GREAT POSSESSIONS An Amish Farmer's Journal By David Kline North Point. 235 pp. $16.95
EVERY YEAR, Fortune magazine lists America's richest people. Although the rich come from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, it is probably safe to assume that none of them will be Amish farmers.
The Amish don't have electricity or telephone and depend on horses for farmwork and transportation. Tourists may admire the Amish landscape, their industry and strong families, but most probably think Amish life is constricted, black-clad and, let's face it, dull.
Great Possessions is a collection of nature essays David Kline wrote for the Amish magazine Family Life. His reflections originate on his small (70 tillable acres) Midwestern farm, but they range as far as the migrating birds who land briefly in his corn stubble en route to Argentina. The short essays are arranged by season. Most discuss birds, though Kline is also interested in butterflies, frogs, beaver, luna moths and silk moths. There are essays on maple sugaring and a recipe for home-brewed sassafras tea.
Perhaps my favorite piece is his account of a 10-mile walk he and his 8-year-old daughter, Emily, took one May morning. "Since the day started out foggy, we waited until the morning sun dissipated the fog. By then the temperature reached the 60s. A perfect day for walking. As Emily said, we just went seeing things." They saw several dozen bird species, mushrooms, wild ginger, wild leeks, spring larkspur and dame's rocket. Kline describes a day of acute pleasure, intelligent and gentle. He concludes, "At times like this I want to remove my hat to the beauty of the natural world and its Creator."
A self-educated naturalist, David Kline cites writers from Audubon to Aldo Leopold. Poets John Donne, Sidney Lanier and Percy Shelley grace his mind and these pages. Kline tells us that the nefarious starling was first introduced to this continent by a wealthy Shakespeare buff, determined America should have all the birds mentioned by the bard.
Kline's prose is sturdy and most of his effects occur between the lines. A frail, elderly former school teacher says about the song sparrow: " 'Even on the coldest, most blustery days this cheerful bird sits by my window and sings its melodious song. I enjoy it so much. You know, when I was in better health and could go away, I was too busy to notice.' " But sometimes Kline allows himself a more lyrical expression. Describing whistling swans on a stormy November day, he writes, "The strong wind scattered them, and as they struggled to regain formation to the east of us, against the dark-blue background of storm clouds the white swans looked like a string of pearls being gently waved by an invisible hand."
We don't learn an awful lot about Amish beliefs and customs in this book, though by the end of it, we've learned quite a bit about the consequences of Amish beliefs. Kline's mower (horsedrawn) travels slowly enough that he can spot the bobolink's nest and mow around it. Undeafened by machinery noise, he can look up from plowing and hear the ruffed hawk's cry.
Industrial society's record of exploiting nature is so bad, some radical ecologists would preserve bits of nature by removing all men from it. Kline believes that traditional farming methods can enhance nature, that men can help. One year he counted 1,800 young birds of 13 species fledged within 200 feet of his house.
In Great Possessions, man and nature work in harmony:
"April is for plowing cornstalks and sowing oats, for spring berries and lovely hepatica.
"In May, we plant the corn, turn the cows and horses out to pasture and revel in warblers and morel mushrooms.
"With hay making in June come the strawberries, shortcakes, pies and jams. The bird migration is over and summer settles in."
Although this is a sunny book, Kline's no Pollyanna. He fears for migrating species becoming extinct, the Imperial moth dying because of farmyard sodium nightlights, the black-footed ferret killed by the men who studied it. When told that during certain seasons, every raindrop in the Cornbelt contains minute particles of Lasso, the herbicide and suspected carcinogen, Kline asks, "Can you love your neighbor and do this?"
David Kline has written a generous and erudite book that gives great pleasure. He is a very rich man with all his Great Possessions.
Donald McCaig is the author of several books, including "Nop's Trials," "The Bamboo Cannon" and the forthcoming "Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men."