Fields of Peace: A Pennsylvania German Album

Fields of Peace: A Pennsylvania German Album


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781567920765
Publisher: Godine, David R. Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 12/28/1998
Series: Imago MUNDI Series
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 9.88(w) x 9.18(h) x 0.93(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Once when I was driving in New Hampshire, with my Pennsylvania license plates, I inadvertently crowded a truck whose driver leaned out and yelled at me, "You dumb Dutchman." The Pennsylvania Germans are often called Dutch, which is derived from the old word "Deutsch," meaning the "folk" (similarly "Deitsch," the dialect). But as very few in the area are descended from Dutch—almost all are of German descent (with a miniscule graft of Huguenot)—the preference is to call them German.

    For these historically "landed" people, the earth is safety and security, with a natural changelessness whose values they understand and have determined to preserve. Their life is defined by land and light. Dawn. The first moments of the day when the eye, rested, sees lines of hills or trees, or a meadow glistening with dew or frost. Or sees a stone house whose corners are straight as a plumb line—barn walls too—and dawn often with a saffron tinge that is dreamlike, like a blessing. Even in full daylight, the light is evanescent and tender. It ripples in the corn or along the waving wheat. It descends to the pastel blossoms of potato plants, or orchards reach their pruned limbs in ritual rows climbing the warm side of hills.

    Corn. The corn is like a two-sided fountain, pouring incessant light off its wide blades and with the jet of pollen spikes at the top like foaming water.

    Potatoes. Crates of dug potatoes lying on a field, and a farmer at sundown going out in a flat plank wagon to haul them in, hawing the horse in the twilight. Sunset produces alight complementary to dawn but different, somehow larger and with deeper colors because the colors are darkening. A new moon in the sky cuts the clouds raked out like broken windrows of grass. Men and boys swing the crates up to the wagon, stepping in and out between the wheels, the horse stopping and starting with even plunges. As the weight grows, the horse's red haunches straighten and swell from the ground up. He snuffles the warm twilight wind, his hoofs cut the furrows.

    Wheat. The "winter wheat" comes up and just shows in fall, just throwing a green gauze over the ground, and then in spring is like the first grass, ready to leap up and offer itself to the sun. When it gets tall and fluent, the wind rolls over it in waves or like a hand passed over it in a caress. And the ripe stalks bend with grain and later fill the sacks.

    Such a field usually belongs to a prosperous valley farm. In the hills, land agents in the early days sold to trusting immigrants tracts of rocky ground that never made out or barely survived. Abandoned lanes today lead to houses with fallen doors and empty window frames, whose overall design indicates the care with which they were originally put up. In the cellarway of one such house a few sprays of jasmine grow, blooming in the protected spot like the farewell of some forgotten farm woman.

    But the usual impression is of prosperity and a flourishing and steady life. Barns are larger than the houses. They may be set into a slope so that a ramp leads up to the second story in the rear. In front, they used to have a European overshoot, or "vorschuss," an overhang of five or ten feet leaving a colonnaded space where the farmer could shade or shelter his horses or cattle. It can still be seen in places, giving a feeling of medieval splendor with the perfect end walls of stone holding the middle structure like some palace facade. The impression of splendor is increased when the farmer (or travelling barn painter with special skills) has put circular designs, so-called hex signs—an abstract geometry of gaudy colors—between the windows, and painted white Roman arches over windows and doors, or even white outlines of nonexistent windows and doors.

    Inside the barns are the great original timbers, great lines of bare wood springing between the hay lofts. The center space rises to the rooftree with small openings for pigeon or dovecotes letting in shafts of light glittering with dust, or the light comes through easy slits in the side boarding. The horse stalls that remain have nibbled rims of feed troughs and remnants of harness. The ammonia smell of horse urine, which used to seem so tonic and clean, has generally faded away outside of the Amish area.

    Another vanishing attraction is the dirt road that, because it was laid out for horses, could go around the field ends and follow the contours of the land. Few realize that paved roads came before the automobile. Local people would organize a company, put a good surface on a road, and charge a toll for it. It paid in the old days not to drag through the mud. The survivor of those old roads is the tollhouse: if today you see a house close to the junction of two roads, it is likely once to have been a tollhouse where the bar was lowered until the penny or two was paid.

    In Berks Hills are some of the old meandering, unhurried roads—back of Hill Church there are still even dirt or gravel roads—but more and more highways are crossing the fields, imposing their straight logic on the old natural contours. What used to be the main road is often now little more than a lane for bypassed farms. At least they have privacy and quiet. In Lancaster County change is more resisted, and the roads, though paved, tend to have the old curves, and on their blacktops one sees the anachronism of horse droppings.

    A road may go under a row of trees, originally planted to protect against the sun or to provide a windbreak or just for the love of trees and shadow. Then it may come out on a rise or slope from which the great countryview opens, the textured fields, fences, pastures broken by a stream where occasional wild duck may linger or a kingfisher may sit watchfully on a wire or tree branch—floods of swallows or chimney swifts skimming the low ground or circling the sky. But the overall, overriding impression is of order: fields, clean white or red buildings (or bursts of unlimited and uninhibited color—purples, yellows, blacks, blues on porch pillars and cornices, but all carefully painted), sheds, barnyards, barnyard walls with rigid coping, even flower beds whose canna lilies, phlox, and zinnias are arranged in geometric designs.

    Here and there a trace of wildness, tiredness, and languor, but still the suggestion of precedent orderliness.

    The scene changes with the year. Spring has the thrust of first green, crocuses and hyacinths edging up around the houses and even at lane sides (the wild hyacinths, and daffodils pouring down ravines. Women will be cleaning and scrubbing. So thorough is the urge for cleanliness in the area that you may even see a woman scouring the stains of fallen maple seeds off a well cover. Maple seeds fly through the air like small helicopters. Willows wave their delicate wands beside streams, and the streams rush with exuberant foam among wet rocks. Watercress spreads at the edge of springs.

    As the summer comes on, the fields change from the various textures of red or brown earth, like fabrics, to the equally varying shades of growing corn, grain, tobacco, soy beans, hay, alfalfa. In Lancaster particularly, the tobacco plants push out their heavy velvet leaves, and boys and men appear in the fields, cultivating like guardian spirits in straw hats. The mood is serious and slow. The summer is long, the days are long. A dog barks over the strangely silent growth of an awesome fertility. Crows advance and retreat and fade through the trees.

    With fall, all changes again. Now it's a rush. The harvest must be brought in while the weather allows. Pumpkins lie at the edge of cornfields, and the corn dries into gray stalks and stubble. The husks of shagbark hickory nuts fly open on the branches. The first frost whitens grass and boughs. Leaves paint the woods with sudden color, yellow maple, red ivy, and sumac threatening the understory, towers of dying leaves flaming and falling everywhere.

    Again the earth becomes bare. Dust rises and settles. Birds gather to fly south. Sacks of grain lie on barn floors. The alternate boards of the tobacco drying sheds are pulled out, a pattern of shadow as the redolent ripe leaves hang downward in the inner gloom.

    With winter, all becomes a sepia color cut by occasional bands of spruce or pine. Jewelweed crumbles with the yarrow, and sumac shakes its ruddy horns. Children go muffled along the freezing roads. The snow falls, and everything merges into universal white.

    And the light! Throughout the year light is ceaselessly changing from the tawny dawn touched with mists and scarves of clouds under hills, to midday and its small shadows, to afternoon and the great red rush of sunset. Such delicacy and shading! How the hills graduate into softer hues, line behind line! The definitions of light on the white side of a building, almost burning with its luminous shafts and squares. The radiance of light on a face amplifying the intensity of its response. Light appears at the end of a covered bridge seen from the inside darkness. The day itself darkens, chimney swifts narrowing one by one into chimneys, cattle lowing, and the first stars appearing. Gae shlofa. The mother speech becomes gentler in silence and tiredness.

    Lights go out early.

    It is time to sleep.

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