It’s Not Paradise

October 4, 2006

CNN has been using “Paradise, PA” as the dateline for its stories about the shooting at the Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines. I saw it yesterday on the web page and today on a live report on television. One theme of the reportage over the last 48 hours (it’s only been 48 hours?) has been the shock that such terrible violence could occur in the the midst of “this serene pastoral landscape” among peaceful people whose “simple life” is believed to shield them from the woes of the world.

Paradise is the name of a village in Paradise Township in southeastern Lancaster county. The site of the shooting is Nickel Mines, a hamlet (something smaller than a village, at least according to those who study demographics and track populations) some eight miles south of Paradise, in Bart Township. Since all of the reporting appears to originate from the same cornfield across from the school and is conveyed instantly by the satellite trucks and microwave vans that are clogging the narrow road and tearing up the farmland, to claim that the information is coming out of “Paradise” seems to me to be a deliberate manipulation of the facts for a heightened emotional appeal.

Several years ago I spent many a summer Tuesday in an Amish home near Quarryville, about ten miles southwest of Nickel Mines. I was studying the Pennsylvania German language and took part in a conversation group hosted by my teacher in his home. I sometimes had dinner with him and his family, helping to clean up afterwards, set up the chairs, and bring out the pretzels and cheese that were always offered.

Lydia and I sometimes talked about some outsiders’ romantic notions of the peace and serenity of the simple Amish life. The family had from time to time hosted what she called “seekers,” people who wished to convert. (Stephen, my teacher, brought up in the German Reformed tradition and a graduate of the same university I attended, is himself a convert to the Amish way of life.) These seekers quickly found that although the household they were living in had no electricity, no television, no internet, and little in the way of secular reading material, it did have three children under six and two working adults, one of whom not only cared for the children but also ran a business out of the basement (baking bread for delivery to farmers’ markets) and another who worked full time as a welder down the road and took care of his small farming operation when he returned home. In short, it was no monastery for contemplatives!

I am on my way to Lancaster county this afternoon, although I’ll be visiting Franklin and Marshall College in the city of Lancaster, an urban landscape about fifteen miles north of the rolling acreage of Nickel Mines and Paradise. Today is the day for the William Frey Memorial Pennsylvania German lecture. Dr. Don Yoder, a graduate of F&M who has spent his whole career studying the Amish and the other Pennsylvania German groups, will talk on “Broadside: Windows into the Pennsylvania Dutch World.” The event has been on my calendar for several months. I never imagined my renewed interest in Pennsylvania German spirituality and domestic life would be brought so sharply into focus by outside events.

Love it? Hate it? Just want to say Hi? Leave a comment, or e-mail me:
margaretdeangelis [at] gmail [dot] com (replace the brackets with @ and a period)