Amish woman in unlikely role as activist

September 05, 1993|By Jay Maeder | Jay Maeder,New York Daily News

LANCASTER, Pa. -- She found her courage in the waters of the stream from which the cows no longer drank.

As a child, Edna Esh used to swim there, behind the 74-acre farm where she has lived all her days.

Now, 40-odd years later, she considered Mill Creek, befouled by sewage effluent outflow from the forbidden "English" world outside her rustic, tightly knit Amish district. She considered the road traffic and the steady developmental sprawl that in recent years has made it ever more difficult for her people to buy land for succeeding generations.

That night she began to collect signatures from her neighbors, arguing against the huge retirement home the "English" wanted to build nearby.

For the first time in her life, she became involved in the political process. The retirement home was defeated, in part perhaps because of Edna Esh and her speeches and petition sheets.

"If we wouldn't have showed up, it would have went through," she says, marveling that such a difference could be made.

It has been an extraordinary passage for one reared in a stern and austere culture that disavows automobiles and other such "worldly" things. It teaches that God is provident in all matters, and holds that among the worst sins is that of "pride" -- standing out from the crowd, calling attention to oneself.

Now Edna Esh is warning neighbors about something called the "toxic-waste dump" and studying documents full of words such as "leachate." And ministers have spoken to her, for these are worldly things.

"What I'm doing is wrong," she says quietly. She is not unworried.

"But I can't lay back and do nothing. This is my life. This is my backyard. We need help. What kind of environment is this going to be for the children? This scares the heck out of me."

One recent evening, Edna Esh traveled to an anti-dump rally at an "English" public school. Remarkably, a handful of bearded and suspender-wearing Old Order Mennonites also had been persuaded to come hear the speakers from the outside.

"Unfortunately, most of you play by the rules," said Paul Connett, a fiery environmental activist from upstate New York. "You're nice people. You're decent.

"Polite people get poisoned," he shouted. The farmers heard him out, then impassively put on their black hats and went home.

It is true that many of the "plain people" would simply depart outright -- for Franklin County, perhaps, or for Ohio or Indiana -- rather than battle this dump, says Edna Esh.

She has learned so many worldly things. The reasons, for example, why things grow as they do in this soil.

Once it was nothing she wondered about. "All we knew is that we stick a plant in the ground and it grows," she says. "The roots go down here. Over there" -- she waves at the horizon -- "they don't."

4 God and land, she reflects. "The two are close."

Edna Esh chuckles. "We like land, and we like God."

She stops chuckling. "But I don't expect him to do everything for me."

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