and encouraged
by the gentle ornamentation, the humane scale of things. They endure
the same uncertainties as you or I, the same shocks of mortality, are
as capable of crankiness and outright absurdity, but the classic small
town speaks of a steadiness and everyday valor that anchor our lives.
I know a woman who has spent the past year on airplanes. Her husband
has a good job in London. An old mother is dying in Nevada. Her
children are scattered. She is overseeing the construction of a house
in Montana. Her wrist was broken in a car crash, and now doctors have
found a dark spot in her brain that needs investigation, and yet she
complains less than any 14-year-old you ever met.
There are bandits and demagogues and red-eyed zealots and destructive
visionaries out working the main roads, but back here in the little
towns and hoods, the country survives on steadiness and some
I made rhubarb crisp, but used less sweetening so as not to smother the
tartness of the fruit, and it turned out well.