Recalling the American Nature Mystic Johnny Appleseed

Recalling the American Nature Mystic Johnny Appleseed September 26, 2022





The Lord is good to me
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need
The sun and rain and the apple seed
Yes, He’s been good to me.

John Chapman was born on this day, the 26th of September, 1774. Several different dates are given for his death. I’m going with the 18th of March, 1845.

In between those events he became Johnny Appleseed.

He was a couple of things in his life. Possibly in his heart he most considered himself a wandering missionary for the New Church established to further the teachings of the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Scholar Ashley Rattner tells us “The fundamental Swedenborgian tenets that Chapman taught were nonviolence (influential later in the century under the name “nonresistance”), the universality of Being, and the connectedness of the universe.”

Chapman, actually I prefer Johnny, also had an intimate sense of the natural, and particularly attended to the rights of animals in ways reminiscent of St Francis.

But, most of all its his apples and spreading their seeds that most of us recall.

Johnny Appleseed wandered the “West,” planting trees in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Western New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Since his death there have been various ways people have marked his life. Early on it appears he was associated with Arbor Day, which certainly makes sense. Although I think Johnny is most commonly celebrated on his birthday. But, the March date definitely has its advocates, as well. And one’s death is the traditional time to celebrate the life of a “saint.” It is when they’re gathered in to their reward, as it is seen, and it is when it becomes possible to see the scope of her or his work. Also, while the March date is in fact not certain, some prefer it just because it is in the midst of the planting season.

Michael Pollan in his wonderful study the Botany of Desire points out “that since Johnny Appleseed was against grafting, his apples were not of an edible variety and could be used only for cider: ‘Really, what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus.'”

So, along with the mystic, we’ve got a pagan feast. I imagine there are any number of ways to celebrate this remarkable and complicated person. Maybe taking a swig of hard apple cider. But, me, I’m thinking of a slice of apple pie.

And there’s a bit more. An invitation into something wild and tangled. Something about possibilities.

I join with poet and English Unitarian minister Lewis Connolly who wrote

“If that’s the choice then, the wild, unkept, and unmanaged orchard, full of a variety of apples, beyond identification, beyond any kind of classification, beyond any politics of identity, for each is unique, or, of the orchard of the single kind, managed, and ordered, I choose variety. Give me the wild orchard! With Thoreau, with Swedenborg, I wish to celebrate variety. I wish us to embody such variety, to be in tune with the kaleidoscopic nature of God. May we embrace the wild orchard, the divine chaos, the uniqueness of each wild apple among us. May it be so, in the spirit of love I pray.”

To which I can only add, amen.

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