Stranger in a Strange Land
In early 19th century America, a strange man was walking the land. He had a scraggly beard, dressed in rough burlap, slept in barns, and most people thought of him as a dirty vagrant. He owned nothing, so it seemed, and he never had a home or a wife and family.
But he was well-loved. He was gentle and kind to all he met, from the European settlers to Native Americans, and he loved animals. He was a personification of the New Land itself, spiritually rich, full of potential and goodness.
His name was John Chapman, but he became an American legend under the name Johnny Appleseed.
History of the Apple
The apple is a strange fruit with a long history. Originating in Central Asia, it grows well in the temperate climates of Europe and North America, but has enormous variety. Botanists claim the many varieties of apples provide natural resistance against pests, since a pest can’t easily jump from one tree to the next if the apples have very different genetic properties. But people didn’t like all that variety too much, since it was hard to find a good sweet apple. Most apples were bitter or sour.
As people began growing their own apple trees, they discovered very early on that if they grafted the branches of a sweet apple-bearing tree onto all the saplings of the orchard, they could get a uniform, cloned, sweet fruit. So no one grew apples from seed.
Except for that eccentric American wayfarer, Johnny Appleseed.
Brave New World
In 18th century America, the country was young, having only just won independence. People were beginning to move west, out of the original eastern colonies, in search of farmland. The government encouraged this by providing land grants, with the stipulation that settlers prove they meant to settle the land long-term. One of the ways to prove they intended to stay put was to plant fruit trees.
So Johnny Appleseed would start apple nurseries a couple of years ahead of the projected arrival of settlers. By the time the settlers showed up, Johnny would have some nice apple saplings to sell to the new residents for them to plant. He had a thriving business.
By planting from seed, Johnny inadvertently reinvented the apple in the New World. All those different varieties had a chance to express themselves anew, to reawaken and emerge.
But why did Johnny plant his trees from seed? Why sell the good settlers sour apples?
The Magical Apple-man
Johnny Appleseed was Swedenborgian, a follower of the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg believed humans were in a process of transformation from material to spiritual beings. He thought that most of biblical scripture was a metaphorical reference to this process: for instance, the six days of creation in Genesis are actually a metaphor of this human transformation into spirit. Swedenborg also believed that salvation required charity as well as faith.
We can appreciate Johnny Appleseed and his great charitable contribution to the settling of America by growing orchards as an outgrowth of Swedenborgian morality.
But matter becoming spirit? How does growing apple trees, especially sour ones, fit into that?
This Do In Remembrance of Me
In colonial America (and throughout most of human history, for that matter), water was frequently contaminated. Human waste, burials within city walls, and pathogens made drinking water potentially disease-ridden and dangerous to human health. People have gotten around this problem historically by mixing wine with water, or drinking other forms of alcohol. In America people drank cider, wine made from apples. Alcohol kills germs and pathogens.
But of course people didn’t know much about microbiology until recent times. All they knew was, when fruit sat around for a while it transformed into a new substance. Matter became spirit. “Whiskey” is a Gaelic word that literally means “spirit” and of course we still refer to well drinks as “spirits.” But people used to take this very literally. After all, they noticed that when people drank a lot of this magical substance called alcohol, they acted possessed. Possessed by spirits!
Up until the early 20th century, 99% of all apples grown in America were turned into cider. Matter into spirit. So of course it didn’t matter to Johnny Appleseed if the apple trees he planted from seed bore sour fruit. No one was eating his apples. They were converting the apples into spirit, and that spirit was keeping them happy and free from disease.
Everybody loved Johnny Appleseed!
For a further details, watch the documentary The Botany of Desire
Disney’s old classic on the story of Johnny Appleseed, which I have linked below, makes subtle reference to Swedenborgian ideas: apple trees in blossom transform into celestial clouds, and Johnny’s spirit walks away from his body to continue his work in heaven.