At The American

Another in my seemingly endless series of essays on the curse of certainty:

For relief, you may wish to take this, with a couple of jiggers of good booze.


The Apple Man

On a recent trip I paused in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to visit the grave of John Chapman, known to generations as Johnny Appleseed. As it happens, last Friday was his 240th birthday, and I was reminded that back in 1974 I wrote a little piece about him. It was never published (a story for another time) and, as it has far surpassed Horace's advice that a writer lay his work aside for seven years to see if it still seems worthwhile, I offer it now.


Do you know about John Chapman, who was called Appleseed John?

You probably know some of the stories that are told about him: About how he wandered barefoot in the forest, dressed in rags and wearing a tin pot for a hat; about how he never harmed any living creature, not even a snake or an insect; about how the Indians treated him as a holy man because he was so gentle and odd; about how he gave away his money, his possessions, even his last few rags, to anyone who needed them more than he; and, most importantly, about how he planted apple orchards in the wilderness so that settlers, when they came after him, would have the joy of the blossoms and the fruit to ease their hardships.

You have heard these tales about a strange, perhaps crazy old man called Johnny Appleseed. You know about him. But do you know about Joh n Chapman?

John Chapman was born two hundred years ago, in 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts. No one knows what sort of childhood he had. As a young boy he probably attended school for a time. It is known that his father fought in the War for Independence. But nothing is known for certain about John Chapman until he was already grown into a young man, for then he left his home and made his way west, like so many other young men in that early age of pioneering. From Massachusetts he rode and boated and walked his way to western Pennsylvania, and there he paused and learned about frontier life.

What did he learn there? Certainly he learned the skills a pioneer needed to survive in the wilderness, far from the safety of towns. In the wild, wooded frontier there were no roads, no maps, no havens from danger, no next door neighbors to lend a hand. There was only work. Trees had to be cut down, cabins built, fields cleared and planted. With much labor, and much good fortune, a pioneer might manage to make a good home and raise a family. It was a very hard life that such pioneers chose for themselves, and from them John Chapman learned much.

He also learned that the frontier was steadily being pushed farther and farther west. The stream of eager pioneers and hopeful settlers looking for new land was growing every year, and as long as there was more room in the West the stream would continue to flow. All kinds of men would be in that stream -- good men in search of a rich new country for themselves and their children, the wilder sort of men looking for adventure and perhaps easy wealth, and still other men who simply hoped for a change of luck.

Somehow John Chapman learned one other thing. He learned how to plant apple seeds in clearings and sheltered corners of fields, how to nurture the small seedlings that sprang up from the seeds, and how to select and transplant the strong fruitful young trees to orchards. No on knows how he became interested in apple trees, or why, but he did.

And so it was that, about the year 1800, restless John Chapman decided that he too would go west and that he would be, not a pioneer, not a farmer, and not a frontier idler, but a planter of apple trees.

Now you must know something about apples. To a pioneer farm family on the frontier, living far from towns and stores, and dependent upon what food they could grow for themselves, apples could be the difference between a full, good life and a poor, weary one. A frontier farm family in those days would plant their fields with corn, from which they got corn meal for making corn bread or mush or Indian pudding. They might raise a hog for meat -- fresh pork, salt pork, bacon, and ham -- and they might grow a few vegetables like beans and squashes. And that would be all, unless they were able to hunt wild game or find nuts or berries in the woods. But a few apple trees, easily grown and cared for, could give them treasures. A family would get apples to eat right from the tree, apples for making into pies, apples for baking. Apples could be dried to use in soups and stews; they could be stored in a dry cellar and taken out in winter to roast before a fire and bring cheer to a barren season. From apples they could make applesauce, apple cider, and apple butter. They could even make vinegar, which is needed for pickling and preserving other foods for winter. Apples could provide such a family with the sweetness, the delight that life must have if it is to be more than drudgery.

With two leather bags full of apple seeds, John Chapman went west into the country that was soon to become the state of Ohio. He followed rivers and creeks up into the back woods where no settlers had yet ventured, and when he found a suitable patch of land he planted some seeds. After weaving a fence of twigs around the patch to protect the seedling trees from deer, he moved on. In this way he established his tree nurseries up and down the Ohio country. As settlers moved in to build homes and farms in the years that followed, he was ready to sell or trade or even given them young trees that would soon be ready to blossom and bear fruit. Some farmers to chose to plant great orchards with trees from John Chapman’s nurseries; and for generations afterwards people would point to certain old, gnarled apple trees and tell how they had come from this or that one of the first plantings in Ohio.

John Chapman gradually made his way across the state, every year working farther to the west as  more and more settlers came. He was an expert woodsman, of course, as anyone would have to be to live always on the frontier; and he was a great and kind friend to all those who were fortunate enough to know him. Even during the terrible War of 1812, when some Indian tribes were incited to attack and drive out the settlers of Ohio, he suffered no harm from them, for they knew that his work was peaceable and helpful to all, and they also knew that he had always treated them as brothers.

John Chapman went about his work for forty-five years. He never knew any other kind of life and never wished for one. Although he sold many thousands of apple trees in his life, he never became rich, for he was a poor businessman. He even owned a great deal of land -- hundreds of acres at one time or another -- but he only planted his apple seeds and never made money as a landowner. He never cared for money or comfort, and he had very little of either. He had no family to care for, and he had few wants himself. He lived in the out-of-doors, ate the simplest food, and was even seen to give away his shoes to poorer men. Probably no one knew the Ohio country better than he, for he had walked over nearly all of it; and over the years he became a familiar and loved figure on the roads and trails of the country. He was happy with his chosen way, even though no one ever knew why he had chosen it.

By 1845, the year he died, John Chapman had walked and planted his apple nurseries all the way into Indiana, which was the next new land after Ohio. He was one of the most talked-about men on the frontier. Everyone knew, or at least had heard of, the apple tree man, the one they called Appleseed John. Some people told strange stories about him, stories that grew stranger and stranger as they were retold again and again. Some of the stories may even have begun with true happenings, but, as stories often did on the frontier, they soon became tall tales and eventually they grew into legends. So today we have the familiar tales of Johnny Appleseed, the strange old man with the tin pot hat.

The real John Chapman was a good and simple man who chose to do good and simple work. It was work that needed to be done; but when it was done, people hardly knew what to think of the man who had done it. He was so different from other men! And so by their stories they made him into something more than a man; they made him into a hero, and then into a legend. Instead of John Chapman, the young man from Massachusetts who went west; and instead of Appleseed John, the poor man who raised and sold apple trees to frontier farmers and in his goodness stayed poor; instead there came to be Johnny Appleseed, a raggedy saint who said and did all kinds of strange things. The stories that are told about Johnny Appleseed are all wonderful stories, and they are an important part of our American folklore. But the most wonderful thing of all about them is that there really was an Appleseed John. Think of it. There really was such a man.


Here is the gravesite:


Book Review

I have just finished reading How to Live; or, A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. It is wonderfully conceived and brilliantly executed. I recommend it without reservation.

Well, just one reservation. It will make you want to read the Essays, at last or again. Go ahead; you know you should.




I don't know how I missed it, but yesterday was the 140th birthday of Frank Shannon, the Irish actor forever immortalized as Dr. Alexis Zarkov in the three original Flash Gordon serials. Though it lies beyond my power to add to the fame of a scientist who could, on the spur of the moment, unlock yet another mystery of the universe just to get Flash out of trouble again, I offer this image to convey the sort of conditions under which he was forced to work.


The costume department did him no favors, clearly. But, then, they were even harder on the actor Jack "Tiny" Lipson, the one with a case of metallic gynecomastia; he's playing King Vultan of the Hawkmen.

Hail, Dr. Z! Perhaps one day we will catch up with you.


Plans B and C

The leading challenger to the emergency measures proposed by President Obama to deal with the “crisis” on our southern border is the notion of sending the National Guard down there. Instead of spending three or four billion on housing, transportation, and judges and other staff to execute the laws on the books, the National Guard would move in and...well, that hasn’t been specified yet.

According to a well known online source, the combined forces of the Army and Air National Guards of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and three territories is roughly 462,000 men and women. This number includes the combat-ready, office staff, drivers, cooks -- the whole shootin’ match. I calculate that if all these personnel were stationed at equal intervals along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, each individual would be responsible for about 22 feet of it.

That doesn’t sound very tough at first, but consider the 40-year-old Guardsman who hasn’t done anything more strenuous than file things in triplicate for the last ten years. How is he going to catch one of these lithe and sneaky little 8-year-old Hondurans speeding across the desert like a roadrunner? Wile E. Coyote had it easier, and he had the ACME corporation behind him.

Then recall that something more than a thousand miles of the border runs down the middle of the Rio Grande. It can get deep out there. I assume here that the Guard would be posted on, not behind, the true border, because once over it the little devils are in God’s country and entitled the gentle embrace of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement folks. No, the idea surely is to stop them before they cross, and that’s going to mean SCUBA gear, at least, for about 300,000 of the guards.

How we are going to supply a 1,900-mile-long line of guards, 24/7, absolutely beats me. And who organizes the sleep rota? Do the adjacent guards shuffle back and forth to cover the gap left by a sleeper? Will this leave the other 313 million of us vulnerable to a devastating rush by Salvadoran and Guatemalan junior-high students?

I just don’t know.

P.S. Stay tuned to this blog. I am working on a plan to employ drones to drop the contraceptives not used by employees of Hobby Lobby and other devout corporations over the countries from which this Children’s Crusade originates, thus gradually eliminating the problem at its source.

UPDATE: Andy Borowitz outdoes me in this post at The New Yorker.