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Johnny Appleseed, From The Inside Out: A Q&A with Author Ray Silverman
Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
The Core of Johnny Appleseed
The Unknown Story of a Spiritual Trailblazer
By Ray Silverman
What was your first experience of Johnny Appleseed?
I encountered Johnny Appleseed for the first time when I was a child—perhaps in elementary school. Johnny always struck me as a happy-go-lucky sort of person who loved nature and went about doing good for others. I suppose I was influenced by Walt Disney's animated cartoon, Melody Time, which came out in 1948 when I was around four years old.
By the way, the cartoon is available on YouTube under "Melody Time Johnny Appleseed." It is beautifully done, and includes the now-famous song, "The Lord is Good to Me"—written for that film.
How did you get interested in writing a book about him?
Joanna Hill, executive editor at the Swedenborg Foundation, asked me if I would be interested in doing a book about Johnny Appleseed from a Swedenborgian point of view. She was thinking of a book that would be similar to the one I did last year for the Foundation, Helen Keller's How I Would Help the World. I was interested.
But after I began to read the current research on Johnny Appleseed, I was more than interested: I was raring to go! I realized that a new book that saw Johnny from the inside out was absolutely necessary. In fact, I saw that an accurate portrayal of Johnny's Swedenborgian faith could be a touchstone for clearing up inconsistencies, dispelling myths, and giving readers a clearer picture of this remarkable man.
I also saw that Johnny's light-hearted spirit, deep religious interest, and useful life could be a powerful and important model for contemporary readers.
As you were doing the research for this book, what surprised you the most?
My answer may surprise you, but here it is. As a child growing up in the traditional school system, history and geography were my least favorite subjects. To me, they seemed to be little more than memorizing long lists of names, dates, battles, and places. This had very little interest for me.
But when I began to study the story of Johnny Appleseed, history and geography came alive! I began to realize that Johnny's story is inseparable from America's coming of age. Everything became interesting and significant, whether it was the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 (Johnny's father fought in it), the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (it enabled Johnny to expand his apple tree business into Ohio and Indiana), or a petition for a New Church minister in Mansfield, Ohio, in 1822 (organized and signed by Johnny Appleseed).
Similarly, geography came alive. I traveled to many of the places where Johnny had traveled, walked the trails, sat by the rivers, and imagined what Johnny had done in those places. As I crossed the rugged but beautiful Allegheny Mountains, I imagined Johnny and the wagon trains crossing as well.
My most vivid experience was in Franklin, Pennsylvania, the site of one of Johnny's earliest nurseries. There I was, at the confluence of the Allegheny River and French Creek, marveling as I watched the current run swiftly southward toward Pittsburgh. I knew that at one time Johnny had been on that river, perhaps floating downstream on a raft, on a sunny day, reading Swedenborg. And I loved the idea that the swiftly flowing Allegheny River would eventually join the Monongahela to form the powerful Ohio River, which in turn would become the mighty Mississippi, flowing south to the Gulf of Mexico.