Ten years ago, Gregory McCallum sat reading on a Queensland beach with his wife, Bethany.
A breeze stirred the she-oaks above, their five children played on the white sand, but Gregory suddenly started crying.
To the outside world, the then 31-year-old looked like a success.
From the McCallum home in Gympie, a two-hour drive north of Brisbane, he ran a thriving small business making movable homes for backyard hens, flat-packing them for delivery all over Australia.
The couple made good money, employed five people.
They ate out, bought the latest appliances.
But the stress: freight issues, demanding customers, copycat competitors, employee problems … And the mobile phone never stopped.
What they really lacked was time: time to talk as husband and wife; time with the children; time to sip tea on the verandah.
The trigger for Gregory's tears was a slim novel he was reading called Henry and the Great Society. The 1969 book, which Bethany had given him, tells the life of American farmer Henry Morgan before he had electricity and cars.
Henry enjoys quiet nights on the porch swing, wife Esther churns butter in a sweet-smelling kitchen and their wild-spirited children frolic in a creekside tree house. But then the road that goes past their farm is paved and the electricity company wires up their house.
Henry buys light bulbs, a fridge and TV. He swaps his faithful horses for a car. Soon he's drowning in debt, popping sleeping pills and eating TV dinners left for him by Esther, who is ordering wall-to-wall carpet and running her Canasta club. When not at football, Scouts or swimming, his kids are on their stomachs watching TV, barely noticing Henry.
The book, written semi-autobiographically by H.L. Roush snr, is popular among the slow-living Amish and Mennonite communities – the so-called "plain people" – of the United States.
On that beach, Gregory was crying for Henry but mostly, he realised, for himself. He was Henry, weighed down by stress.
"I want off the system," Gregory announced, turning to Bethany. "Let's sell the business, let's sell the house and go to Tasmania and buy a little farm. We'll turn the electricity off, sell the car. Let's not do this anymore."
And that's precisely what the McCallums did. They turned Amish.
On a foggy spring morning I'm driving over a mountain range to the McCallums' place near Scottsdale, in Tasmania's north-east, pondering their mission.
Their quest raises fundamental questions about how we live today: how do we raise children amid pervasive technology? How much stuff do we really need? Are we too busy?
Anyone who has fled the city for a tree change has contemplated such things, but there's an extra dimension here: being Amish means adopting a certain set of religious beliefs rarely followed in Australia.
The Amish and Mennonites are part of the Anabaptist Christian movement, born of the blood-soaked religious upheavals of the 1500s. The early Anabaptists followed the basic, pacifist teachings of Jesus, and refused to fight religious or state wars.
Radically at the time, the Anabaptists believed in the separation of church and state, because Jesus was the head of all princes, the king of kings – no government could trump him.
This is why, even now, many Anabaptists won't vote, go into politics, or join a police force or army. In their interpretation of the Bible they are "in the world, but not of it" and therefore don't believe in "worldly" fads or fashions.
The Amish and Mennonite interpretation of "worldly" has led them to reject much of the modern era and its systems, which is why they tend to keep to the lifestyle and fashions of bygone centuries (including women covering their hair, which they say the Bible requires). Generally they forbid second marriages (unless a spouse dies) and believe in the "priesthood of all believers": God works through all members of the community, not top-down from a priest.
"To be truly Amish, you really need to be part of a community," says the Reverend Mark Hurst, a pastoral worker for the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand.
"In the US, an Amish district would have at least 10 to 15 families."
In Australia, he says, we've only had a few "lone wolf" Amish families, mostly American or Canadian immigrants.
So how does an Australian couple fall into Anabaptism?
It starts, really, with Bethany. Her parents were Baptist Pentecostal and she was home-schooled with American conservative religious texts in Newcastle, NSW, and on a farm in the South Australian town of Laura, 222 kilometres north of Adelaide.
Bethany became more devout than her parents, believing – to her mother's consternation – that the Bible instructs women to cover their hair.
Gregory, meanwhile, grew up 30 minutes north of Laura on a farm at Booleroo Centre, lost his dad to cancer at 16, fell into hard partying and became a fervent Christian at 21.
When the couple married a year later, an acquaintance told them about the Kauffmans, an evangelical Amish-Mennonite family from Alabama who had moved to Brisbane.
They were the first Christian family the McCallums had met in which the women wore a scarf on their head (otherwise they were pretty liberal: they drove cars and used the internet). In 2004, the McCallums joined the Kauffmans' new church, eventually settling in Gympie. Eight years later, they went it alone in Scottsdale.
The McCallums would love to build an Amish community in Tasmania, and several families have already tried this life with them – one person gleefully crushing their mobile phone under their car wheel on the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. But, it turns out, totally ridding yourself of the 21st century is no easy task.
The mountain range is behind me now, giving way to green hills rolling in every direction. In a few minutes I arrive at the McCallums' roadside stall – their main source of income – with pumpkins, preserves and apple pies in orderly display on red gingham plastic.
Gregory, 41, greets me. He's a lanky 193 centimetres and wears suspenders over a spearmint green shirt and heavy, home-sewn denim pants. A thicket of brown beard fills the space between his chin and collar. Then Bethany, 42, appears.
She's wearing a long-sleeved, ankle-length burgundy cotton dress under a matching loose vest covered in small white flowers.
A white scarf conceals her greying hair and she greets me with such warmth and kindness that I immediately adore her.
In the kitchen of the weatherboard farmhouse – snugly warmed by an Amish-built wood stove called Pioneer Princess – I formally meet the eight McCallum children.
There's the youngest, Abi, 2, then Ruth, 4, Caleb, 7, Mary, 10, Elizabeth, 12, John, 14, Hannah, 16, and Esther, 17. All the girls are dressed in the same outfits as Bethany, which makes the scene look a little like The Sound of Music when Maria sews all the children matching outfits from the curtains.
Gregory, in a rocking chair, and Bethany, with Abi curled on her lap, explain how they peeled away from the 21st century.
They made two trips to Pennsylvania, home to one of America's biggest plain-people populations.
On the first trip in 2010, they met an Old Order Mennonite couple called Titus and Mabel, who took them under their wing.
When they came home, they reassessed the Tasmanian option, thinking it might be easier to migrate to the US and live in an established community.
They returned to the US in 2011 on a two-year visa for an officially approved business idea – to use an Australian-developed grain sprouting machine to feed chickens farmed for meat – but were hit by the spiralling price of organic corn.
Before coming home, feeling a little defeated, they filled a shipping container with the basics for their new life: a spring wagon and carriage, a harness, gas lights and kerosene lamps.
They flew back to Brisbane in June 2012, bought a van and drove to Melbourne and on to the Spirit of Tasmania. Upon disembarking, they immediately inspected and purchased their 16-hectare Scottsdale property which they'd seen online (they chose Tasmania for its cheap land, easier climate to grow vegetables chemical-free and quieter roads for the horse and buggy).
Three months later, their shipping container arrived and they turned off the power. Bethany, as always, was calm. "This was really starting to live the dream," she says, as Caleb offers me a plate of coconut-covered chocolate balls.
But Gregory suffered heart palpitations the night before: "What if we needed to use electric beaters one day? What if someone gets sick or hurt?"
The car took longer to relinquish. Gregory had never touched a horse until Titus, the Mennonite man, showed him how to ride a buggy.
At first, they only used the horse and buggy on sunny days and took the car to go to Launceston, an hour away.
Then they put the car down in the bottom shed for emergencies only.
But all sorts of "emergencies" popped up, says Gregory, such as, "We're all tired and exhausted, let's go to Launceston for a pizza." The children hated the car – they got sick going over the mountain – and Gregory says they threatened to push it into the dam. So it was sold in 2016.
Gregory burrows into his pocket for a navy handkerchief and wipes his glasses.
He's a thinker, a questioner: part-farmer, part-philosopher. And he needs to be. He's not against technology but, like the Amish, assesses everything on its merits: is it good for his faith and family? He allows some of the fruits of progress: a petrol-powered lawnmower, a petrol motor on the clothes washer ("A little motor for my wife is just a good thing to have," he says).
There's an infrequently used diesel generator for the welder, grinder and drill, and a big diesel pump for vegetable irrigation. But, of course, there's no TV, because its depictions of violence, adultery and parental disrespect represents "the breakdown of our moral fibre".
There are no mobile phones, which Gregory happily discarded, but there's a landline in the shed.
The internet is also not allowed because of the risk of children seeing its "ungodly filth" (pornography).
But Gregory and Bethany go online at the local library, often to order what they need.
This disconnection from TV and the internet leaves the family untouched by the 24-7 news cycle.
They'd never heard of the #MeToo movement
A local customer recently told them "a new bloke" was running Australia.
It was only days later, after Gregory rode the buggy to the library and checked the old newspapers, that he discovered Scott Morrison was prime minister.
It's time for Bethany to give me a house tour. Everywhere are rows of eight stickers with eight names: eight pairs of gumboots, eight hats, eight toothbrushes. There's the school room, with eight desks, four on one wall, four on the opposite, divided by wooden barriers (schooling ends at 16 and they are taught the theory of evolution, but also that it's been "proven false"). Then there's the girls' room and the boys' room, all beds neatly topped with hand-stitched quilts. Outside the master bedroom is a little ante-room full of books (when Gregory discovered God, he ditched his Jack Higgins and Wilbur Smith thrillers. In their place, I spot books such as A Woman for God's Glory, which has a chapter called "Homemaking – A Full Time Job").
Back in the meaty-smelling kitchen, home-raised beef is pressure-cooking to preserve in jars (there's no fridge or freezer). Bethany's 1960s-style iron, the cord cut off, is warming on a stove shelf. I'm exhausted just thinking about Bethany's ironing. It's something I only do when absolutely necessary (my four-year-old once pointed to the iron and said, "Mummy, what does that thing do?") We pass the commercial-sized, 50-litre sink by the window. "Gregory bought it," says Bethany. "He really spoils me." On the wall is a picture of a Puritan woman in a white cap gazing serenely at a book on her lap. "I want to be like her," says Bethany, who found this picture on the cover of Female Piety, an inspiring book she once read. "She's there to remind me of that when I get hot under the collar." With eight children, including two preschoolers, Bethany no doubt has hot-collar days. But today, through all the normal requests, squabbles and meltdowns, her gentle voice never sharpens, it just lilts like a soothing, day-long hymn.
Next to the front door, down a few steps, is a half-cellar, four metres long: their cool room. The McCallums call this the Springhouse (spring water, piped around the walls, cools the room). The shelves are neatly stacked with dozens of jars: preserved meat, soup, fruit and vegetables. There are also yellow discs of cheese Bethany made from their cows' milk. With all this food, the family is almost self-sufficient.
They spend only $60 each week at Woolworths for 10 people (buying essentials like toilet paper, matches and shampoo. Bananas, even mandarins, are sometimes bought as a treat). We emerge into the blinding sunlight and onto the front verandah. The smaller children run towards us, squealing. One of the daily highlights has just happened: the mail delivery. We head to the road stall, which is quiet now, but the family is flat out selling produce from December to April. The children are paid 10 per cent of sales for their picking work, Bethany says. "Once a year we get on the bus and go to Launceston to Toyworld or Kmart and we have a really exciting time."
It's mid-morning and the household is in full swing. It's like watching the cogs turn in a clock: the children wheel out to perform a chore, singing hymns to themselves, then return for their next instruction. They patiently wait until Mama or Papa have finished talking and come in close, resting a gentle hand on one of their shoulders. Like Hannah, having finished all of her chores. "What would you like me to do now, Mama?" she says quietly. "Butcher the chickens?"
After a hot lunch of home-reared T-bone and vegetables on the verandah– followed by the whole family singing the 1707 hymn When I Survey The Wondrous Cross – we harness up Toppy, one of their two horses.
The McCallums have a black, roofed carriage for rainy days and a wagonette with bench seats. Both are fitted with lights, indicators and mirrors.
But today we take the low-tech spring wagon. In the back are Caleb and Mary with the Esky; I'm up front with Gregory, out-of-place in my Melbourne black and my little black digital recorder trained towards his beard.
"One thing I've learnt," he says, raising his voice above Toppy's clip-clop, "Is to keep my mouth shut in the first few miles, because all the horse hair comes off and gets stuck in your mouth."
It's one thing to live an Amish life in the privacy of your own home but, here on the road, the old and modern worlds really can collide. Cars are fast and dangerous when you trot at 20 kilometres an hour. The New York Times reported on a spate of "buggy-to-bumper" accidents in the state of New York at the end of 2017 which left one Amish man dead, several horses killed and buggies mangled.
It's a responsibility Gregory takes seriously, especially after three visits from the local police (he suspects one old lady, who considers the buggy a traffic menace, is the sole source of complaints). Gregory sits higher than the car drivers, so when it's safe, he signals for the traffic to pass or pulls aside.
It's a stunning spring day and at this pace, out of the confines of an air-conditioned car, you can smell the paddocks warming, the whiff of fertiliser, the roadside jonquils.
This is how Henry experienced his world, but Gregory has a deeper reason to ditch the car. To him, it's about warding off individualism and independence.
If you can just hop in your car and take off, he says, you will. You'll be eating out and not at home, for example, preserving food.
"Life becomes busier, more expensive and complex. The motor car is not the cause of this sort of lifestyle, but facilitates it." For the McCallums, not having a car has real and limiting consequences.
They live hyper locally, no more visiting their friends around Tasmania. They "desperately" want to return to Bridport's beaches – a 20-minute drive away by car – but are not yet confident enough with the horses.
As Toppy breaks into a faster trot to climb a hill, Gregory says their decision to live this way is multifaceted. They want their children to be occupied, to learn how to be "independent of the system" and self-employed.
"I don't want them thinking being unemployed and relying on the government is a viable option."
It's about self-sufficiency: he thinks about South Australian friends who were left helpless in a six-day blackout; about the time Bethany saw two women in Woolworths in Gympie fist-fighting over the last bag of potatoes when the town was cut off by floods.
They want to be present for their kids, live in a "healthful" place and grow spray-free vegetables. But since actually living this life, Gregory says his real epiphany has been about consumerism: happiness isn't about making money and buying stuff.
"In Queensland, Bethany and I assimilated into the spending culture: we ate out, we shopped, we went window-shopping." What did you buy? I ask him.
He lifts a hand to his beard. "I'm absolutely stumped to figure it out."
We arrive at the back of Scottsdale's indoor cricket centre, where Gregory ties Toppy to a wooden barrier. We walk to Woolworths to buy ice.
The family's clothes look so out of place, I feel an urge to distance myself. That's when I realise how brave they are, standing out in a small rural community like misplaced extras in a period drama. But Gregory says the community has been quite supportive.
Older locals applaud him: their grandchildren play computer games all day, barely acknowledging their existence.
Others like to joke: when Gregory pulls into a petrol station for supplies, they'll ask him which end of the horse he wants the fuel in.
But every now and then, they'll find someone who's unimpressed. After his speech to a local Probus Club, a woman approached Gregory.
"I had kerosene lamps growing up," she growled, poking a finger in his chest. "And I was so glad when we got the electricity on!"
On the way home, my ears go numb with cold. An insect flies into my eye. A farmer is spreading lime in a far-off paddock.
Gregory says he's working towards getting spiritual guidance and accountability from an Amish group, probably in the US; and how they'd like to build a community of like-minded families.
Earlier in the day, he'd taken a phone call he'd been waiting a month for. It was from an American man who, like him, turned Amish mid-life. Gregory wanted to see how he was going. "The fellowship of stubbed toes [in dark houses]," Bethany calls it.
Through Anabaptist networks, Gregory has found several men like him, but communication is difficult. He writes letters ("It takes 23 days for a letter to get to Kentucky!"), then the men often have to drive to a community phone to call him. This is the genius of Facebook groups, I think. If they accepted the internet, newly Amish people could share tips on where to get the best butter-churners with a finger-swipe.
Sadly, the McCallums' efforts to build an Amish community have so far failed.
One family – the ones who joyously destroyed their phone on the ferry – tried for a year, near Launceston.
But going carless was a stretch, and they returned to Victoria. Another family planning to move asked, last-minute, if the horse and buggy was a must. Yes, said Gregory.
They didn't come.
Another family moved up the road from the McCallums.
But, despite promising to go without the car, after a year they just couldn't. Gregory, pained, doesn't want to seem exclusionary, but he's been clear.
He wants a horse-and-buggy church. "It's led to a strained relationship between us," he says.
The families no longer drop into each other's places for tea or fellowship (worship) on Sundays. "We see them on the roads," he says.
"We wave at each other."
That family is now fellowshipping with a conservative Mennonite group at Deloraine, about 50 kilometres west of Launceston, set up by Canadians in 2010.
The leader of that church, Harold Weaver, declined an interview for this article but explained, via an email from him and his wife Phyllis, that the church is attended by 12 to 14 families.
Gregory tells me their dress code is strict and modest, with the women wearing white caps and men not allowed whiskers.
Musical instruments are banned, he says, but cars and mobile phones are allowed, as well as email (but not web browsing).
From the back of the buggy, Mary, in a soft, high voice, says: "Papa, can you stop so that I can pick those pretty flowers back there?"
It is a request of such innocence and wholesomeness – so Anne of Green Gables – I want to set her in amber to preserve her forever (Gregory, with Toppy hitting his stride, gently declines).
When we arrive home, Caleb and Mary tell their mother the trip's news: a neighbour has a new ute, a farmer was spreading lime, and there were new pretty flowers on the roadside.
In the afternoon, Bethany and I find ourselves alone chatting on the verandah. At 3pm, the children are free to, perhaps, ride ponies, play with pet lambs or make candlestick holders in the forge. "No one ever tells me they are bored," says Bethany, "They scatter to the four winds." Esther is usually at her typewriter, tapping stories for her siblings, letters to 50 penpals and composing a 330-page novel, but today she plays the piano accordion.
Looking back, says Bethany, the huge change has been worth it: they are so much closer as a family, Gregory reads aloud to the children for hours at night. They share popcorn and drinks of hot chocolate. "It really is a beautiful life."
Eight children are a boon for the McCallums; when they first married, they thought Bethany's health issues might render her infertile. Bethany was a classic teenage over-achiever: studying violin and piano at Newcastle's Conservatorium, teaching music, doing swimming lessons and advanced aerobics. But her body "packed it in". She had meningitis, glandular fever, chickenpox, whooping cough, tonsillitis and chronic fatigue. She's been left with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition. Gregory – her "tonic" – rubs her back every night to fend off muscle spasms.
For Bethany, living a "godly life" – something she picked up in home-schooling – means dressing modestly with a double layer (vest over dress) so you are "not creating lust in other men who are supposed to be faithful to their own partner". It's quite jarring to hear Bethany talk of this concept, so removed from the modern idea that men should be responsible for their own lusts. As she explains it, I feel like my inner feminist has developed a crazy eye twitch, like she's busted some wiring. In a "godly home", says Bethany, the husband would lay down his life for the wife, but is unequivocally the family head, helping his wife because she is the more emotional one, the "weaker vessel".
It won't surprise you to read that Bethany is not a feminist. "I think that's sad for male-female relationships," she says, when I call her a few weeks later. Her career has been the children, she says, and that's what she'd like for her six daughters. "I would prefer them to devote their gifts and talents to being a good Mama and raising their children." (Gregory says if the girls really want to go into "nursing or teaching" they'd enter that "upon great caution".) Bethany's choices have confounded her own extended family. Gregory's mother, for one: "My mother, as a feminist, fought for the things that Bethany cheerfully carried outside and put in the rubbish bin," he tells me later.
What Bethany does constantly is be a one-woman cheerleader for her husband. She praises, encourages and appreciates. She expresses gratitude. A few days after I leave, she presents him with a "Husband of the Year" certificate, noting all he'd done for her this winter. "He was so tickled," she says. "For women, the Bible talks about being submissive to your husband and respecting him. And boy, is that something that is just not done these days.
"I think men are really suffering from it. I think on a deep level, men really crave respect and they crave admiration and I have seen it over and over … It just works so well. It's not much of a sacrifice, but in reward I get so much love and consideration and kindness. I feel badly that this is God's way and not everybody knows about it. I feel bad for the women trying to be in charge and weighed down with the burden of it all." At this point, my poor inner feminist is having a seizure of some sort. But I can't do anything but love this empathic, caring woman. "I'm praying for you!" she says cheerfully.
After a walk around the farm it's growing dark, so we settle in for the evening. It's Friday family fun night, which means a fast-flowing Amish card game called Dutch Blitz. Cards decorated with water pumps, ploughs and buggies are flying. Between rounds, Hannah tells me she's an "outside girl" and that if they ever moved to the city, Esther, the writer, would do much better (last year, Hannah killed and butchered a sheep by herself and hung it up in the shed as a surprise for her father's birthday). After the game, the children sit around talking about riddles they like. Esther tells me about her "circle letters": one person sends a letter to a friend, they add a letter and send it on to the next friend, and so on. Perhaps this is Esther's Facebook. Or her WhatsApp.
It's now about 5.30pm, when I'm usually standing on a packed train watching people play Candy Crush on their phones. In the Amish world, Caleb is at the kitchen sink turning the handle on the ice-cream machine (it takes 30 minutes), Hannah is playing the piano, John and Esther spin yarn by the window and Mary, Elizabeth and Bethany sort the washing.
We go to the table, under the gold light of the kerosene lamps, for the nightly Bible reading. The family is up to the Book of Revelation, an apocalyptic fire-and-brimstone prophecy. I'm really out of my depth. The only religious person in my family was Nan, who, at night, made me pray, "If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." Only later did I realise how terrifying this message could be for a child: go to sleep but you may die!
This chapter of Revelation is no less terrifying. It's about beasts, virgins, the wrath of fornication, torment and blood. As we each read a verse aloud, I look for signs in the faces of these clear-skinned, cloistered children: what do the teenagers make of this? Are they bored? It's one thing for their parents to stand still in time, but how will they go out there in the world? Who will they marry? Later, I ask Gregory if he feels he's preparing his kids for a modern world. He says if you put one of his children in a Melbourne high-rise apartment they would do fine, but he's also preparing them to live self-sufficiently. When I ask him about sending six daughters out into a world of heightened feminism, he says: "The Lord has led us to live out of step with our culture. If he has led us thus far, then he will continue to lead us and help when big things come up."
The children have some questions about the passage. What is a sickle? How long is a furlong? Hannah, echoing my thoughts, says: "I guess I have hundreds of questions. But no one really has the answers to them."
After the best ice-cream ever, Gregory and Bethany guide me with a torch along the verandah. It's been a blessed day. I've laughed more than I thought I would. I get in my car, thankful for its heater and lights. I'm thankful, too, for my mobile phone, which I use before setting off to tell loved ones I'll be back soon. When I return to Melbourne, there's no denying the McCallums have influenced me.
I turn off the TV more, hide my mobile phone when looking after the kids, and leave the car behind for small trips. When I get hot under the collar, I think of Bethany and I'm a calmer mother. But I don't take up ironing, nightly Bible reading or general submissiveness. Like Henry and the McCallums, I love the simple life – but you've got to draw the line somewhere.
The story Meet the McCallums, one of Australia's few Amish families first appeared on Farm Online.