Refugees of Time

The Conscience of Place: Stone Arabia, New York

Nearly three centuries ago, a group of immigrants fled war and persecution and eventually made a home along New York's Mohawk River. Now a new wave of settlers are finding refuge in a place called Stone Arabia.

Highway 5 follows the Mohawk River west from Albany, New York, like an incoherent timeline, passing the locks of the Erie Canal, threading its way through old industrial cities, like Schenectady and Amsterdam, still crowded with the redbrick and Greek Revival vestiges of commerce and government. Most days, the road beyond Amsterdam is nearly deserted—its traffic absorbed by the New York State Thruway across the river—except for a lone tour bus headed to the Kateri Shrine, devoted to the Catholic Mohawk saint who was born near the river's edge in 1656 and died when she was 24. In the towns along the way, houses huddle close to each other and to the road. Toothless old businesses doze in the outskirts, empty buildings that somehow manage to make the 1960s seem like a very long time ago.

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You might believe at first, as you make your way west on Highway 5, that you're driving right out of the present, if only because to most of us the past is a deserted place, boarded up. It's grass growing through the cracks in a disused parking lot beside a decommissioned schoolhouse. It's the old graveyard next to the McDonald's at the nearly derelict mall in a town called Palatine Bridge, an hour from Albany, just across the Mohawk from Canajoharie.

But high above the river's gouge at Palatine Bridge there's a broad flank of open land called Stone Arabia, a name whose origins are lost. It was once forest, part of the Adirondack canopy that reaches into the far north, and it has been farmland now for more than two centuries. Twice in its history this place has become home to a distinctive group of 60 families, once at the beginning of its settlement and now, again, in the present. The number of families is mere coincidence, but in the resemblance between that first cluster of settlers and the families that recently have settled this land all over again, there is something richer than coincidence.

The original settlers were German and Swiss refugees—Lutherans, Catholics, and Mennonites—whom the English called Palatines. They had lived along the Rhine Valley in a region then called the Palatinate, a region that for 30 years and more had seen almost constant warfare, including Louis XIV's brutal efforts to stamp out Protestantism along his borders. After the winter of 1708-1709, the harshest in living memory, many Palatines fled to England, which was then having trouble obtaining the Swedish pitch and tar needed to keep the English fleet seaworthy. The arrival of so many refugees looked like the labor that England needed to produce tar in its own colonies. And so in late December 1710, some 2,800 Palatines were packed aboard ships for America. The 2,400 who survived the voyage to New York—more than half the number of people in Manhattan at the time—were at first confined in the harbor, by typhus, to what is now called Governor's Island. But as they regained their strength, Robert Hunter, governor of New York, put the Palatines to work, on his payroll, making tar in the Catskills and along the Hudson River, laboring, in effect, as indentured servants instead of landed immigrants, which they had believed themselves to be. After Hunter's bankruptcy and more migration, after dissension and scattering, 60 families settled at last in 1723 on 12,700 acres of land ceded to them by royal patent. That was Stone Arabia, a tract of forest that became in time a tract of farmland.

 

It would be hard, in Stone Arabia today, to measure the effect of those first 60 Palatine families, though some of the old names survive on the road markers. The landscape of Stone Arabia now, just past the old hop houses at Cooks Corner, is utterly placid, entirely agricultural. A small sign marks a cow pasture that was once a Revolutionary War battlefield. There are two 18th-century churches and a graveyard beside newly plowed ground. The pattern of fields and woodlots, the manifest care lavished on the soil here, suggests the dominion of a rural sense of community and husbandry that was, for much of this country's history, what we meant by civilization. The landscape looks like the work of beneficent time. If anything, the farms here seem unusually prosperous, though like farms everywhere they have suffered bitter cycles of expansion and contraction, liquidity and debt, as punishing in their own way as a series of bad droughts or spring blizzards.

The second settlement of Stone Arabia has taken place in the past 15 years. The settlers are Amish. The first of them came in the mid-1980s from other Amish communities in New York and Pennsylvania, and now their children have begun to farm on their own nearby. The result is uncanny. In America, as a rule, farmland changes more than we imagine it does, but it changes in only three directions—toward development, toward consolidation into larger and larger farms, or toward neglect and abandonment. Around Stone Arabia, something different has happened. Average farm size has decreased since the mid-'80s, while the number of persons that each farm directly supports has increased. To put it another way, the soil is growing more farmers than it used to, farmers whose offspring want to farm. And the soil is supporting those farmers in ways that have generally been forgotten.

Some of those ways are immediately visible, as distinctive as the Amish carriages parked along the blank wall of an empty storefront at the mall in Palatine Bridge. In Stone Arabia you could see, if you knew what you were looking at, a panorama of agricultural history since the late 19th century. I stood on one Amish farm, looking across the road at three non-Amish farmers—Englishmen, as their Amish neighbors would call them—on tractors that were raking the hay and pulling an old baler that made small square bales in a way that most up-to-date farmers would call old-fashioned. Up the road a little farther, a still more modern farmer drove a much bigger tractor that pulled a machine to gather the grass, chop it, and fling it into a silage wagon trailing still farther behind him. Alone, he was doing all the work of the tractors and men down the road.

In neighboring fields, meanwhile, teams of Amish men, wearing the familiar Amish dress—broad hats, suspenders, plain shirts, and trousers—were stacking oat sheaves on horse-drawn wagons in the bright sunshine. On one farm, a barefoot young boy stood quietly at the front of an open hay wagon parked in a barn alley. He was holding the reins to a pair of draft horses while the oats on his wagon were being threshed by a threshing machine, which was powered by a long canvas belt connected to an ancient tractor—one of the only kinds of engine-driven power the Amish allow themselves. Horses, belt-driven threshing machines, bundled oats drying in shocks across a hillside—these look like the vestiges of an antique, outmoded agriculture, last practiced generally in America sometime in the 1920s. This is a way of farming that resembles a future the original Palatine settlers of Stone Arabia might have imagined.

But the important differences between contemporary farms in this part of the Mohawk Valley and the Amish farms beside them are more subtle. On a late August afternoon, I walked through a barn with an Amish farmer whose name I won't use for the same reason he didn't allow himself to be photographed. All across New York state and the rest of the country, wooden barns are disappearing, caving in on themselves, being pulled down and torched when they're far enough gone. But this was a new wooden barn, only 10 years old, built with wood hauled to the Amish sawmill next door, where a gray horse in full harness stood grazing in a mown oat field until the next log was needed. The barn had a high central alley, tall enough for a threshing machine or a hay wagon. On the left side, timothy hay for the horses filled a cavernous mow. A similar mow on the right side was filled with oat straw and chaff, which is used for bedding. A small, freshly planked room below the straw mow was filled with oats, enough to last until next August, when, in the measure of providence, as that Amish man might say, it would be filled again. Beneath the barn floor were the stalls where the cows and horses lived, the animals that would eat the hay and grain and lie on the bedding and pull the planters and reapers and wagons and manure spreaders filled with their own composted manure and bedding being returned to the fields that would grow more oats and hay. These farmers had no commodity crops for sale, no fuel or petrochemicals or fertilizer to buy. They didn't invest in genetically modified seeds, and they had nothing to haul to the grain elevator in return for a check from one of the agribusiness corporations or the government. As much as it could, each Amish farm tried to become a closed biological circle.

 

Compared to the tasks the early Palatines faced—cutting roads out of the great northern forest or clearing enough land of trees and rock to make tillable soil or sustaining a community of living souls on a bitter frontier—the task the Amish have set themselves in Stone Arabia looks almost modest. Unless you look at it another way. They are clearing room for conscience—for their self-defining mix of social, economic, and religious values—in a vast cultural and economic forest of presuppositions that inherently invalidate the principles the Amish live by, presuppositions no less isolating and oppressive than the forest the Palatines found. The Amish have been at it in Stone Arabia for 15 years, and in that time they've begun to transform the countryside itself, imposing a pattern of smaller fields, of square, neat houses and outbuildings, extensive kitchen gardens. New barns have been laid out for raising. On half the farms a sawmill has been at work, cutting planks. The biological circle on each farm may be closed, but the circle of labor in the Amish community itself is wide open, a common resource to be shared as needed.

It's no metaphor to say that as the Amish pursue their livelihood in Stone Arabia they seem somehow to converge with the Palatines who first settled there, as though the two communities—with similar origins in nationality, language, and religious dissent—had met in some middle historical distance, a time when women still wore long plain dresses and bonnets and the men wore beards, blunt-cut hair, and broad-brimmed hats, a time when the homemade life was all there was. The Amish and their way of life would look familiar to the Palatines in a way that the rest of America—even Palatine Bridge—would not.

Time is indeed the problem that visitors to Stone Arabia face. The illusion of looking out of the present into the past—an almost inescapable illusion in that Mohawk landscape—is a dizzying one because it implies that the present exists only in the form we know it. Among the Amish farms in Stone Arabia, it takes an act of will to remember that this too is the present, but the present of a community that has consciously decided to make its future resemble its past, that chooses continuity and coherence at the risk of seeming outdated to the neighbors. Spend enough hours on one of those Amish farms, watching the oats come in, watching a team of young men at work raising a house, and you can almost see the rest of us being swept away, like refugees of time, in the rush of life.