Steven Stoll Reviews Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard


Available in hardcover and paper, as well as Kindle and Nook ebooks.

Available in hardcover and paper, as well as Kindle and Nook ebooks.

I was quite pleased to read Steven Stoll’s review of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of American History. Stoll is the author of several pathbreaking works in the fields of environmental and agricultural history, including The Fruits of Natural Advantage, (U. California Press, 2003)  which examines the emergence of the citrus industry in California, and Larding the Lean Earth (Hill & Wang, 2003) which examines the politics of agricultural reform in antebellum America. You can read the full review below:

Folk heroes are an inviting topic for a historian. Take away the falsehoods and exaggerations from the story of the person, and what remains is someone who came to public attention by some novel or eccentric response to the times. Folk heroes seldom represent progress in an economic or technological sense; instead they symbolize values on the decline. Think of John Henry, Billy the Kid, John Brown, and Joe Hill: folk heroes often stand for alternative visions and are celebrated not only because they struggled and lost but also because what they stood for lived on.

William Kerrigan locates John Chapman—better known as Johnny Appleseed—within historical events and reveals his life and times with admirable style and confidence, linking Chapman to Shays’s Rebellion, the improvement literature of the 1820s, and the career of the American apple. Kerrigan does more than run a microhistory of apples alongside a biography of Chapman. He links the two stories in historically important ways, deriving Appleseed’s mission from a self-provisioning culture under threat at the end of the eighteenth century. The alternative vision and the declining values symbolized by Appleseed turn out to be closely tied to Chapman’s childhood near Springfield, Massachusetts, and his father’s ordeal of debt and foreclosure.

Kerrigan implies that the young Chapman saw the vulnerability of the self-provisioning New England settlement culture and that his itinerant planting came, in part, as a response. The essence of Chapman’s conflict with farmers who wanted to sell apples, rather than eat them, is written into his name: Appleseed. As Kerrigan notes in one of the book’s most effective moments, commercial orchards used grafted branches and trunks to grow marketable apple varieties, while Chapman planted unpedigreed fruit for home use. This account makes Chapman the symbol of an eclipsed American economy. Seedling apples came under attack from temperance advocates during Chapman’s lifetime because that fruit had only one use: distilling. Appleseed emerges as something of a philosopher and something of a crank who resisted wealth and comfort for uncertain reasons and continued to give away apple tree seedlings until he died, gaunt and in rags, but who wrote nothing about why he did what he did.

Appleseed.shell.100The book details Chapman’s every known location, movement, and activity, down to items purchased and land owned. It ends with the mythmaking and the sanitized way Appleseed entered the folklore of the twentieth century, stripped of any social cause or alternative vision, as an able salesman for Shell Chemical Corporation in late-1950s advertisements.

The Red Delicious apple makes its appearance in the book and so do the arguments of other historians, some of whom have less sympathy for Chapman than Kerrigan does. Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard lacks argument or commentary, but it tells a richly historical story and ends up a great distance from where it begins. In the end, Kerrigan chooses to link Chapman to urban agrarians who plant fruit trees in abandoned lots for public gleaning, creating a perpetual and public source of food for the poor and dispossessed.

 

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What I’m reading: American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree


Picture of Philip Rutter from Minnesota Public Radio.

Picture of Philip Rutter from Minnesota Public Radio.

Philip Rutter lives in a simple log cabin in southeastern Minnesota, where he runs a Christmas tree and apple farm. He uses the fuel of the forest to cook his food and heat his modest home, which has no running water. Rutter loves nut-bearing trees, a perennial plant which he sees as having a vast untapped potential to feed much of the world, at much lower environmental costs than intensive cultivation of annual grain crops. He even penned an essay entitled “Why is the Future of the World Nuts?” He believes this tree obsession runs in his blood, as he is distantly related to Johnny Appleseed.  “I knew this at a young age,” Rutter confesses, “and it probably served to focus my eyes on plants a little more than most people, and probably gave me an exaggerated sense of responsibility.” As a student at Oberlin College, Rutter studied biology, and then enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Minnesota. But he dropped out after finding his colleagues in the academic world to be too narrow in their intellectual outlook, fiercely competitive, and just generally unfriendly people. Rutter is not growing wealthy on the modest income earned from apples and Christmas trees, but he lives simply, with few expenses, and he pours his surplus money into what has become his life’s passion: restoring the American Chestnut tree, once a dominant tree in eastern forests, laid low by an imported fungus in the early years of the twentieth century.

American Chestnut bookRutter is just one of the many fascinating characters you will meet when you open up the pages of Susan Freinkel’s American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree (University of California Press, 2007). Freinkel recounts the story of this majestic tree in an easy, flowing prose. This is not simply the story of a plant, but a story of the people connected to it. While the book is structured as a historical narrative, it is also great science writing, and non-scientist readers will come away from this work with a clear understanding of the fungus that killed the American Chestnut, and the array of strategies scientists have since employed to try to reverse the devastating blight and return the American Chestnut to the landscape.

The American Chestnut tree dominated large swaths of the forests of eastern North America into the early twentieth century, and the bounteous crop of edible nuts it provided annually were critical to the subsistence of mountain peoples throughout Appalachia. The nuts fed people and fattened hogs, and tree had many other productive uses as well. Rutter’s conviction that the perennial crop of tree nuts has the potential to contribute mightily to the global food supply seems not so unreasonable when you begin to understand the invaluable source of sustenance it was to the humans and other animals that occupied the forests of Appalachia in the 19th century.

chestnut blight

Cryphonectria parasitica, commonly known asChestnut Blight.

In the first decade of the twentieth century the pathogenic fungus Cryphonectria parasitica arrived on the east coast of North America, probably on the trunks of imported Japanese Chestnut nursery stock.  This new blight quickly found a home in the crevices of the American Chestnut tree’s bark, growing at an alarming rate, causing the bark to split and opening so many wounds on each tree that even the mightiest Chestnuts soon succumbed. Over the next several decades this aggressive invader, aided by the saws of well-intentioned humans who cleared vast forests of Chestnuts in a futile attempt to arrest its spread, killed three to four billion American Chestnut trees. Billion. Freinkel tries to put those numbers in perspective for us: “Enough trees to fill nine million acres. Enough trees to cover Yellowstone National Park  eighteen hundred times over. Enough trees to give two to every person on the planet at that time.” It was a stunning loss.  The disappearance of the Chestnut dramatically altered forest ecosystems, and in some places human subsistence strategies, and it occurred in a remarkably short span of time.

Historica range of the American Chestnut

Historica range of the American Chestnut

The American Chestnut was such an important part of the lives of people who lived in its range, that nostalgia for the tree, and the dream of finding a way to restore it have persisted into the twenty-first century.  Even in the rural Ohio community where I live old timers still refer to a hill just south of town as Chestnut Hill, a place they retreated with their dates for a romantic picnic, a little privacy, and the opportunity to gather chestnuts. Ever since the blight struck, people like Philip Rutter have been trying to restore it by employing a variety of strategies, from simple Mendelian cross-breeding to more blight resistant Asian Chestnuts, to efforts to disable the killing power of the fungus, to modern bio-engineering methods.

Susan Freinkel

Susan Freinkel has also more recently authored Plastic, a Toxic Love Story.

Freinkel does a great job explaining these various efforts, the problems that have confounded the advocates of each, and the progress that has been made to date. But she also employs the story of the American Chestnut to shed light on the changing priorities and values of ecological science, while raising an array of important questions about the idea of restoration ecology, the possibilities and perils of bioengineering, and what limits humans should place on their interventions in the ecological landscapes they inhabit. American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Perfect Tree is a smart book and a compelling read. I have decided to assign it in my American Environmental History class next spring. I urge you to pick up a copy.

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Understanding the Past: Reading, Re-enacting, Performing


Understanding the Past: Reading, Re-enacting, Performing.

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Johnny Appleseed & the American Orchard in Rice University Legendary Americans Course


I was delighted to learn that Caleb McDaniel, Assistant Professor of History at Rice University in Houston, has incorporated Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard into his Legendary Americans course.  Dr. McDaniel is a leader in bringing Digital Humanities methods into both his research and teaching.  In his Legendary Americans course McDaniel employs blogging as both a living syllabus and a platform for student writing.  Students enrolled in this writing intensive freshman seminar are also reading Francois Furstenberg’s In the Name of the Father, Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation, James Crisp’s Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett’s Last Stand and Other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution, and Scott Reynolds Nelson’s  Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legendand readings on Sacajawea, Harriet Tubman, and others. McDaniel uses blogging as a way to guide students through progressively longer and more formal writing exercises.

problem of democracyMcDaniel uses public digital platforms in his own research as well, keeping an open-access wiki of his research in progress.  He recently published The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform with LSU Press (May 2013), and has begun a new project on emancipation in Texas and the Southwest.  McDaniel is a rising star among a new generation of historians who are revolutionizing both teaching and research methods in the profession by embracing the vast potential of the digital world.  Check out his Rice University page for informative links to his research and teaching and his “hacks” which provide many valuable tips for increasing academic productivity in a paperless environment.

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Michael Kammen reviews Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard


Available in hardcover and paper, as well as Kindle and Nook ebooks.

Available in hardcover and paper, as well as Kindle and Nook ebooks.

 

I was delighted to read Pulitzer prize winning historian Michael Kammen’s just published review of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard in the New England Quarterly.  Kammen, Professor of History at Cornell University, is the author of nine books, including the Pulitzer winning People of Paradox  and his book on the American Constitution, A Machine That Would Go of Itself, which won both the Francis Parkman and Henry Adams prizes.  The full review can be found online here, but it is behind a paywall.  I have excerpted a small part of it below:

[In Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard] Kerrigan, the Cole Distinguished Professor of American History at Ohio’s Muskingum University, delivers a succinct, meticulous, and fascinating triple biography of the man, the myth, and the American apple—a fine contribution to cultural and horticultural history. It supplants Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth (1967) by Robert Price, a volume that got many things right but spread quite a few misperceptions as well.  Kerrigan has scavenged through local lore, account ledgers, and receipts to come up with a gently iconoclastic chronicle that changes our image of Johnny from an strict vegetarian who proselytized on behalf of Swedenborgianism, distributing tracts the way he did seedlings, to a more realistic entrepreneur. He lived the life of a primitive Christian, often ragged, but not quite (or not quite consistently) penniless. He bought and sold tracts of land. As a new level of material well-being reached the Ohio Valley during the 1830s and ‘40s, he adapted but did not fundamentally change. Austerity suited him.

Kerrigan deftly illuminates the complexities of land speculation and the claims of land barons and their agents that Chapman faced when he began planting his nurseries in western Pennsylvania in 1796-97. . . [and] also draws attention to the many ways in which trees and apples took on larger symbolic meaning in Chapman’s time.

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Ode to the American Ash Tree


ash tree caldwellI recently noticed a tree on my campus which appeared to be near death. At its top bare branches stretched skyward, with just a few putting forth immature and sickly-looking leaves. Around its trunk a thicker cluster of leaves had formed, which I first assumed were from an opportunistic vine, but were in fact new branches coming up at its base. When I asked the director of the University physical plant about the tree, he told me that it was one of ten Ash trees on campus that have fallen victim to the Emerald Ash Borer, an Asian beetle which arrived in North America a little more than a decade ago, and has been wreaking havoc on indigenous Ash Trees across the Midwest. The thick knot of foliage around its trunk was this Ash tree’s desperate attempt at survival, pushing out new life from any part of its body not yet fully comprised by the shiny green beetle.

ash tree d hole

This tiny D-shaped hole is made by the Emerald Ash Borer as it enters and leaves the tree.

Upon closer inspection of this tree and two others I found, I could see the signs of the beetle’s presence: tiny D-shaped holes the beetle made as it entered and exited the tree, and in places where the bark had been removed, the squiggly lines left behind as the larvae ate through the tree.

The Emerald Ash Borer arrived in a cargo container from Asia at the port of Detroit in 2002, and has begun rapidly transforming the American canopy, first attacking Red and Green Ash, then, once those are no longer available, moving on to the White Ash. The arrival in North America of this attractively iridescent green beetle is just the latest chapter in the long story of the Columbian Exchange, a term scholars use to describe the consequences of the arrival of animals, plants, and pathogens carried intentionally or accidentally from one place to another as a result of human migration and global capitalism. Columbus gets the credit, or the blame,

The Emerald Ash Borer is a strikingly beautiful murderer.

The Emerald Ash Borer is a strikingly beautiful murderer.

because it was in the wake of his 1492 crossing from Europe to the Americas that human contact between once isolated regions became steady, and the environmental consequences of that reality began to play out in rather dramatic ways. The expansion of global capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st century has only accelerated ecological exchanges which have been going on for over 500 years. Any plant, animal or pathogen which has the potential to thrive in an eco-region different from its native one is already thriving there, or eventually will.  We cannot reverse the consequences of this new ecological reality, only seek to manage them.

The demise of native tree species perhaps receives more notice and provokes more regret and nostalgia than other Columbian-exchange induced extinctions. Just southeast of the village of New Concord is a sharp rise that some of the oldest residents of the village call Chestnut Hill, once a popular romantic and isolated picnic site where students seeking to escape the social strictures of a Presbyterian campus retreated with their dates. Today it contains no majestic Chestnut trees, which all succumbed to an imported fungus in the first half of the twentieth century.  Late nineteenth century photos of the town of New Concord reveal a Main Street cooled by the shade of American Elms arcing gracefully over the road. These, too, have vanished, the victim of another invader: Dutch Elm disease.

White Ash is hard put slightly pliant, and lighter than other Ash woods.

White Ash is hard put slightly pliant, and lighter than other Ash woods.

If indigenous Ash trees disappears from our lawns, our forests, and our landscapes, will their absence be noticed? The Ash tree does not have the majesty of the mighty oak, and I suspect if you were to ask someone to name the types of trees in their local forest, it might get left off their list. For much of the year the Ash goes unnoticed, late to leaf out, and not a prodigious producer of mast. But in the fall the bronze and mauve leaves of the White Ash are among the most striking of the season. Mostly, however, American Ash trees have been simply useful trees.  George Washington called the Black Ash the Hoop Tree, as its strong but pliant wood made very good barrel hoops. Many 18th and 19th century rail fences were made from the Red Ash, and Green Ash was often converted to canoe paddles.  The White Ash remains prized most of all, for a wood that is both strong and relatively light. It continues to play a central role in the American pastime, as the Louisville Slugger and virtually all high quality baseball bats are made from the White Ash tree. All of these trees are now threatened by the invasion of the Emerald Ash Borer.

My go-to book for information about local trees.

My go-to book for information about local trees.

Whenever I want to learn about a local tree, I pull Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America off my shelf first.  First published in 1948, I am sure it has been scientifically superseded by many other volumes. I am nonetheless drawn to its lyrical prose. The author was no mere scientist, but clearly a tree lover. Peattie declared the American White Ash to be “Nature’s last word,” and fittingly placed his description of it at the very end of the volume. Written more than half a century before anyone in North America was thinking about the Emerald Ash Borer, his last words on the tree are a fitting tribute, but hopefully not an epitaph:

How many thousand-thousand of untold Ash trees are the respected companions of our doorways, kindliest trees in the clearing beyond the cabin? No one can say. But this is a tree whose grave and lofty character makes it a lifetime friend. White Ash has no easy, pretty charms like Dogwod and Redbud; it makes no over-dramatic gestures like Weeping Willow and Lombardy Poplar. It has never been seen through sentimental eyes, like the Elm and the White Birch. Strong, tall, cleanly benignant, the Ash tree with self-respecting surety waits, until you have sufficiently admired all the more obvious beauties of the forest, for you to discover at last its unadorned greatness.

William Kerrigan is the Cole Professor of American History at Muskingum University, and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, which tells the story of the old world apple in America, from its arrival half a millenium ago to the present.

Another campus Ash Tree succumbing to the Emerald Ash Borer.

Another campus Ash Tree succumbing to the Emerald Ash Borer.

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Myth and Reality in the American Southwest


Today we are delighted to present American Orchard’s first-ever guest post, by Ben Railton, Professor of English and American Literature at Fitchburg State. Dr. Railton is the author of several publications, including the just-released Chinese Exclusion Act: What it Can Teach Us About America (Macmillan, 2013) as well as Redefining American Identity: From Cabeza deVaca to Barack Obama (Palgrave, 2011).  He also maintains the American Studies blog.

Myth and Reality in the American Southwest: On two folk heroes, and the competing frontier histories they reveal.

PecosBillEven as a kid, encountering his stories in a compilation of tall tales, I could tell that Pecos Bill was a bit of a Paul Bunyan knockoff—an outlandish origin story (Bill fell out of a wagon as a baby and was raised by a pack of wolves as one of their own), similarly larger-than-life animal companions (his otherwise un-rideable horse Widow-Maker, the rattlesnake Shake that he used as a lasso), an equally mythic love interest (Slue-Foot Sue, who rode a giant catfish down the Rio Grande). So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Bill was a late addition to the “big man” school of tall tales, likely created in 1916 by Edward O’Reilly and shoehorned back into the mythos of Westward expansion and the frontier.

That Bill didn’t come into existence until a half-century after the closing of the frontier doesn’t lessen his symbolic status, however—if anything, it highlights just how much the mythos of the American West was and is just that, a consciously created set of myths that have served to delineate after the fact a messy, dynamic, often dark, always complex region and history. Moreover, that mythos was as multi-cultural as the West, as illustrated by Mexican American folk hero Joaquin Murrieta, “the Robin Hood of El Dorado”: Murrieta, a California 49er from northern Mexico, first came to national prominence in a popular dime novel, John Rollin Ridge’s The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta (1854); the tales of his banditry have been a part of the region’s folk history ever since, including a cameo as Zorro’s older brother in the Antonio Banderas film The Mask of Zorro (1998).

Yet however much Murrieta’s story has been fictionalized and mythologized, it did originate with an actual historical figure—and that distinction can help us see past the myths to some of the frontier’s messier, darker, and more defining realities. For one thing, Murrieta apparently began his outlaw career after he and his family were violently dispossessed of a land claim, events which connect to the social and legal aftermath of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. For another, his gang’s victims included not only Anglo settlers but also Chinese laborers, revealing California’s genuinely and often painfully multicultural community as of the mid-19th century. A fuller engagement with these histories would in part force Americans to confront the centuries of conflict and violence that have so frequently comprised the world of the frontier—but it would also allow us to push beyond tall tales of larger-than-life individuals and to recognize just how collective and communal are both the myths and realities of the Southwest, and of America.

Check out Ben Railton’s American Studies blog for more great posts.

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