What Are We Doing to the Earth, John Chapman?

John Chapman (1774–1845) is familiar to most grade school students in the United States as Johnny Appleseed, the man who planted apple seeds. The irony is that John Chapman might have been sorely disappointed with this epitaph. John Chapman established nurseries of apple trees in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and as far west as Indiana, but these orchards were not his true raison d’etre. Selling apple trees for his livelihood gave him the possibility of travel where and when he wanted—and the freedom to practice and spread his religion of choice.

 John followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish mystic, scientist, and theologian who influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe and was praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Swedenborg believed we live in both the world of spirit and the material world, but that our eyes are often closed to the former. He was a Christian who formed a new religious movement, the Swedenborgian denomination, to advance the idea that God revealed himself in the world, in the earth, in all sentient life. Based on his own significant mystical experiences, he wrote that love is the “basic unit of reality.” He seemed determined to show people that there is more than what they see with their eyes and hear with their ears: There is a mystical world that everyone has access to.

Apple Bloom at Old Frog Pond Farm in 2017

Apple Bloom at Old Frog Pond Farm in 2017

John Chapman certainly seemed to want to have, or perhaps did have, his own mystical experiences—we will never know. But he did he carry the words of Swedenborg across the American frontier. Visiting homesteads, he would pull out his Bible and read passages with an ardor that calls to mind the approach of television evangelists today. Sometimes he would tear out a few pages and leave them, only to exchange them for new ones the next time he passed through. He was a vegetarian, wore no leather, and would never even cut down a tree.

Of course, on these journeys, he always had apple trees to sell. Fruit trees, often a requirement for anyone wanting to establish a land claim, provided the fruit to make applejack—hard cider—the drink of choice for the settlers at all three meals. From apple cider, settlers could make apple cider vinegar, a cleaning agent, as well as a preservative and medicinal drink. Even if the apples Chapman’s seedling produced were bitter and hard, ‘spitters’ I’ve heard them called, it didn’t matter, for they all mixed well in the grinder. 

Chapman would travel into a new territory ahead of the homesteaders and establish a small nursery with seeds he picked up annually from a cider mill in Pennsylvania. He chose a protected spot near a river or stream, secured it with brambles, and traveled on. The following year he would return, dig up his one-year-old seedlings. Apple seedlings with the right conditions can grow five feet or more in a year.   

My friend, Eric Schultz, who generously let me read his chapter on John Chapman in his book, Nation of Entrepreneurs, to be published by Greenleaf Publishing this fall wrote, “John Chapman was the oddest of evangelists, bringing gifts of heaven and alcohol in equal parts to the American frontier and running a business model that supported both.” There are not many followers of the Swedenborg religion today, but Chapman’s apples spread far and wide, and are certainly part of the proliferation of varieties of apples we now grow not only in America but all over the world.  It’s interesting how one’s passion does not always create one’s legacy.

I think about John Chapman when I read that we have experienced the five warmest years in history. We will soon be planting Southern apples here in New England, for in not too many years, our older heirloom varieties will not have enough chill hours to produce buds. Much of this heating up of the earth is because of our selfishness and blindness to the interconnection of everything we do, build, use, and desire. Chapman was a minimalist, even during a time when there was not much to spare. His potato sack shirt had armholes cut for sleeves and probably did little to protect him from the elements, but apparently, he never complained. What would we think if we saw this man walking along our streets, barefoot with “horny” toes, wearing a tin can cap, bearded and hairy?  We appreciate true iconoclasts often only after the person has died.

I came upon an interesting post, A Theology of Wild Apples, in the blog, American Orchard, Historical perspectives on food, farming and landscape.

 Yet well-off travelers in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century frequently cast harsh moral judgments on the subsistence-minded farmer and his wild, disorderly orchards. And by the 1820s, many moralists found another reason to condemn the seedling orchard: most of its apples were destined to be converted to demon alcohol. Temperance societies called for the destruction of wild apple trees as an essential step toward sobering up the nation.

Chapman, born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts, died in 1854 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fortunately, a few decades later, his younger compatriot, Henry David Thoreau, born in Concord in 1887, celebrated wilderness, wildness, and, thank goodness, wild apple trees, writing the long essay, Wild Apples, in celebration of them. There is room for both: the domesticated apple and the wild apple.

Which brings me to our orchard of ordered rows. Last Monday, we finished winter pruning, and now the twisting rhythms of branches play the ground between the trees. We pruned on those days of coldest cold stamping our feet to keep warm, and finished last Monday, a 50 degree day with honey bees out flying. Here’s to a bountiful year of apples, those planted by crow and deer, and the straight rows of nursery stock.

Pruned Row February, 2019

Pruned Row February, 2019

And to you, John Chapman, thank you! May we be inspired by your life to care more deeply for every apple, and to appreciate the miracle of every seed.

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Geese, Herons, Beavers, and the Baby Steps of a Lapsed Blogger

For those who have been faithful followers of my blog, who have worried, and asked, “Is everything all right?” My reply is a hearty, “Yes!”.  It’s simply been a busy spring. So much has happened that I don’t know where to begin. Thus, baby steps.

Scultpure. LH

Scultpure. LH

I watch the geese. We have, I think, eight families, but they often mix together and it is hard to tell who belongs to whom. They are eating machines and when I listen closely I hear their beaks snap as they grab grass, insects, and whatever else they are snacking on. They are also poop machines and walking around the farm requires attention to the ground before you step.

geese and tyvek studio.jpg

The geese love being here because of the pond. They need a body of water for protection. The hissing and tongue-sticking-out behavior of the defensive adults seems bravado distraction to give the goslings time to scurry into the pond.

The young herons are also a treat to watch.

Two Herons, Watercolor, LH

Two Herons, Watercolor, LH

One caught a frog in the mixed fruit orchard by the house. Another has been fascinated by something in the chicken coop. Then she or he walked across the street into the orchard and meandered down a row of apple trees. It is most unusual behavior for a heron. These young birds haven’t learned to fear humans or their domains; innate curiosity lures them close. This morning one came walking up the driveway;  I half expected a knock at the front door. Older herons have their reserved spots around the pond — one stands near the willows, another across the pond, and a third on the far side of the dam. This heron pays no attention to the medley of black, Northern water snakes that congregate on the warm rocks. I look down when I walk around the pond; sometimes the snakes prefer to hide in the long grass.

When I look up, I see my studio. There is no siding on the outside walls, only plastic Tyvek wrap like a Christo art installation. Inside, however, I am working and enjoying the new light-filled space immensely. We don’t have a CSA at the farm this year, and we don’t have any full time workers – which means I try to make time each week for art.

New Studio (difficult to photograph)

New Studio (difficult to photograph)

So far it has been working and I’ve installed new work in four outdoor exhibits this spring.

Just Sitting, Installation at the Fuller Museum, Brockton, MA

Just Sitting, Installation at the Fuller Museum, Brockton, MA

I also try to spend a little time at the end of the day sitting in a chair with the windows wide open looking over the pond. One evening I saw something swimming, making what looked like figure eight circles on the far side. This went on for quite a while until I decided I would go up to the house to get some binoculars, risking of course, the creature’s disappearance.

When I returned to the studio and held the binoculars up to my eyes, I saw that there were two beavers, not one, swimming together.  One swam ahead while the other approached, then slid up over them, then swam off, and circled round. In silence the beavers came together again, then separated; joined and parted. Beavers making love in the pond!  A few more times and they disappeared. Now I keep binoculars by my window seat. I will not use these to make another scutlpure!

Bonkers, a Revolutionary Apple

The origin of the word “Bonkers” is British, and refers to being mad or crazy, as in “the crowd went bonkers when the Beatles first appeared on stage.” As a word, it’s alive and fun to say, with the opening bon(g), almost like a deep bell, then the hard ‘k,’ leading to the ‘ssss’ finale. But the best part is that it’s a great apple. My Bonkers apples are bright red, hard, large, and unusually clean, meaning in apple lingo, blemish free. It’s a juicy apple, and while I can’t say I’m struck by its particular subtlety — lemony, or cinnamony woodsy or musky — I do really enjoy it. There’s a thwack sound when you bite it — sharp, clear, and crisp.

I first heard mention of the Bonkers apple at a round table discussion on apples, the twenty-four-hour meeting I attend every year with a group of iconoclast holistic apple growers. Michael Phillips, the organizer and author of the book, The Holistic Apple Grower, said how much he liked the Bonkers apple. I loved the name, so that’s all it took; a few words touting its merits, and I was sold.  

Bonkers apple on June 2, 2017, twice the size of the Stayman in the background. (and all other apples).  It's covered with white clay to protect it from the plum curculio beetle.

Bonkers apple on June 2, 2017, twice the size of the Stayman in the background. (and all other apples).  It's covered with white clay to protect it from the plum curculio beetle.

I ordered my Bonkers from Cummins Nursery, a small family nursery in Ithaca, New York. It was one among the many dwarf apples I bought for our wall of espaliered trees. Once it fruited, I started recommending it to other apple growing friends. They came back saying they couldn’t find it; the commercial nurseries had never even heard of it. It turns out there is good reason. Cornell’s apple breeding program named it NY73334-35 about fifteen years ago, and sent it around to a few nurseries for testing. Cummins was one of the nurseries that got it and grew it, and they in turn sent a free tree to Michael Phillips, who grew it and liked it, and decided to sell it to his customers. Michael told me that he would go out with his daughter, Gracie, to pick the first fruit, calling it NY followed by a long string of numbers. I can imagine their pleasure making up numbers, saying whatever came to mind, NY63587 or NY7575755, enjoying a certain silliness as father and daughter went out to pick fruit.  

Cornell never did release the apple; and thus it never became an official variety. However, when Michael decided to sell these apples, he needed a real name:

I polled customers and someone suggested Yonkers for the New York connection. I shifted that to Bonkers, in part because these fruit develop parthenocarpically, and so there can be some irregularly shaped fruit. But mostly because it sounded fun.

Are you wondering about the word, ‘parthenocarpically’? I had to look it up, and learned that it’s like bananas and pineapples, when the fruit grows but doesn’t need a seed. I also asked Michael. He told me:

That whole partheno business is akin to seedless watermelons. Fruit can grow without the ovule-pollen connection. It’s absolutely bonkers that this apple does this! Not every flower becomes an apple. And this also explains the irregularly shaped fruit that sometimes I find.

Bonkers is a cross between Liberty, a tasty modern disease-resistant apple, and Red Delicious, the apple that is so often snubbed today. When our customers tell me that they don’t like Red Delicious, I explain that Red Delicious apples picked right from the tree are nothing like the insipid Red Delicious apples sold at most grocery stores. Ours are crunchy, and not too sweet, with a little lime flavor that I like in an apple. There is a reason that the Red Delicious apple was named, Delicious, and that it was the best-selling apple worldwide for decades. In India, the third largest grower of apples in the world, it’s still the number one apple.

So while production in the United States has dropped considerably, that artful dodger, the Red Delicious apple, is alive and well in its newest guise as Bonkers. It’s an underground revolutionary, making its way slowly throughout New England, from one apple grower to another. If you want to be part of this Bonkers movement, plant a Bonkers apple. And if you can’t find one, let me know. I will graft a few Bonkers apples with scion wood from one of our Bonkers apple trees. However, you’ll have to wait a few years, however, to taste this rebellious fruit.

This spring's apple grafts on M7 rootstocks waiting to go into the orchard.

This spring's apple grafts on M7 rootstocks waiting to go into the orchard.