Until this morning I considered Johnny Appleseed to be one of those figures I associated with made-up stories like George and the cherry tree or Casey at the bat, which are told to distract children from larger questions about what is really going on here. I remember a cartoon image: goofy-looking barefoot guy in a straw hat, Scandinavian features, strolling barefoot over hills, munching on an apple he held in his left hand while he tossed apple seeds from a satchel with his right. A folksy song played in the background, the lyrics no doubt including something along the lines of, Here comes Johnny Appleseed. . . Something, something apple trees! But this morning I learned that he had another name, and it was John Chapman, and that he was born on this day in 1774. In 1840, someone took a photograph of him (or was it a daguerreotype then? I don’t know). He has the face of a man who is kind and serious, who has seen through the ways of men and will not be easily fooled. How different he looks, from the cartoon fool they made him into.
He was eighteen when he left home. He took his half-brother Nate with him. Nate was eleven. They went West, as one does. For thirteen years they lived as nomads. John’s mother had died when he was two, while his father was away, fighting redcoats, so he was used to it.
He wasn’t tossing seeds or even planting orchards. It was nurseries he planned and built, tended, and left in the care of someone he hired, with promise to return.
He almost died in a tree while picking hops. He fell and his neck was caught in the fork. It was his eight-year-old help that cut the tree down to save him.
Near the end, he was moved by a sermon, although not in the manner intended. The preacher went on and on, eager to make a point, asking again and again, where is the primitive Christian, barefoot in coarse raiment? ––Alluding, it seemed, to the original disciples, and some perceived spiritual distance between then and now.
The point had something to do with indulgences. Calico was one; tea was another.
Chapman grew weary of the obvious play for power by guilt and so he approached the podium, which at that moment was a tree stump. He put his bare foot on it, said Here is your primitive. Now what? The congregation was dismissed.
Later, he preached to anyone listening, not of a vengeful God, but of the one who came after. Killed for his simplicity, John suspected. His blessings on the merciful, the poor, the grieving, the hungry, the persecuted. After all of that, who would be left to save, but the rich, who wanted no salvation unless it came on their own gilded terms?
His leader was the one who washed the feet of his brothers, who was gentle with women; who saved harsh words for the moneylenders and thieves in the temple, and for the robed men who used religion like a sword.
Where is it, anyway, someone asked John, with regards to the kingdom of God.
Right here, John told them. Right here, only look.
And they sat barefoot among the trees, and the wind moved them, and they knew.