Tuesday, May 2, 2017

American Gods: Johnny Appleseed

As you guys know, I'm a big advocate of working with local spirits. This post is the first in a series about indigenous spirits of our area. Read more of the American Gods project here. Today, I'm going to "introduce" you to one of my most beloved local spirits of our region, like me, a devotee of the Apple Queen. I say "introduce" because, if you live in the area, I'm quite sure you were introduced to this spirit in kindergarten, and just didn't think of him as a "local spirit" then. Although he was born in Massachusets, he's an important genius loci through our surrounding region; his "territory" includes Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and much of Ontario and northern West Virginia.

The Story of Johnny Appleseed

On the autumnal equinox, in the year seventeen hundred and seventy four, John Chapman was born in Leominster Massachusetts, on that old hill now called "Johnny Appleseed Lane". When he came of age, Johnny walked west, wandering. That was the year seventeen hundred and ninety two. He walked south, and he walked west. We don't know exactly which way he wandered, but when they Whiskey Rebellion broke out two years late,Johnny Chapman was there, fighting, for he was a cider-maker, and a liquoring man. He had him an orchard out on Grant's Hill, where now stands Mellon Square.

"Here [in Pittsburgh] it is that Jonathan Chapman ceased to exist, and a new man with strange far-away ideas in his head came to life, a man people called Johnny Appleseed. Not quickly, by no stroke of lightning! Johnny Appleseed had been forming a long time in the shell of young Chapman. For twelve years Pittsburgh swallowed him up, but Johnny also swallowed Pittsburgh and all the meaning of life it could teach him. He worked in the shipyards along the Monongahela. When he wanted to think, he worked with his hands at some tasks he loved, and by-and-by, the idea he wanted came uncalled for out of the thin air and he knew what he wanted. And so, although he also knew in his heart that some day he would slide out upon the current of the Ohio and go on and down into the greater wilderness, he built himself a log home on a grassy rise of ground called Grant’s Hill."
--The Adventures of Johnny Appleseed, Henry Chapin, 1930

Here, in Pittsburgh, Johnny caught the call that would turn him into a saint, and it came in a strange form. "Go west," said the voice. "Spread my word," said the voice.  "Plant my seeds," said the voice. And so Johnny gathered up his best seeds, his most treasured possessions, and his cooking pot, which he wore like a cap over his long flowing hair. He gave away his orchard, and he began to walk west. After he'd walked a spell, he planted his seeds, and he built himself a little cabin, and he began to preach his gospel. "Love your neighbor," he taught. "Love the earth," he taught. "Be generous, be kind, and forgive."  So says the legend: When asked why he feared neither man nor beast, he replied that he lived in harmony with all people and all living things, and that he could not be harmed as long as he lived by the law of love. He would not even graft his trees, because he thought it made the trees suffer.

Along with apple seeds, he is said to have sown the seeds of medicinal herbs wherever he went: fennel, pennyroyal, catnip, hoarhound, mullein, rattlesnake root, and others. He healed the sick, when he could, with his herbal potions, and he taught his recipes to any who wanted to learn. Everywhere he went, he learned about their plants, and their healing ways, and those too he spread far and wide. He taught people how to make cider. He charge 6 cents a seedling for apple trees, but only for those that could afford it. For those that couldn't he would take a bit of cast-off clothing, or a bit of food, or a story, or nothing at all, from each according to what they could give.

During the War of 1812, he warned the settlers when Native tribes (who sided with Britain) were about to attack, and he warned Natives when Americans were attacking. He was a peacemaker and a true Good Neighbor. ;)

Whenever, in his wanderings, he found a fit opening, he would plant his seed, sometime in the villages of the natives, sometimes in the villages of whites, but more often in some loamy land along the bank of a stream where an open space gave promise of their growing…The traditions of his operations are found from Wayne County in Ohio, to Fort Wayne, Indiana…some two hundred miles long and fifty or sixty miles wide.
--History of Morrow County, OH. 1898

"We can hear him read now, just as he did that summer day, when we were busy quilting upstairs, and he lay near the door, his voice rising denunciatory and thrillin—strong and loud as the roar of wind and waves, then soft and soothing as the balmy airs that quivered the morning-glory leaves about his gray beard. His was a strange eloquence at times, and he was undoubtedly a man of genius."
-- an old woman's recounting of his preaching, from Johnny Appleseed: A Pioneer Hero", Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1871, page 834

And then, after a few years, when the new trees set fruit, he would gather the very best seeds, and he would give away his cottage and his orchard, and he would set to wandering again. He wandered all over, heading west, planting trees, teaching the truth, as best he knew it. He did no harm to any person, nor even to any beast. When he heard of a horse, gone lame, that farmer would kill, he bought it, and set it free to heal. He rescued a wolf cub from a trap, and that wolf followed him all of his days. Barefoot he wandered, over snow and ice. It was said the skin on his feet was so thick, it might kill a rattlesnake if it even tried to bite him. But it never did. Johnny Appleseed loved the Land, America, and the land loved him back. Fifty years or more he wandered, until he came to rest in March of 1845 near Ft. Wayne Indiana.

"The deceased was well known through this region by his eccentricity, and the strange garb he usually wore. He followed the occupation of a nurseryman, and has been a regular visitor here upwards of 10 years...He is supposed to have considerable property, yet ... he submitted to every privation with cheerfulness and content, believing that in so doing he was securing snug quarters hereafter. In the most inclement weather he might be seen barefooted and almost naked except when he chanced to pick up articles of old clothing. Notwithstanding the privations and exposure he endured, he lived to an extreme old age, not less than 80 years at the time of his death—though no person would have judged from his appearance that he was 60. He always carried with him some work on the doctrines of Swedenborg with which he was perfectly familiar, and would readily converse and argue on his tenets, using much shrewdness and penetration. He never did any harm to anyone. His death was quite sudden. He was seen on our streets a day or two previous."

--Fort Wayne Sentinel, March 22 1845

When prohibition came, the FBI cut down most of the orchards Johnny Appleseed had planted, because they were used to make cider, the people's drink.   And yet, the spirit of Johnny Appleseed lives on, teaching healing, and generosity, and peacemaking, and teaching the wisdom of Apple.

The Ballad of Johnny Appleseed

Working Magic with Johnny Appleseed

"Like Johnny Appleseed, every boy and girl can be a fairy. All you have to do is plant an apple tree by a roadside or sow the seeds of healing herbs here and there. The rain and the sunshine will make them grow, and long after you have finished your work on earth, they will stand as sentinels to welcome future generations. And every year, the goddess of spring will touch them with her magic wand and they will give their flowers and their fruit to thousands of children who are still unborn."

--The Lutheran Companion, 1918 (ps: can we talk about a time that a Lutheran church book for kids actively encouraged worship of faeries and the goddess of spring?)

Like all spirits of the court of Apple, Johnny Appleseed is a teacher and healer, and creature of beauty and sweetness. The most obvious way to work with him is for success in growing apples, making apple cakes, or brewing apple cider. But, he is a great spirit to work with on any sort of urban farming, or other sort of "wildness taming". He will help to clean and fructify land despoiled, and he he promotes love and understanding between neighbors. To work with, if you can, plant apples trees. But, if you cannot, pour out good (hard) apple cider at the base of any tree, sing his song, and ask for his help. In life, Johnny never heard a cry for help he did not answer, and neither death nor prohibition nor disneyfication have managed to snuff his light.

Johnny Appleseed: He Lived For Others

No comments:

Post a Comment