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.


There are Mushrooms and There are Morels

I’d heard people talk excitedly about hunting ‘morels,’ but never shared that experience. The only mushrooms I gather and eat are the shiitake we grow on logs here at the farm. When Holly, one of our farm workers, approached me in the orchard, and said, “What are those mushrooms under the trees?” I immediately went over to look.

Holly had been straightening out the irrigation drip lines, pulling them close to the trunks in the tree rows, so that when we mow they won’t get snagged. I had been weeding around young trees, putting cardboard down to suppress the weeds, and covering the cardboard with bark mulch. I followed Holly down one of the rows as she looked for a mushroom to show me. “Morels,” I said, instinctively, peering under the canopy of a large tree. I recognized the morels without really knowing I was familiar with them.

When I returned to the house I looked up morels, just to be sure. One photograph was all that was required. Sure enough, morels love growing under old apple trees. Morels have a distinctive shape, eerily similar to brain coral in surface, with elfin-like rounded turrets that poke up out of the ground, leaning this way and that.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Morels particularly like apple trees, poplar, and elm, but can be found just about anywhere. The challenge is to spot them. Sometimes you have to walk by a site several times, but once you notice one, you will usually see many more. Morels like days of sixty degrees and nights of forty degrees, and, of course, moisture — just the conditions we’ve had all spring. So perhaps we have had morels before, but so few that I didn’t notice. This is a bumper year for morels, they are calling out to be harvested. Otherwise, the mushrooms will dry up in a few days, resembling dark rice paper that will melt back into the ground. It did occur to me that I probably shouldn't be writing this blog—morel seekers guard their favorite gathering locations with religious fervor!

When I decided to collect the morels, I read about the best way to harvest them. Some aficionados claim that you should cut them just at ground level; others, that pulling with just a slight tug releases the mushroom with a little knob covered in dirt. The ones who favor cutting say that plucking may damage the mycelia threads and reduce future harvests. I decided to try both techniques. I went back to the orchard with a basket and pocket knife. Pulling them seemed so easy, as if they simply released willingly into your hand. It didn’t feel like I was doing any damage. Cutting them off is neat and clean, but left a hole in the hollow stem open to the air. After trying both approaches, I found myself preferring the pluck method, and harvested enough for lunch.

Blase and the day’s workers, Kevin, Mike, and Holly, were already in the kitchen. I sliced up the morels and added a few shiitake. In a heavy frying pan, I poured a little olive oil and a generous tad of butter. When the pan was hot and the butter melted, in went the mushrooms. While they were cooking, I added a little salt, a little rice bran oil with a very small amount of shoyu, and balsamic vinegar. We shared the exquisite, rich taste. I couldn’t imagine they would ever taste this good again. Two days later, my daughter, Ariel, and I went hunting, and brought home another basket full.  I cooked them again, and they were scrumptious.

Morels with a couple of small shiitake.

Morels with a couple of small shiitake.

Food is Primary Care

Sometimes I will buy a big peach, a bright red tomato, or even an apple only to be disappointed when I bite into a mealy peach, a watery tomato, and a tasteless apple.  I don’t like to throw out food, so I often eat it anyway. But sometimes, it’s just so bad that I guiltily toss the entire beautiful glob into the compost pile, burying it under some faded tulips or tough cabbage leaves.

Nutritionists say that we’re not getting the nutrients our bodies need from our food.  Considering the obesity epidemic and the debilitating diseases in America, it’s hard not to agree. Soil health, crop health, and human health are interrelated. Since the 1950s, however, crop yield has gone up, but nutritional value has gone down.  The great monocultures of agricultural production have focused on yield, pest resistance, appearance, and shelf life; not taste or nutrition.

Many of our food systems provide food that is low on both flavor and nutrition — for example, food served in hospitals to those who are ill, people who need healthy food. Turkey with corn might sound appealing when ticked off the menu, but when it arrives the next day, it’s a different story. Pre-frozen turkey rounds and corn niblets grown with chemical pesticides and herbicides, not to mention jiggles of artificially dyed red and orange Jello for dessert, is neither appealing nor nutritious.

The good news is that Marydale Debor, founder of the organization Fresh Advantage (their wonderful tagline is Food is Primary Care), works to put fresh and nutritious food back into hospitals, schools, and other institutions. It’s not easy – the old guard must be removed and new chefs who want to buy and cook with local ingredients need to be hired. Debor knows that buying food from a small local farm is the best way to get tasty and nutritious food.

A healthy diet contains a diversity of foods, but how to encourage diverse and nourishing meals when much of our food no longer has taste — especially when junk food has so much flavor? I heard a presentation by Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor. He explained that not only have our foods lost their flavor, but food is now separate from taste. He gave the example of the Frito-Lay Company that makes Dorito chips. In that product, for the first time, taste was manufactured; and flavor was added separately such that taste had no relation to the product’s food ingredients.  Frito-Lay, Inc. (a subsidiary of PepsiCo) perfected the taste of their chip to be appealing to a wide group of people. This original manufactured taste opened the door to all kinds of manufactured food, in particular, the enormous category of junk food.

Humans can have associations with food taste from childhood like the sweetness of mother’s milk. If a manufactured food is high is corn fructose, it will satisfy this associative sugar craving, but, and here’s the catch, it will not satisfy the belly’s nutritive need because it’s only flavor. We don’t stop eating, because the craving doesn’t go away. We are caught like Tantalus reaching for the apples that are forever out of reach.

I love potato chips and eat more than I like to admit. But if that peach I had grabbed was warm, sweet, and juicy, or there was a basket of cherry tomatoes on the kitchen counter, I would eat a bellyful, be sated, and nutritionally fed. Healthy food needs to be the norm for people everywhere. Everyone should have access to nourishing and delicious food at a price that is affordable.

A Late Harvest of Cherry Tomatoes from Old Frog Pond Farm

A Late Harvest of Cherry Tomatoes from Old Frog Pond Farm

Some people believe that our bodies can sense food grown with love and compassion; it feeds the spirit as well as the body, and sadly the opposite is also true.  Food made by an angry cook can make a food unappealing or even repellent. ‘Food is primary care’ — and real food inspires wonderful poetry!

Ode to The Tomato

by Pablo Neruda

The street
filled with tomatoes,
light is
its juice
through the streets.
In December,
the tomato
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
we must murder it:
the knife
into living flesh,
a cool
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
its flag,
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
at the door,
it's time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.


Pomme de Terre

To peel a boiled potato is a rare treat.                                  —François Ponge

Pomme de terre in French means apple of the earth. Like apples, les pommes de terre have been on the planet for thousands of years and have been cultivated on all every continent except Antarctica. They sprout easily from the tuber itself: a rarity among plants, unlike a seed that is often surrounded by fleshy material or a hard pit.

A forgotten bag of potatoes!

A forgotten bag of potatoes!

The potato had its start in the soil of South America between 8000 and 5000 BCE. Today in the Andes about four hundred varieties of potatoes are grown. A single farmer in Peru might plant thirty to fifty different potatoes. Some of these potatoes she knows are resistant to drought or disease, others keep longer once they are dug, some crop early, some late. Peruvian potatoes, like heirloom apples, have many-shapes: round, oblong, conical, to name only a few, with hues of red, brown, yellow, purple, and blue that are marbled, speckled, streaked, striped, and mottled. Twenty-five or so varieties are sold in supermarkets and it seems that Peruvian shoppers are familiar with each potato’s unique characteristic.

Near Cuzco, Peru, six thousand families live in the world's first "Potato Park." Here residents and scientists test the tolerance of different potatoes to changing temperatures in a 22,700 acre living laboratory. Climate change has affected potato growing in Peru as it has crops across the globe. Potatoes that grew at 3000 feet now must be grown closer to 4000 feet because of the rise in average temperatures at these altitudes. And in low altitudes, it is now too warm to plant them.  I am worried about our unseasonably warm local temperatures taking our fruit trees out of dormancy too early.

In his book, Potato: a history of the propitious esculent, John Reader writes that Juan, a Peruvian potato grower, told him that it had been a bad year for potatoes because an early frost had harmed the young plants. But his crop did all right. He had some plants that were frost tolerant, “and also tall enough to lean over and protect their weaker brothers.”

Farmers learn from their plants; being a farmer is being a nurturer. Humans need to eat, and if we are going to eat, we need to be kind to our crops. Today, so many people exchange money for food that we have moved far away from the mentality of being a nurturer towards plants. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and we don’t have to cultivate money with any sort of empathy. Is it any wonder that we have President Trump in the White House? His product, wealth, requires little compassion to grow, only aggressive boasting to propagate the Trump brand.

There is pressure on the Andean farmers to sell their land for profit. But it is organizations like the International Potato Center partnering with the “Potato Park” to support the Andean farmers so that their native knowledge will not be lost. Trialing the adaptive properties of hundreds of potatoes will hopefully insure that their children will eat food grown in the Andean soil, food will sustain them and their culture, as it has for millennia.  

The French poet, Francis Ponge, wrote prose poems about single objects like the potato.  Let’s not forget in these days of too much bad news to marvel at the simple potato.

La Pomme de Terre

To peel a boiled potato is a rare treat.

           Between the cushion and the thumb and the point of the knife held by the other fingers, one seizes — after piercing— one of those lips of rough, thin parchment and pulls it towards one to detach it from the appetizing flesh of the tuber. […]
          —François Ponge, in Selected Poems, edited and translated by Margaret Guiton

There are some potatoes with such papery thin skin that there is no need to peel away the parchment. And some are too beautiful to eat.

Freshly Dug Love!

Freshly Dug Love!