This is going to be one of those long, rambly posts that touches everything. So you might as well go get a cup of tea. And maybe not come back. I leave that to you.

My first encounter with the myth of Johnny Appleseed was a big white hardcover picturebook which I swear was called The Joy of Giving, but which I can’t find anywhere on the eeenternets, so maybe I imagined the whole thing. It told the life of Johnny Appleseed in the simplest, most sanguine terms, with cuted-up illustrations and a talking inanimate object sidekick (a shovel, I think). He wore a pot for a hat, dressed in muddy overalls, and hiked barefoot, with a big walking stick and two cloth bags slung over his shoulder: apple seeds and oatmeal. He walked until he was tired, ate supper out of his hat, built an orchard, then started walking again. And now we have apples everywhere, in pies and cider and the American dream.

It doesn’t get simpler than that. And when I turned six or seven and graduated from Mac and Tab Are Friends to that, believe me, I was sold. If I could figure out what the heck that story was actually called it would go on my Jay Ridler Top 100 books lickety split. Along with all the rest of the sappy picture book biographies in that series (each one of which had its own unique variety of inanimate object sidekick).

Sappy and cheeseball though it is, it occurs to me that the talking inanimate sidekick thing–at least as used in that series–is actually a magic realist trope. Everything else about the story dealt in a more or less accurate—albeit syrupy-sweet—manner with the real life of some inspiring historical figure. Madam Curie talked to X-Rays, as I recall, and Louis Pasteur talked to germs. It was awesome. And Will Rogers talked to his lariat. No, really. It’s just taking one element of a story and blowing it up to magical stature via hyperbole in order to grab the fancy of a reader who might otherwise be less than interested. This is why magic realists get accused of pandering and their readers of exoticism. But why the hell else would I have cared what happened to the boring old whitebeard Louis Pasteur if he hadn’t been fighting these big germs that looked like Napoleonic soldiers with bayonets?

It’s apple-picking season. In a couple weeks I will drop off several five-gallon glass carboys at my local orchard to be filled with fresh-pressed, unpasteurized cider. The big Mac tree behind my apartment has been producing apace since August; I’ve been eating at least one a day since then and am now physically invincible. As my affair with the cliff the other day clearly demonstrates. Today, I ate three different varieties of wild apple: a kind of Golden Delicious/Macoun hybrid from the tree outside my work at lunchtime, a hard, mild Spy variety from the edge of a field in Graves Farm Sanctuary at the beginning of my evening hike, and a spicy Macintosh variety from the same field at the end.

Mulling over the last one as I meandered back to the car, I thought of Appleseed. His position in the American myth is unique, closest perhaps to Thoreau (at least among its real, breathing representatives, as opposed say to Longfellow’s Hiawatha) in terms both of pacifism and unabashed love and appreciation for nature. Appleseed has a magnanimity towards the human race that, to my mind at least, the other great naturalists lack. On the the other hand, he is completely un-unique as an unconcerned, if well-intentioned, spreader of colonialism.

Still, I don’t think I can deny being deeply influenced by that spirit–and by Appleseed as a hero–even if there is a bit of hypocrisy involved. Little kids are impressionable, I know. As a six year old I was probably equally enthralled with the story of Helen Keller and her talking water pump or whatever. But not nearly to the degree that her legend can rear up out of a country breeze and hijack my head for a couple of hours.

This is where the dangling spider-threads of my newly adopted fake religion, pseudopagan pantheism, make themselves felt. I am irrevocably a creature of New England. If I ever leave here, I’ll still be that. Which means, because of the legacy of Appleseed and those like him in the oblivious colonialist sense, that as deep as my druidy roots ever reach, they will always have been founded upon a tamed and friendly Nature. I can wander around like an idiot falling off cliffs and getting lost in thickets in the dark without a lot of fear of retribution. No wolves, only the occasional wee black bear to go “aww cute” and scare off, and no place to get lost or horribly crippled where a mere half-mile of excruciating crawling won’t get me to a friendly human dwelling with phones and hot running water. Whenever I meet a serious wilderness enthusiast from west of the Mississippi, I seem to end up getting the same gentle ribbing about being so irrevocably enamored of the nurturing-yet-pansy green hills of my home, even to the point of disregard for real wild things like the Rockies, Yosemite, Olympia. And they’re not wrong. But I can’t help it.

I can’t stand new development. I get very angry when trees get cut down and old farmland gets paved to make way for giant box stores I will never enter and couldn’t even dent with a shoulder-fired missile. And yet at the same time I feel, a bit guiltily, that I owe a lot to Johnny Appleseed. He (or his myth) made what remains of the Western Massachusetts wilderness into the Eden that it is, where I can wander around ignoring trail signs and topography, picking apples and taking meticulous photographs of mushrooms with no regard for life or limb. I could probably live for weeks in the woods this time of year just on apples. Presuming I didn’t get gunned down by hunters. Without him, or the spirit of agricultural imperialism he exemplified, that wouldn’t be possible. My whole philosophy of existence pretty much wouldn’t be possible.

If only I were Erin Hoffman, I could distill all this verbosity down into a heartwrenching 20-line poem that cuts to the quick, sell it, and maybe put it out of my head.

Instead I’ll spend the next year or so mulling over the tragic extinction of the American tall tale, how the sterilization of popular culture into malls and box stores and wax-coated, nasty, gas-chamber megamart apples has utterly exterminated any earnest belief in the old kinds of myths, and the only way to resurrect them is in clinical laboratory examinations such as this. And maybe, If I’m really lucky, six months after that, I’ll have written a story that touches on these sad notions briefly in passing and ultimately fails to do them justice.


  1. Very thoughtful post. I can see how those books shaped a lot of who are you and what you like to write/read. Thanks for reminding me what a special place New England is, I do miss it.

    One point about Johnny Appleseed I sometimes wonder about is the religious aspect. I’ve read some interesting things about the Swedenborgian religion. But sometimes I wonder if Johnny was just a zealot. Apples instead of brochures. Ultimately though I do come down on the side of he was probably cool about it all. Living a good life as example, that kind of thing.

    1. Yeah, it’s hard to know what the real guy was like, but you’re right, on paper he seems like he could easily have been quite preachy and annoying. Possibly he could have been a fascinating dude, just someone I wouldn’t want to hang out with. Zealots are pretty interesting when they spout something other than the usual regurgitated dogma.

      But I was more thinking about the myth of Johnny Appleseed here anyway—I imagine that book…which thanks very much for finding, by the way…didn’t much concern itself with the fact that his name was Chapman and he preached the Word and only built these orchards with the intent of fomenting a small empire of chain apple orchards. Che Guevara was something of a dick (to put it lightly), but his legend looms large. And that presents a whole other set of problems of its own. But the phenomenon of the folk hero, when it gets far enough away in time, becomes really intriguing to me as a separate entity, almost entirely divested of its basis in fact.

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