Sunday, May 8, 2011
READING JOHNNY APPLESEED
Reading in the new biography of Johnny Appleseed, about half way through it, by Howard Means. The first thing Means states is that everything we think we know about Johnny Appleseed is not so. Parallel his life a legend grew up around him and it's the legend we hear about. He was a gentle spirit in the late 1700s who didn't wear shoes and conventional clothing, very seldom slept indoors and had no source of income, eating what he found like a hunter-gatherer. He walked from home in south central Massachusetts to northwestern Pennsylvania, where he walked all up and down that end of Pennsylvania, planting apple seeds into orchards and surround them with brush to keep the deer out.
It turns out Johnny Appleseed, whose other name was John Chapman, discovered the Swedish theologian of the time, Emmanuel Swedenborg, who died 2 years before Johnny was born. William Blake read Swedenborg, Ralph Waldo Emerson did too, and a great number of people in that time. Johnny Appleseed became something of an evangelist of the Swedenborgian way of seeing, and spread the Swedenborg gospel everywhere he went. He would tear the books apart and leave a section with somebody. It was a time of much evangelism in the western frontier, just then crossing the Appalachian mountains into Ohio and Kentucky. I get the impression he was what we call "not right." He had a screw or two loose. Maybe. Or he was someone with a powerful conviction he lived by, not eating any meat, not wearing shoes, living outdoors. Working at nurseries seemed to be his skill.
Johnny Appleseed was somebody who loved the natural forest, walking deer and Indian trails, Indians with an attitude still in the area, though being shoved west, the reason behind their attitude. If he had settled in one spot and put in apple orchards, he could have been a wealthy apple producer. But he bought a piece of land on credit, planted apple seeds, started an orchard, and once he saw it was growing good, moved on and did it again. Eventually the land would go back and be sold to somebody, already with apple trees on the land. He didn't have what it took to stay in one place. He may have compared himself to the wind more than once. Goes where the wind blows. The wind gradually blew him west into Ohio. He saw himself something of an evangelist of Swedenborg in the time when evangelists were everywhere converting people on the western edge of expansion across the mountains at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Perhaps a reason he is so well known in our time, anyway known as a name, as a legend, the only way he's ever been known, just another Joe, not a billionaire, not a big landowner, not a general, not anything but a wandering guy who followed his own spirit. He had a gentle nature, and gave away whatever money he might earn soon after he earned it. I've wondered if he might have been a mystic such as William Blake, one who didn't write anything to be famous for, or do anything big and grand. He just walked about barefoot. There were quite a lot of people on the frontier. Many of them fed him and sometimes gave him shelter in severely foul weather. Probably about everyone who knew him liked him. He probably had the open nature of someone just slightly "retarded" that is friendly, not littered with guilts, no aggression, no seething anger, and possibly fun to be around. He quoted scripture, the beatitudes, big sections of scripture, and introduced people to Swedenborg everywhere he went. A lover of God is what he was. It's said that he never preached. Only quoted scripture.
He wasn't spreading religion, but God's word as in the Bible and in the words of Swedenborg, who is known for saying that Jesus was not the son of God, but God himself, which is how I see it and didn't know Swedenborg did too. Just reading about Johnny Appleseed has got me wanting to check out Swedenborg and see what he had to say. My friend Carole went to a Swedenborgian group when she lived in Roanoke and told me Johnny Appleseed figures in the history of Swedenborg in the USA. There's something it took me a long damn time to learn, that there are an awful lot of really wonderful people in this world. They're everywhere. They're not all on the banks of the Ganges in India, nor are they all refugees from Tibet, nor yoga instructors, nor CEOs, nor rich and famous. They're just folks around us living their lives.
Before I came to the mountains I had believed the truly extraordinary people are the well known people, people who wrote books, people biographies were about. After several years living in the mountains, I've learned, and I think have really learned, not just wishing I could and convincing myself I did, but it's clear to me now that the very most extraordinary people are within reach. It's just up to me to recognize them if I want to find them. In Johnny Appleseed's time he seems to have been known as a friendly, generous, a little bit off his rocker kind of guy. He's remembered today for his spontaneous evangelism, spreading seeds of the gospel that became synonymous with sowing appleseeds. Perhaps a man without guile. He seems to have been something of a blessing to people who knew him. His life reads like he was in the spirit all the time. Like somebody with a banjo on his back loving the chance to make some music for people that want to hear him play, kids, hobos, anybody. Johnny Appleseed's banjo was Swedenborg's spiritual philosophy and his music was the spirit of God. I'm glad I was curious enough about him to read the book after hearing Howard Means talk on the Diane Rehm show on NPR. The man has done some serious research.