A hero for the ages.
To understand the brilliance of Johnny Appleseed, you must understand the importance of the apple to 19th century settlers. Nowadays we're generally happy with the three or four varieties of apples found in our supermarkets year round. But back then, good apples were as appreciated as good wine grapes. Even an uneducated man fancied himself a connoisseur and would argue the merits of one variety over another, just as vintners today debate the effect one grape has over another on the palate. There were baking apples, drying apples, cider apples, and dessert apples. Thomas Jefferson fancied Esopus Spizenbergs; Ben Franklin enjoyed Newton Pippins so much that he had barrels of the fruit shipped to England when he was sent there as a statesman.
For those settling the Western frontier--at that time Pennsylvania, western New York, and Ohio--apple trees offered the difference between successfully staking a claim and losing their land due to a lack of subsistence foods. Apple trees, you see, are one of the few trees that will bear usable fruit within live years of being planted. Problem was, there were no apple trees on the frontier and nowhere to get seeds.
This is where Johnny Appleseed's genius as a visionary came in. Certainly many people planted orchards in the frontier states. But he sought out places where few settlers already lived and the areas he suspected would be settled soon, then went there and bought usable tracts of land. He was able to get apple seeds without cost from the cider mills of Pennsylvania (the seeds were usually tossed as garbage). lie took them back to his prospective orchards and sowed them, then moved on. He came back to tend the saplings and later to harvest the fruit.
When the expected settlers arrived, Johnny Appleseed could sell them a couple of fruit-producing trees and the seeds generated by those trees so tile settlers could sow their own orchards. With the money he made, Johnny bought more land further out and the cycle began again.
As I read, I found myself relating more and more to the life of John Chapman. He, too, knew what it was like to look at an empty, uncultivated piece of land and imagine it blossoming with trees. Whatever crazy urge had prompted me to make planting trees my life's work--John would understand. The desire to run a successful business, yet help people at the same time--he would understand that, too.
There are many stories about the 2 life of John Chapman. As he made his way across the country, he usually slept in a shed or barn. Certainly settlers would welcome him to sleep by their fire, but he always demurred. He would share a meal with them and sit around the fire sharing news, discussing theology from his well thumbed New Testament, and telling tall tales.
He loved reading and he loved ideas. Because of this he became a lending library. Most settlers had not been able to bring many books on their trek west, so he would gratefully take one they offered, read it, and swap it at the next stop for a book that the family had finished reading.
Because he had friends among both settlers and Native Americans, Chapman was able, on several occasions, to broker peace. He also warned at least one settlement of an impending raid and saved many lives.
But ultimately John Chapman lived for his trees; he saw them as a gift to the earth and her people. And that, of course, is why Johnny Appleseed is one of my favorite American heroes.
Jeff Meyer, host of the television series "TreeStories," directs AMERICAN FORESTS' Historic Tree Nursery. For information about purchasing a Johnny Appleseed apple tree or any other historic tree, visit historictrees.org or call 800/677-0727.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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