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Who is Johnny Appleseed?

Johnny AppleseedThe other day I was reading about retired people in a Mumbai suburb who protect their local trees from being cut. This led me to thinking about ordinary environmental heroes. People who are not doing some amazing scientific or technological feat, but merely looking after the environment in simple ways, making small differences that add up.

I was also reminded of a famous American character called Johnny Appleseed. Though he was a very real person, Appleseed has become something of an environmental myth and his life is a wonderful and inspirational story.

As soon as you say the name Johnny Appleseed, most Americans will picture a man wearing a pot on his head and ill-fitting second-hand clothes, walking barefoot and scattering seeds. To compress his life into a couple of sentences, Johnny Appleseed walked all over the central United States planting apples in wild and rough places wherever he went, so that other people could benefit from these trees. He lived simply, had very few possessions, and dedicated his life to helping people and looking after his trees.

The importance of these trees becomes apparent when you realise that this was done not just before the advent of supermarkets, but at a time when immigrant settlers were moving away from the cities to faraway rural areas. These settlers were trying to live off the land, farm, set up townships and survive in the wilderness while trying to do so.

Johnny Appleseed’s real name was John Chapman and he was born on September 1774. He received a good education and when he was 25, started working in a plant nursery. These nurseries were not for ornamental or home plants but plants that were needed for agriculture or used to start orchards.

Chapman began specialising in apple trees, which he planted all around the west coast states. There are claims that some of the apple orchards found today in the modern-day states of New York and Pennsylvania came from trees originally planted by him.

During his lifetime many of the states that make up the present-day United States of America were not yet created. The whole north central belt around the Great Lakes was not settled (this is the region that later became the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois). In the early 1800s, Chapman was among the first to explore this area before other settlers moved in.

Chapman had a simple working style: he would go into unexplored areas alone carrying a big bag of apple seeds until he found a good place to plant them. Then he would clear the land, get rid of the weeds and plant his apple seeds. He built fences to protect the trees from animals. Although these orchards varied in size and depended on the terrain, some were pretty large and covered acres.

For 50 years, Chapman wandered around planting his trees. When the settlers arrived they would find the young apple trees already there for them to use. Chapman did actually sell his seeds to people who wanted them, but many were planted just for the benefit of whoever needed them.

Though Chapman started off as a businessman trying to earn a living, his lifestyle soon changed as he lived his simple yet tough life in the wilderness. He did all his planting work himself. He always carried his apple seeds on his back. He lived alone for weeks at a time, with only the Native Americans and wild animals for company. Unusually for those times, he was quite friendly with the Native Americans who accepted him. He never carried a gun and did not eat meat. He walked barefoot most of the time. Rumours started springing up that he even spoke to animals! There’s one story that Chapman was once stuck in a snowstorm far away from any house or road. He crept into a hollow fallen tree for shelter and found it already occupied by a hibernating bear and her cubs, who allowed him to spend the night with them!

Chapman sold his trees for very little money; he often traded them for food or second-hand clothes. He started becoming famous as more and more settlers moved into the wilderness. In later life he stayed with them as a guest, but he never stopped looking after his trees. Nor did he alter his simple lifestyle. By now almost everyone knew him as Johnny Appleseed; very few people even knew what his real name was.

And the picture of the man wearing a pot on his head? That’s how he is shown in most early illustrations of him. The explanation given is that Chapman always carried a single kettle-like pot with him while he travelled. This was easily carried on his head, leaving his hands free to plant trees.

Chapman died in 1845 after catching an infection from walking too long in the cold to repair a fence protecting one of his orchards.

I used to wonder why Chapman planted apples when there were possibly more useful plants around. But then I learnt that in those times apples were not just luxury fruits. Apples were an important part of the settlers’ diet; they were preserved to eat during winter when nothing else was available. Apples were cooked, pressed and the juice made into cider and vinegar. Livestock too was fed apples and apple leaves. And the wood used as firewood and to make furniture.

Do we have any environmental heroes like Johnny Appleseed in India? Write in and let me know.

-- Manoj Nadkarni

InfoChange News & Features, May 2006