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.


"What's in a Name?"

Granny Smith, Bramley’s Seedling, and the picaresque Bloody Ploughman are names of apples with unique histories, but I, too, have had my own journey with names. I was born Linda Bess Weiner. When I was a child I disliked my middle name; it seemed too old fashioned. I got the sense from my mother that she really didn’t like it either. The name came from my father’s mother, an overbearing woman. I imagine that my mother must have felt pressured to do what her mother-in-law wanted and thus named me after my great-grandmother. When I was about ten, my mother said I could change it, and we decided together it would be Elizabeth. The initials, LEW, had a nice ring to them, and she gave me a necklace with those letters. We didn’t say anything to my grandmother. However, it never rolled off my tongue without a hiccup of some kind, a hemming and hawing, an exclamation that it wasn’t my real middle name. And then of course the question followed: “What is my middle name?”

After a few years, I simply dropped having a middle name. I was Linda Weiner. It wasn’t a last name that I particularly liked either. There was just too much childhood teasing —  Oscar Meyer Weiner hotdogs and worse. Why couldn’t I have a normal last name? I especially felt this frustration given that my family had now moved from the working class refinery town of Chester, Pennsylvania, to Wynnewood, one of the towns of Philadelphia’s prominent Main Line. My schoolmates attended dances at the nearby Merion Cricket Club, but Jews were not allowed. We got along well enough at school, but clearly there were differences. My name gave away my legacy.

The English apple, Bloody Ploughman, was named after a ploughman who was shot by a local gamekeeper for stealing apples. And the popular, Granny Smith, was named after an Australian woman, Maria Smith, who rescued an apple growing in her compost heap. The Bramley, another English apple, was named for a Mr. Bramley who bought a house from Mary Ann Brailsford  where she had planted a seedling which grew astonishingly good cooking apples. Bramley allowed a local nursery to propagate it on the condition that it would be named after him. I might have avoided planting this apple if I’d known its patriarchal history.

A group of new apples sport the name, ‘Crisp,’ including Honey Crisp, Golden Crisp, and Cosmic Crisp. The “crisp” in the name indicates that these apples have been bred to be particularly crispy, something the early 21st century public desires. One of my favorite new apples is Bonkers, a cross between a Delicious and a Liberty produced by Cornell University's apple breeding program in Geneva, New York. Bonkers is large, extremely crispy and juicy, and very red; and it is scab free, important for our organic orchard. The name, Bonkers, also has some kick, especially compared to other new scab-free apples like Pristine, Liberty, and Freedom.

When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to live with Paul Matisse, the father of my three children, I told him that I didn’t particularly like my last name. How could I like ‘Weiner’ when I was living with a ‘Matisse,’ one of the most illustrious names in 20th century art? Paul said, “Why don’t you change it?”  I immediately thought of the traditional Japanese poets who often took pen names. The Japanese haiku poet, Basho, over his lifetime published poems using three different names. Basho was the last one he adopted after his disciples built him a little hut and planted a basho, a banana tree, in front of it.

The idea appealed to me and I thought of a poetic name like River, a name taken from the natural world. Paul was quick to say, “No.” I think he imagined Linda River was too close to Joan Rivers or some Hollywood star’s stage name. “It should be a normal name,” he said, and he pulled out the Manhattan phone book, opened it at random to the H’s, and found Hoffman. So I took up Hoffman, and went to the Cambridge courthouse and officially changed my name. It was a sort of declaration that I no longer belonged to my family of origin. I was starting out fresh, a new person with Paul; I was a person without a family history. 

When, twenty years later, I moved to a rundown farm with a large pond in Harvard, Massachusetts, I decided that I wanted to give this new home a name. I was a small frog leaping into a big pond, not knowing what was waiting for me under the water. I named the farm, Old Frog Pond Farm, after Basho’s haiku.

Old Pond

            Frog Jumps

Splash of Water

It felt right to name the farm after a Japanese poem. It connected me to the time when I was living alone in Japan — young, inexperienced, and passionate about the Noh Theater.

Trying on a silk kimono with my Noh teacher, Takabayashi Koji Sensei.

Trying on a silk kimono with my Noh teacher, Takabayashi Koji Sensei.

Naming the farm after Basho’s poem was the beginning of finding a true name, a place where I was grounded in the reality of the soil, physical work, and natural beauty. As I found firm ground beneath my feet, my old names no longer mattered.

Unlike us, an apple likely has no consciousness of its name; it simply grows, producing blossoms, leaves, and fruit regardless of what we call it. But the name can change our perception of an apple and create its market appeal. In a similar way, our own names can make a difference. Some names roll off the tongue easily, others are poetic, or connect us to a much-loved family member. Many people at midlife go back to their full birth name, and discard their childhood nickname, capturing a new identity in doing so. In 2010, I formally took Buddhist vows, and my teacher gave me the Buddhist name, Shinji. Shin means truth and ji means soil or earth. Truth in the soil. One’s Buddhist name is meant to be a teaching, something to aspire towards. I like when I am called Shinji by my Buddhist sangha and friends, and I am perfectly happy being called, Linda, or Mama, or Babe, the name my husband, Blase, uses, or Ama, the name my granddaughter uses.

We have a few seedling apples in the field near the Medicine Wheel with no names. These started growing from pips in the pumice we dumped from our apple pressing two years ago. If they continue to grow, they will each produce a unique variety of apple. Most likely the apples will be small and bitter, but you never know, one of them could be sweet and crisp, or be a great cooking apple like the Bramley seedling. And what would I name it? The Shinji apple has a nice ring, but I think the first seedling apple we grow will be named for my first granddaughter, the Vita Apple, the apple of my eye!

The Myths of History

I’ve been reading the book, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. The author’s broad lens, an overview of our species from early man to the present time, is helpful as my focus has been so closely fixed on the daily headlines. Our brothers and sisters, members of our same genus, Homo, like Neanderthal man, Homo erectus, Homo soloensis, Homo floresiensis, among others, lived on this planet for millions of years. Then, Homo sapiens (Wise Man so we defined ourselves) evolved in West Africa, and spread throughout the Asian landmass, and all of the other members of our genus disappeared. Theories abound and no one really knows whether we were responsible. However, we do know a little about early sapien ways.

Ancient Turtle, Sculpture, LH

Ancient Turtle, Sculpture, LH

Homo sapiens, not content to stay in any one place, forged ahead. The first place we colonized was Australia, quite an undertaking considering the distance over land and water, but Homo sapiens did what we had been evolving to do. We stepped onto the landmass of what we call Australia where there were no other human beings, and changed it forever. Sapiens encountered great animals like 450 pound kangaroos, giant koala bears, and dragon size lizards. However, within a few short millennia, twenty-three of the twenty-four mammals weighing over one hundred pounds went extinct. Large animals have only one or two offspring and the gestation period is long. If the animal’s young are killed, even as few as one every month or so, in a few thousand years, they die out. As hunter and gatherers, we were not necessarily aware of the changes we were causing, but science points to the irreversible transformations we triggered.

Homo sapiens evolved extremely quickly. Unlike Homo erectus, for example, who used stone tools and remained essentially the same for two million years —  Homo sapiens wielded the hoe, the pen, and the brush, becoming farmers, and then, artists, politicians, scholars, scientists, and philosophers in a relatively short time. We developed a sophisticated language. Language, the big differential between us and other species, is how we shape our world. With language we decide collectively what to believe in, and how we envision the future. Harari makes the case that so much of our culture is myth anyway — it’s what we collectively believe. Sapiens became powerful because we learned how to collectively believe in myths—the myth of our economic system, the myth that there are countries with borders, the myths of religion. There is no scientific basis for any of these. From an historical perspective, you could say that religions developed and became dominant in a particular area for no more reason than a particular butterfly has blue wings. Perhaps we need to start dismantling some of our myths — especially the ones that separate instead of seek our commonality.

The assumption is that we have evolved from our wild and wooly ways, and developed and believe in sophisticated ideologies that we hold to be true and enable us to live peacefully and cooperatively with each other. But we don’t live peacefully or cooperatively with other sapiens or other creatures on the planet and we haven’t for many years. It’s almost as if our shadow side is finally coming forth and demanding to be seen and heard. It’s not this one election — nothing arises without a cause. On our planet millions of acres of forests are gone, our topsoil is disappearing at alarming rates, our biodiversity is shriveling, and climate change is going to make large areas inhabitable because of high water and high temperatures.  Greed, intolerance, and ignorance have all played their role.

This week I’ve been pruning the apple orchard with Denis Wagner who first taught me to prune the trees over a decade ago. We prune in silence until one of us asks about a certain branch. Sometimes we both stand back and gaze up into the crown of the tree wondering if there are some branches that need to be pruned out to encourage growth. We confer amiably and respectfully. We both know that there are multiple choices, and no one knows exactly what is best, but each cut changes the course of the growth of the tree. In the orchard it’s easy; we both want the best for the tree.

Does this analogy translate to the world? Not easily. Denis and I usually agree, and it takes very little for either of us to back down and harmonize with the other. But it does make me think that we need to talk, we need to stop building walls, stop filibustering, and stop being right. History has proved that unless we live compassionately and empathetically, we all suffer.

Apple Pressing, LH, 2016, Collection: Madeleine Lord

Apple Pressing, LH, 2016, Collection: Madeleine Lord

Hunters and gatherers related to their world with an early form of religion, what today we call animism. Animists believe that humans and animals can communicate — that we can and do have relationships not only with animals, but with trees, and even rocks. We share the world with these other creatures, both animate and inanimate. As we developed, we seemed to have forgotten that relationships are important. We have been focused on the power and the rights of the individual. Perhaps it’s time to throw out this notion of the sacrosanct individual, the one who signs executive orders at 4:42 pm on a Friday afternoon and changes the lives of thousands of people. But that means each of us, too, must loosen our own hold on our individual identity and join the fray – the messiness of living with all of our brothers and sisters, animate and inanimate, no matter what they do or do not believe in. 

Above all, we must enter the dialogue, speak up, loudly, and compassionately. We need to tell new stories that inspire and shed light on our earth, our home, our commonness. We are all Homo sapiens. We all have a beating heart.

Family Photo: My son, Alex, and his Dada, 1988

Family Photo: My son, Alex, and his Dada, 1988

Desiring the Almata Apple

Malus in Latin means apple, as well as evil. No wonder the apple embodies both good and bad, purity and eroticism.

When I moved to Old Frog Pond Farm, I found many rows of Red Delicious apples growing in the orchard. The flavor of Red Delicious is quite boring as apples go, so I decided I would change them over to another variety. To do this, you need scion wood — the term for the small twigs of first-year growth that are used to graft onto a trunk, branch or rootstock.

I went to a scion wood exchange and grabbed a twig of the Almata apple along with several other varieties that were spread across an old pool table. Not knowing anything about its characteristics, I chose Almata because it was named after one of the largest cities in Kazakhstan, Almaty which translates as “full of apples”.  Almaty is near the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains, the forests that are the birthplace of our domesticated apple. Today, apples, pears, plums, and cherries still grow in the wild in these forests and are sold in the markets of Almaty.  

Scion wood in Red Delicious Trunk

Scion wood in Red Delicious Trunk

I took my scion wood home and grafted a Red Delicious tree with the Almata twig. Three years later, when this tree developed its first flower buds, I was surprised. Apple blossom buds are usually enrobed in a pink sheath, which then open to pale white flower petals. The Almata buds weren’t pink, but dark red, like the scarlet letter adorning Hester Prynne’s chest in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. Four days later, when the orchard was a cloud of white petals, this tree’s blossoms opened to a lovely pink. When the leaves came in, they were not green but a bronzy color similar to some crab apples. After pollination, its dime-sized apples were dark red, not green, like every other apple in the orchard. 

Reddish Leaves on the Almata

Reddish Leaves on the Almata

All summer long I kept my eye on this tree. Friends walking with me through the orchard would remark, “What’s that?” pointing to the Almata. It was easy to see that this tree was marked. The apples were quite small, but perfectly formed and deep red. In mid-August, I stopped by the Almata to taste one of its fruits. My large bite of apple exposed deep plum-colored flesh. It was crazy and wonderful, and all wrong. It didn’t look like an apple at all, but more like a ravishing purple plum. It was hard and sour, not yet ripe.

Charmed, I hurried back to the house to share my discovery with my family. I looked up Almata and learned that this red-fleshed apple was developed by Dr. Nels Hansen at the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station. Dr. Hansen was inspired to breed a red-fleshed eating apple after seeing a red-fleshed wild apple on an 1897 trip to Russia. The Almata is the cross he made between a Russian apple, the Beautiful Arcade and Fluke 38, a crabapple.

Almata Fruit

Almata Fruit

Even though our Almatas were not quite ripe, I decided to use a few of them in an apple galette. The red Almata wove lovely red ribbons through the white apples of the dessert; it held its color even when cooked. I made a Russian apple cake next and was again delighted by the red slices of the Almata flowing through the cake.

Even when fully ripe, the Almata’s taste was still sharp. But biting through its deep red skin and into the ruby-colored flesh, the sensual appeal was greater than biting into any white-fleshed apple.

Although some people say that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually a pomegranate, I disagree. I can imagine the serpent winding around a branch, tempting Eve with a ripe, red-fleshed apple. How could she have refused? Would you have resisted? 

If you come for an orchard visit I'll show you the tree. But be prepared; there just might be a snake!

Detail from Apple Ladder: Sculpture LH (She's actually offering an apple to the snake)

Detail from Apple Ladder: Sculpture LH (She's actually offering an apple to the snake)