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.


Long Shadows

Dear Blog Readers,

Happy New Year!

The last blog I wrote was before I left for a Buddhist pilgrimage to India in early October. When people ask how was the journey, I usually begin to talk about painting. Uncharacteristically, I journaled throughout the trip not with words, but with small watercolor paintings of important sites and experiences. Now, as this year ends, I am turning towards words as a way to understand how I was changed by the trip and to share it with you. It’s been a curious enfolding.

  Caw caw caw crows shriek in the white sun over grave stones . . .                                                                       —Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish

When I was a young child, a large Arborvitae grew outside our small row house in Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial city with streets of row houses and screen doors that banged. We were among the few Jewish families, and we drove to Center City Philadelphia to celebrate holy days in the city’s oldest synagogue, Rodeph Shalom. The recitation of the Kaddish was my favorite part of the service because the grownups rose while the children remained seated, and the endless rhythmic chanting of V-im-ru ah-mein in the mourner’s prayer made me feel I belonged to a great sadness. However, when I was fourteen, I became disillusioned with Judaism and became interested in Eastern religions, eventually taking Buddhist vows.

The pilgrimage to India was a journey to the roots of Buddhist spirituality. Our group of sixteen Zen practitioners meditated under the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment, and listened to the Abbot of our monastery give a talk on Vulture Peak where the Buddha gave many sermons to his followers 2500 years ago. We visited the sites of the Buddha’s birth and of his death, a cave where he meditated, and stupas built to honor his most faithful disciples and his mother. I painted it all.

The Bodhi Tree, India sketchbook, LH

The Bodhi Tree, India sketchbook, LH

Painting from the bus window, India sketchbook, LH

Painting from the bus window, India sketchbook, LH

On the last day of our trip, I saw the headlines, “Eleven Jews killed in the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue.” I remember thinking something like, ‘it never ends’, but my reaction was shallow.

When I returned home from India all I wanted to do was to paint. The Catalpa Tree was waiting for me outside my studio—this giant of a tree that I had been drawing and painting over the last six months.

Catalpa Tree at Old Frog Pond Farm

Catalpa Tree at Old Frog Pond Farm

Dissatisfied with my prior efforts to capture its strength, I decided to paint the energy of its massive trunks, not the outer form of the tree. I painted one painting, tacked it to the wall, and started another, sometimes going back to work on an earlier one after it had dried. Around painting number five, this great sadness welled up inside me. What was I doing? Where was it coming from?


Some of the paintings had fire and flame; not just trunk and furrowed bark. I listened closely, and from my heart rose up the words, “On October 27, 2018 eleven Jews were killed at the Tree of Life Temple in Pittsburgh.” I knew I had to paint eleven paintings to honor each person who died. Their names were familiar—Rabinowitz, Rosenthal, Stein. I come from a long line of Steins on my mother’s side.

A few weeks of seeing the paintings on my studio wall, I decided to do something to make the deaths more visible. I cut each painting across at the height to mark each person’s age at the time of the shooting. I added a new section and then restored the painting to wholeness by reattaching the cut-off section.

New Year Blog-4.jpg

The Arborvitae of my childhood, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Bodhi Tree in India, and the Catalpa outside my studio at Old Frog Pond Farm in Harvard all blended, each tree unique and yet all sharing the same roots. My journey to India connected me not only to Buddhism’s beginnings, but to my natal tribe. 

In creating art we can transcend tragedy. We can also integrate the parts of ourselves that we have kept hidden. When asked about my trip to India, I still begin with, “I painted.”

May all beings have abundant peace in the New Year.

May we always see the perfection in the other.

May we care for the earth with great love.

May we not forget those who came before us and gave us life.

            V-im-ru ah-mein (and we say, Amen.)

Note: This series of paintings will be on exhibit in the Camilla Blackman Concert Hall at Indian Hill Music in Littleton, MA beginning March 1 with a closing reception on April 26th. And if you would like to hear a transcendent instrumental piece I recommend listening to Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Kaddish. for violin and piano.


A Pilgrimage to India

Two days after the farm closes, on October 9, I leave for India.

                                                * * *

On August 30, 2017, I was at my desk when I got an email from my Zen teacher, Shugen Roshi.  He wrote,                                          

 “I hope you’re all doing well and have had a nice summer. We have a student in New Zealand, John Tosan McKinnon, who has been leading small groups on pilgrimages to significant Buddhist sites in India and Nepal for many years.”

I read on. Shugen and Tosan were planning a trip for October of 2018. Shugen was inviting members of the sangha, the community of practitioners, to participate. My heart leapt—India!  Over the years, I have planned several trips to India and Nepal, but for one reason and another, none ever materialized. I looked at the dates—October 9 to 29, 2018. I looked at the calendar for 2018, the day after Columbus Day, the day we close the farm. I could do it. I looked over at Blase who was at his desk, also answering emails.  

 I said, “You won’t believe it, there is a trip to India through Zen Mountain Monastery.”

He heard my excitement.

“Would I also go?” he asked.

I could feel his awkwardness, though he has always been supportive of my Zen practice.

“No, it is only for sangha members.”

Then I asked directly, “Would you support me to go to India on this trip?”

 “If it is really important to you,” he said.

“It is.”

Ever since I lived in Japan, I dreamt of walking one of the Buddhist pilgrimage trails. In Japan, the most famous one goes 750 miles around the island of Shikoku. Pilgrims stop at each of the eighty-eight temples to say prayers; to walk the whole circuit takes at least two months. Today, people use buses, bicycles, taxis, and often choose to visit a select number of temples or spread their visit over several years. While researching the Shikoku pilgrimage, I stumbled upon the book The Ox Herding Series, the Buddhist Stages on the Path to Enlightenment, a slender volume of ink drawings, poems, and commentary. The Ox Herding series originated in China in the 12th century, the creation of a Zen master to help his students understand the spiritual journey they were undertaking.

Using the metaphor of the ox, a most valuable possession in ancient China, the journey begins when a young man, whip and tether in hand, heads off into the mountains to find his lost ox. He can’t come home without it. It’s his family’s livelihood: the ox plows the fields, and its manure heats his home. After much searching, the young man sees ox tracks and knows he’s heading in the right direction. He continues on through the steep and winding mountain paths, and he is rewarded with the sight of it. But this moment of recognition is short-lived, for the ox quickly disappears. The young man doesn’t give up, and with single-minded perseverance he finally catches the ox with his rope. Then the struggle really begins. Pushing and pulling, he must tame the ox until they can walk together with ease. Only then are they on the way home.

IV Catching the Ox (Female version) Sculpture: LH Photo:Joe Ofria

IV Catching the Ox (Female version) Sculpture: LH Photo:Joe Ofria

I looked up the author of the ox-herding book and discovered he was John Daido Loori, Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. The monastery website featured a one-week retreat, Wilderness, Art, and Zen, a camping trip on Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks. Here was a retreat devoted to three things I loved. It certainly sounded simpler than the logistics necessary for even an abbreviated Shikoku pilgrimage. I called Zen Mountain Monastery.

 “I’m calling to sign up for the Wilderness Retreat.”

“Have you been to the monastery before?” a female voice asked.

“No, I just found the retreat listed on your website.”

“Hmm, then you haven’t attended our Introduction to Zen Training workshop?”


“Sorry,” the efficient voice replied. “You have to first attend that weekend workshop before you can go on the Wilderness Retreat. The next one is filled, but you can sign up for the July weekend.”

“I can’t do the July weekend,” I said.

“Well,” she continued, “we offer the wilderness retreat every year.”

 “Isn’t there some way I can go without doing the introductory retreat?”

“No, there isn’t.”

“Are you sure?”

Finally, the voice said, “There’s nothing I can do, but you can talk with a teacher. Call back in ten days and ask for Shugen.”

I hung up the phone and wrote Shugen a letter and included a booklet of my sculpture, A Circus Comes to Fruitlands. The sculptures represented circus acts, a Juggler, a Clown, a Tightrope Walker, all made from old agricultural tools. I wanted to do everything I could to convince him to let me go on this trip. Ten days passed and I called Zen Mountain Monastery.

 “I’d like to go on the Wilderness Retreat,” I said.

“You can’t go on the Wilderness Retreat without attending the Introduction to Zen Training,” he replied.

“Isn’t there some way?”


“Are you sure?”


I said, “I trained in the Noh Theater in Japan for two years. I know a little about Zen.”

“Zen isn’t the issue.”

I was trying to figure out what was his red flag. I thought maybe he was afraid I would want to go home halfway through the trip.

“I love the wilderness,” I said. “I’ve climbed all of the four-thousand-footers in the White Mountains, I’ve summited Mt. Rainier, climbed in the Tetons, and backpacked through Peru.”

Gathering Wood near Mollepata, Peru  Photo:LH

Gathering Wood near Mollepata, Peru Photo:LH

There was a pause. Then he quietly said, “All right.”

“Thank you!” I said.

He added, referring to my sculpture, “By the way, I like your stuff.”

I went on the retreat, eventually attended the Introduction to Zen Training, and have been practicing at Zen Mountain Monastery since 2004.

This pilgrimage to India will take us back to the roots, to where Buddhism originated. We will follow the Buddha’s life from birth, home-leaving, his wandering as an ascetic, to his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and visit places where he taught for the next forty years. As a young man, Siddhartha led an protected princely life. But once he encountered the reality of human suffering, once he saw the pain of people with severe illness, the infirmities of old age, and facing with fear their approaching death, his own life became meaningless. He no longer found any satisfaction living in the palace, even with all the wealth and power of his position, even with a lovely wife and young son. 

I imagine it was difficult for Siddhartha to leave his family; I know how difficult it is for me to leave for only three weeks! But he was determined to understand why we are put here on this earth. What is the cause of so much suffering? And can we ever be free from it?  

Every pilgrim makes a journey for their own reasons. Some to seek an answer to a question, others want to express their gratitude for the teachings or atone for wrongdoings, still others to honor a loved one. Shugen Roshi urged us to reflect on what this trip means to us personally as we prepare to connect with the Buddha, the teachings, as well as the ancestors. He has suggested readings and teachings to help us set our aspirations for the trip. 

Preparing for this trip has made me reflect back almost forty years when I first went to Japan to study Noh Theater and lived in a temple in Kyoto. In my one-tatami mat room, I listened to the monks’ deep chanting each morning and evening. I think what propelled me to go on that first ‘wilderness’ trip and gain access to the Buddha’s teachings. As I look back over the last twenty years I recognize the steep trails, the vistas that opened, and the rocky descents of my journey. I can remember meeting my first husband in Japan, my move to Old Frog Pond Farm after our divorce, the decision to bring back the old apple orchard, a new relationship with Blase, a long year of breast cancer treatments, and our marriage three years ago when my son, Nick, spoke so sweetly about Blase’s care during that challenging time. Through all of this, there has always been Art—creating the solid trail I walk on, and my Zen teachers and sangha helping me keep mind and heart centered on what really matters. 

Stone Heart  Photo:LH

Stone Heart Photo:LH

I’m excited to be traveling with Shugen Roshi, Hojin Sensei, whom I met on that first wilderness trip, and thirteen other sangha members, eight from New Zealand. I’m grateful to Blase for taking care of the farm. Sharing this event in my life with you feels like another part of the preparation. Many of you have followed my questions about how Blase and I will continue to cultivate the farm in ways that serve and grow our community, encourage the arts, while also being good stewards of the land. I will undoubtedly carry these questions with me, but unconsciously—for I will purposely let them go. John Daido Loori Roshi, author of the Ox Herding book, said we must empty the backpack we carry. We must empty our minds of all of our conditioned ideas. Otherwise, there is no room for anything new. He was referring to coming into Zen training, but really it applies to beginning everything—a painting, a pilgrimage as well as each new day.

I am grateful for so many people in my life that have helped me to be right here where I am and look forward to sharing more with you when I return. We are all connected, all living on this one fragile planet earth. Walk softly.

Follow the truth of the way.
Reflect upon it.
Make it your own.
Live it.
It will always sustain you.
from the Dhammapada tr. by Thomas Byrom


Scrap Wrenn

Artist Scrap Wrenn and her partner, Jo, arrived at the farm in time for a late dinner on Tuesday in a U-Haul truck from upstate New York. I was introduced to Scrap at Zen Mountain Monastery, where I am known by my Buddhist name, Shinji. I wrote to her shortly after our introduction,

            Hi Scrap,
We have an outdoor sculpture exhibit at the farm every fall . . . I know you are about to move into the monastery, but just thought I’d ask if you had a piece you might install here.
You can see the prior year’s work at oldfrogpondfarm.com under the tab for art.

Loved your stormy Instagram post!

Scrap posts on Instagram almost every day. Some posts become images she includes in large photographic collages of people and place—magnificent landscapes with hundreds of photographic moments in which we immerse ourselves and journey through. Scrap’s visual language is quick-moving and incantatory. It is like listening to a medieval chant where the polyphony of different voices weaves a tapestry of individual melodies as well as harmonizing together. We engage with the leaps and turnings as questions about the nature of reality and meanings seep into our consciousness. She recently installed an exhibit of these photo collages at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York. 

John Davis Gallery, Hudson, New York, (Scrap Wrenn far left)

John Davis Gallery, Hudson, New York, (Scrap Wrenn far left)

Scrap is also a sculptor. Inside the large U-haul truck were four identical heavy metal objects, fabricated initially for an installation on Randall’s Island, New York City. On Scrap’s website she explains  Awakening Asylum was designed to commemorate both the General Slocum Steamship disaster (June 15, 1904) and Randall’s Island, an “Asylum” in the past for inebriates and the mentally ill.  

The location of the sculpture commemorated the ship’s Hell Gate waterway passage where it is thought that the steamship fire likely began. Due to faulty unregulated flotation devices and poor crew response times, over a thousand people perished in the Northern East River on their way to a Lutheran picnic excursion on the sound in Queens.

Awakening Asylum  , Scrap Wrenn 

Awakening Asylum, Scrap Wrenn 

This installation has castings of flotation devices, wood beams suggestive of the old ship, and a collage in the center of the spiraling metal: it is complex and multi-layered. Scrap would be bringing to the farm only the fabricated metal now in four pieces. Sculptors often take apart old sculpture and reuse its materials. I like to re-purpose parts from sculptures in storage, drawn to pieces that I may not have finished my conversation with. Scrap had sent me photos of these four large elements early on. They made me think 'wings' or 'fins'. Though I had no idea what she would do with them, I trusted in the integrity of her artistic vision.

Scrap (left) and Jo.

Scrap (left) and Jo.

On Wednesday morning, Scrap and Jo unloaded the U-Haul, loaded Blase's pick-up, and we drove around the pond to their site. That’s where I left them—with a digging bar and shovels, on a hot day. They worked till the Japanese bells sounded for lunch. Dirty, hot, and with two ‘wings’ installed, they went back to work with Holly Ciganiewicz, one of our farmers, and completed the installation just before five o’clock, when we planned to take a swim in Bear Hill Pond.

The working title is Ground Space. These four forms, dug deep into the earth, each rise like a whale’s dorsal fin and transform the space. When you walk among them, around them, or stand in the center, a curious energy also rises and surrounds you, as if walking in a biosphere. But I won’t say anymore. You have to experience it for yourself. Scrap Wrenn is one of the thirty-seven artists whose work will be on exhibit at the farm for our annual outdoor sculpture walk.

Around the Pond and through the Woods opens on Friday, September 7 and will be open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, 11—5 pm through October 7. If those times don't work for you, we can make other arrangements for your visit. For information about the exhibit and other fall events at the farm check out our website. I’m excited to share this year’s exhibit with you.