Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Johnny Appleseed

New Seed Moon

New Seed Moon 2009: The Seed Moon is New

New Seed Moon 2010: To Everything there is a Season

You can read the entire story the quotes and illustrates below are from on this page.

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"Johnny would shoulder his bag of apple seeds, and with bare feet penetrate to some remote spot that combined picturesqueness and fertility of soil, and then he would plant his seeds, place a slight enclosure around the place, and leave them to grow until the trees were large enough to be transplanted by the settlers, when, in the mean time, would have made their clearings in the vicinity. The sites chosen by him are, many of them, well known, and are such as an artist or a poet would select - open places on the loamy lands that border the creeks - rich, secluded spots, hemmed in by giant trees, picturesque now, but fifty years ago, with their wild surroundings and the primal silence, they must have been tenfold more so. "

As the man stepped into the forest clearing the two deer looked up from their grazing and froze. They eyed the stranger, a tall thin man wearing tattered and patched clothes, the leather sack on his back showing the wear of as many hard miles as his calloused, bare feet. He shifted his weight and a twig cracked under his foot and the two deer sprung back into the safety of the deep forest. The man stepped into the clearing, pulled the tin mush pot off his head, w
iped his brow and looked around the grassy meadow on the banks of a small stream. It was a beautiful sight and he gave a prayer of thanksgiving to God who made this place. He set his leather sack and tin mush pot down at the edge of the clearing and got to work.

The man's name was Jonathan Chapman but what few people he met in his wilderness travels just called him Johnny Appleseed. He was known for planting apple trees in forest clearings and selling them to settlers as they pushed further west and that was what he had plans to do this morning. He took one of the packets of apple seeds he had collected from a Pennsylvania cider mill and began marking out his new orchard. As he broke the sod with a sharpened stick he again thanked the Creator for the fertile soil of this wilderness country. As he dropped the seeds in the dark black ground he prayed to God to watch over them as they grew. He spent the morning digging and planting, then paused at mid day for a rest and some food. He pulled a brown paper package out of his sack and found some nuts and dried fruit in it. He believed God provided everything a human needed for life without having to resort to the sin of killing an animal for food. As he sat quietly a chipmunk ventured closer and closer. Appleseed John seemed to have a gentleness that animals recognized and the little one was soon rewarded with a chunk of dried apple out of Johnny's meager lunch. In the afternoon Johnny built a small brush fence around his new orchard to remind the deer to wait until the apple trees were old enough to give fruit. That evening Johnny found a dry spot under a fallen log and rested there, God's firmament his only blanket.

"No Brahmin could be more concerned for the preservation of insect life, and the only occasion on which he destroyed a venomous reptile was a source of long regret, to which he could never refer without manifesting sadness. He had selected a suitable place for planting apple seeds on a small prairie, and in order to prepare the ground he was mowing the long grass, when he was bitten by a rattlesnake. In describing the event he signed heavily, and said, "Poor fellow, he only just touched me, when I, in the heat of my ungodly passion, put the heel of my scythe in him, and went away. Some ti
me afterward I went back, and there lay the poor fellow dead.""

Johnny and the old mule made their way across the narrow ford and onto the sandy beach of the tributary of the Muskingum. He spotted the brush fence just above the bank and encouraged the mule to make one last effort up the sandy slope. Johnny removed the leather sacks of cornmeal and seeds off her back and removed the rope halter with a gentle pat and a word of thanks, and then turned her loose to graze. Two weeks ago he had seen the mule, half starving and lame, tied to a tree outside a settlers cabin. He bought the mule off the pioneer and nursed her back to health with green pastures and a light load. Today they had come back to this nursery to check on his young apple trees. He surveyed the trees, gently touching them and smiling as he walked. As the mule grazed and basked in the sun, he spent epaired the brush fence and hauled water up to the young trees. The whole time he wondered at the miracle of the growing apple trees.

Johnny knew that unlike hor
ses or hogs or pea plants, apples did not breed true. His step father had owned a very fine cart horse and bred her every few years, each time getting a colt as handsome and spirited as the dam. This was not the case with the apple trees, though. The seeds from a sweet and juicy apple might grow a tree that gives those same juicy apples, but more likely it would produce crab apples, or tart apples, or mealy yellow apples. Only the Almighty knows what an apple seed will do. The orchardist John had apprenticed with in Massachusetts had shown him the ancient method of grafting branches to root stock to produce a whole nursery of trees that gave the best fruit but Appleseed John thought that a terrible sin. He believed every living thing on earth had a counterpart in Heaven and to disfigure something in its physical form was to damage it’s spiritual form as well. Instead, he left his trees to grow just as the Creator would have them grow and he gave thanks for what gifts God and the trees chose to give.

"It was his custom, when he had been welcomed to some hospitable log-cabin after a weary day of journeying, to lie down on the puncheon floor, and, after inquiring if his auditors would hear "some news right fresh from heaven," he would produce his few tattered books, among which would be the New Testament, and read and expound until his uncultivated hearers would catch the spirit and glow of his enthusiasm, while they scarcely comprehended his language."

The younger children went running down the path, shouting and laughing, as soon as their older brother gave the call that Johnny Appleseed had been spotted. As the troop of children met him he swung one girl up into his arms and set her back down with a crisp, sweet apple in her hands. Out of his sack he pulled a whittled horse for the younger boy and a lovingly fashioned corncob doll with a calico dress fo
r the oldest girl. And of course, more sweet apples all around. He greeted the children’s mother with much more reticence but agreed to stay the night. Before heading out to the field to help the master of the house with his chores he dropped off a sack of apples for the mistress to dry or sauce, a handful of catnip, horehound and other wild medicinal herbs and a new section of religious book, traded out for the one the family had been reading all summer. Johnny always carried as much of the writings of his spiritual teacher, Emanuel Swedenborg, as he could and had a habit of cutting them up into chapters so many families could read the rare book at the same time. The settlers, many of them mostly illiterate, gladly took these books from Johnny and waded through them as best they could because of his own charm, humility and piety.

That evening, like so many others in log cabins across the Ohio territory, Johnny ate dinner with the family - but only after he was
sure every child had their fill - and then proceeded to read and speak about the nature of the Almighty Creator. “Here is the news right fresh from heaven,” he would say, and then proceed to read from the New Testament or Swedenborg’s treatises on spiritual matters. His words, coming from the same place of truth and love as his daily actions of charity and benevolence, lit up his face with a fire that was contagious. His love for God and all His creation shone a bright light into the rough, dirty and hard lives of these pioneers. The little family in their lonely cabin deep in the forests of the West slept a little more soundly that night, comforted by Johnny’s closing prayer for blessings upon all men and nations, for comfort for those who were crippled or distressed, for universal happiness and peace. And for the fruiting of the apple trees this coming spring.

"this poor wanderer with the gift of genius and eloquence, who believes with the faith of apostles and martyrs that God has appointed him a mission in the wilderness to preach the Gospel of love, and plant apple seeds that shall produce orchards for the benefit of men and women and little children whom he has never seen. If there is a sublimer faith or a more genuine eloquence in richly decorated cathedrals and under brocade vestments, it would be worth a long journey to find it. "

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I am fascinated and smitten with the story of Johnny Appleseed, the roving minister and nuser man of the Ohio and Indiana territories. The quotes and images above are from the November 1871 Harper's New Monthly Magazine article. Other good sources of stories about Johnny include the Virginia Apple Growers Association website and Frank B. McAllister's article in the Vermont Weathervane, and Steven Kellogg's wonderful Johnny Appleseed picture book. Also, be sure to read Vachal Lindsay's poem In Praise of Johnny Appleseed. Poet Vachal Lindsay has a biography almost as unbelievable as Johnny Appleseed himself.


Anonymous said...

Have your read Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan? I thought it had some interesting perspective on Appleseed. Of course, apples are very important to us, since we live in some of the first apple-growing territory in the country.

Alyss said...

Yes, that was one of the first seeds of this post. It appears that Johnny spent some time in his late teens around Pittsburgh, but he probably wasn't responsible for your apples - though legends and myths are what they are, so if you wanted to claim him as your benefactor, I wouldn't complain :)

Amanda said...

My mom just brought home a beautiful collector's plate with a picture of Johnny planting a seed with a little girl standing and watching him. the style is a little norman rockwell-ish but is not norman rockwell. anyway, I don't normally like collector's plates, but this one has definitely captured my heart. you would like it. it has also made the kids very curious about mr. appleseed!