By Judith O’Grady
I love myths like I love ice cream, but I also like to know. I like backstory, the final pages of classic novels where the author tells what becomes of the characters, and the correspondences between tales. When I was little and was read Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’ I loved them all (they explain how things happened, became, are) but I felt a particular kinship with the Elephant’s Child (of the ‘satiable curiosity) who was always asking, “Why?” But unlike him, I like most of all finding out for myself.
When I was in university, I was dating a fellow who passionately raced dirt-bike motorcycles. We would hang around between classes in the cafeteria and often we would meet other motorcycle aficionados, sit around a table, and chat. In order to have an interest in the conversation, I set myself the goal of figuring out what ‘torque’ meant without resorting to asking. After a while, I tested my conclusion by using torque in a sentence. Silence followed, and I was about to ask where my line of reasoning had gone off-track when one of the party said,
“It’s unusual for a girl to understand torque, how do you come to know that?”
Later on, I lived in South Dakota for a while. At that time the very old people in the nursing homes had ridden out onto the high plains as small children in Conestoga Wagons pulled by oxen. I read some reminiscences and talked to some of the people and the general theme was ‘we rolled along day after day and then one evening over the buffalo-chip campfire Paw said, “We stop in three days” (or sometimes two)’
“How did Paw know?!?!” I would ask……
“Well, no one asked. We were glad to stop, and I wasn’t but six [or eight or little]; I wasn’t gone to sass Paw.”
In case you’re wondering (I did) the memory tracts were mostly written by the youngest child because ze was the one most fluent in English; the family spoke Norwegian or Finnish amongst themselves and none of them knew the answer to how Paw knew.
I lived in the eastern part of the state which is mostly under plow, but we went on a trip into the western part of the state which is range (because it is that tiny bit drier and won’t “make corn”). Much as I already loved the high plains, that deep quiet empty country, seeing someplace that still looks a little bit like it did before humans came was mind-dazzling.
All grass, all sky. It is like the sea, where herds of ungulates like schools of fish were harried by wolves like orcas. Where the wind is a presence. It is described as flat, but it is actually gently rolling in long, wave-like breakers of grassy earth. You can see a long, long way. Actually, you can see twenty or thirty miles from the top of a ridge. I was dreaming along when THE ANSWER came to me….
“Cottonwoods!! Don’t you see?!?”
He-Who-Had-Once-Raced-Motorcycles-but-had-since-grown-out-of-it pulled over.
“I see the Cottonwoods over there, WHAT?”
Cottonwoods are one of the very few local native trees, it’s a dry climate. Oxen (as I knew from studying Medieval History) go about ten miles a day, four miles an hour (as a child on a Conestoga Wagon you can get down, pick prairie flowers, collect buffalo poops for the evening fire, run around playing tag with your siblings, and easily catch back up— the little children enjoyed the trip if they had enough food and water).
“See, at the bottom of that draw! That specific one over there!! Cottonwoods!!”
“Cottonwoods mean year-round water near the surface. When we camp tonight, Paw will tell the family that they will stop in two or three days; they’re ‘home’ ” (not that it wasn’t someone else’s home already).
So I checked with the old people when we got back,
“Yes, we pulled the wagon into the shade while we were building the soddy house.”
But what does all this have to do with Johnny Appleseed?
Nothing, really, but my belief that persistent myths/folk tales/world-stories must have meaningful backstory, otherwise they won’t last. Often a backstory that isn’t immediately apparent (if you think of ‘The Three Little Pigs’ as an Irish story it’s about the chief protecting the tribe, not durable building materials). Sometimes quite the opposite (if you remember that ‘Jack the Giant-Killer’ was originally a Cornish story, it’s about the incomer stealing the treasures of the indigenous Land Spirits).
So, what about Johnny Appleseed, the cultural icon of ‘taming the wilderness’ and spreading beautiful Sleeping-Beauty quality apples into a dark and savage land?
This cannot be true, as I have known for many years. If you plant apple seeds you will discover that apples are extreme heterozygotes. That is, they will grow a diverse group of different apples from one apple’s seeds none of them likely to be anything like the original and very likely to be small, sour, greenish crabs. Why would John Chapman, wearing a cooking pan for a hat or not, singing Disney-esque songs or not, travel about the North-East planting small sour crab-apple trees?
It makes no sense. Until you read ‘Stop, Thief!’ by Peter Linebaugh and on page 242 you find THE ANSWER. The government was giving away Seneca land and one of the requirements for a land-claim was a fifty-tree apple orchard. By buying a pre-planted orchard the ‘settler’ (or land-thief) was ahead in tree maturity and effort and could claim that much quicker. John Chapman was one of those people (psychologists have a term for it) that really don’t like other people and can’t stand to be around them— like Daniel Boone (that other American icon) who would move when ‘he could see his neighbor’s chimney smoke’. John Chapman, in order to finance his people-free life, went out ahead, planted an orchard, sold it off when ‘settlement’ caught up with him, and went further out into the blue again.
Which puts a distinctly Capitalist spin on the agrarian hero, but still doesn’t explain why crab-apples—– the gov’ment obviously didn’t care about the quality of the orchard just that it was there but still, utility for effort is one of the hallmarks of subsistence farming. The answer is that the settlers weren’t eating the apples, they were making cider out of them. As in any early agricultural settlement, they had shallow-dug wells and so used surface water, often (almost always) contaminated by the privy. It was dangerous to drink the water, so they drank cider (as did other farmers throughout history and place— watered-down wine if Mediterranean or weak beer if European).
There is a dark side to this A-Ha! Moment, however. Cider (durable and valuable) was also a barter-unit in a largely moneyless society. What could you buy with a jug of cider? Lots, not so much from the other settlers (who, of course, had their own crabby orchards) but from the dispossessed Senaca— more of their land, furs (the other barter unit), their agricultural produce. By a genetic quirk I (although Irish) have that alcohol susceptibility gene; alcohol makes me in a very short order drunk and then sick. My solution for this problem is to not drink, but the water I drink instead isn’t going to kill me. What if the water has been contaminated by the in-comers who have stolen your land as well as your culture? You are now very far away from the tea-drinking (boil that water first, neh?) solution and deep into the culture-shock hopelessness that, like an earthquake, breaks apart your world and makes giving up look like a viable option.
Johnny Appleseed is now no longer an amiable eccentric, a kind of Good Fairy of the Frontier, who got started in apple seeds rather then grafting, the process that creates reliable apple reproduction, because he was a member of a religious sect that forbade it as painful to the tree. He is an Avatar of the Angel of Death. He comes bringing poison and smallpox blankets.
Judith is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).