Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Many Sides of Johnny Appleseed

Love in its essence is spiritual fire.

Man was so created by the Lord as to be able while living in the body to speak with spirits and angels, as in fact was done in the most ancient times; for, being a spirit clothed with a body, he is one with them.

True charity is the desire to be useful to others without thought of recompense.

–Emanuel Swedenborg

I’ve always admired Johnny Appleseed. The story of a tenacious, yet humble, oddball who achieves great things - that's quite a story, indeed. I have no idea if kids hear about him these days…and what they might think of him, if they do. It would be a shame, though, to see John Chapman relegated to the unfortunate cultural ghetto of children’s entertainment…reduced to being just another Disney character, when he was so much more than that.

Chapman was a proponent, some would say a missionary, of the philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish scientist, philosopher and mystic whose teachings influenced William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Butler Yeats, Jorge Luis Borges and Carl Jung. Born in Massachusetts in 1774, John Chapman began planting apple seeds in Ohio around the year 1800, and soon thereafter acquired his better-known name. By 1817, his work was known in England, as evidenced by a Swedenborgian newsletter published at the time:

There is in the western country a very extraordinary missionary of the New Jerusalem. A man has appeared who seems to be almost independent of corporeal wants and sufferings. He goes barefooted, can sleep anywhere, in house or out of house, and live upon the coarsest and most scanty fare. He has actually thawed ice with his bare feet. He procures what books he can of the New Church Swedenborg, travels into the remote settlements, and lends them wherever he can find readers, and sometimes divides a book into two or three parts for more extensive distribution and usefulness. This man for years past has been in the employment of bringing into cultivation, in numberless places in the wilderness, small patches (two or three acres) of ground, and then sowing apple seeds and rearing nurseries. These become valuable as the settlements approximate, and the profits of the whole are intended for the purpose of enabling him to print all the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, and distribute them through the western settlements of the United States.

A present-day Swedenborgian makes the case that Johnny Appleseed’s life-work reflected four themes of Swedenborg’s philosophy:

He lived both with his heart and his mind. He learned about his profession and the Van Mons theory of planting fruit as seed rather than grafting. He learned what kind of soil the trees needed, and he would go back often to check on the growth of his trees. Yet all that he did was focused in his love of people and of the Lord. He felt that he was called to be a preacher and healer; to help God care for people on the plains. He also planted medicinal herbs, and often shared them on his journeys. Swedenborg said that both Love and Wisdom are central to life. They represent spirit-matter; God-humanity; heart-mind. We must bring these "dualisms" into oneness in our lives.

He was friend of all. He learned many Indian languages and was held in high regard by many of the tribes. He cared about the concerns of both the Indian tribes and the white settlers, and often intervened in conflict. He never killed – either people or animals. He lived in complete harmony with nature. "In field and meadow and forest, he walked, concerned with the spacious thoughts of God. The singularity of his thinking and his living was inextricably entwined with his religious views". Swedenborg emphasizes our oneness with all creation; we are part of a web of existence and we contribute to and are nurtured by the whole.

His life was focused on "uses". He lived to be of service to others. Yet, he also attended to his own needs and, as always, that inner leading. He made a living, but money was not his motivation. He would accept cash for his trees – or clothing or food or even nothing at all. He never asked a person to pay a debt, for he reasoned that if God wanted him to have the money, God would move the customer to pay. Besides, the customer knew that he or she owed the money, without being reminded of it. However, he was not poor, and had some assets that he rarely used. Swedenborg tells us that Love and Wisdom must be expressed by our living a life of useful service to others. Johnny saw himself as a minister, and often said he was bringing good news; fresh from Heaven.

He lived by the guidance of his inner calling. Swedenborg tells us that God’s Love is always inflowing to our very being and essence. We can connect with the Divine by looking inward, to find the deep guidance at the depth of our soul. For there we find our deepest love and passion; and it is out of this that we live in oneness with God and the world.

An 1871 article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine firmly established Johnny Appleseed in the American consciousness. That article revealed some aspects of the man that did not make it into the Disney version of his life.

[He] claimed to have had frequent conversations with angels and spirits; two of the latter, of the feminine gender, he asserted, had revealed to him that they were to be his wives in a future state if he abstained from a matrimonial alliance on earth.

The Indians treated Johnny with the greatest kindness. By these wild and sanguinary savages he was regarded as a "great medicine man," on account of his strange appearance, eccentric actions, and, especially, the fortitude with which he could endure pain, in proof of which he would often thrust pins and needles into his flesh.

Despite his peculiarities, the Harper’s article concluded with this tribute to Johnny Appleseed:

A laboring, self-denying benefactor of his race, homeless, solitary, and ragged, he trod the thorny earth with bare and bleeding feet, intent only upon making the wilderness fruitful. Now "no man knoweth of his sepulchre;" but his deeds will live in the fragrance of the apple blossoms he loved so well, and the story of his life, however crudely narrated, will be a perpetual proof that true heroism, pure benevolence, noble virtues, and deeds that deserve immortality may be found under meanest apparel, and far from gilding halls and towering spires.

1 comment:

Brett said...

Check out this little site about the Johnny Appleseed Festival in Fort Wayne: