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.

Urban Orchards as “positive graffiti”

Photo by John Hancox, of the Commonwealth Orchard Project.

Photo by John Hancox, of the Commonwealth Orchard Project.

I wanted to share this very interesting piece about the community growing movement in Scotland, which has been working to hand neglected urban lands over to local residents and empower them to turn it into orchards and gardens.  One of the leaders of this movement is John Hancox, whose group the Commonwealth Orchard Project is providing resources and training to help local volunteers plant and maintain community orchards. The author of this piece, Max J. Muir, is arguing that this new interest in community orchards and gardens is one hopeful sign in an era when citizens are increasingly disengaged from electoral politics.  Here’s an excerpt:

Community orchards arise when disused public and private land is turned over to fruit growing and planned and maintained by the local community. Hancox is keen to stress that the significance of Scottish community growing lies mainly in its political dimensions, rather than its environmental ones. What matters is that local people are actively involved in shaping their surroundings, not that they’re shortening the food supply chain and eschewing pesticides. It is a low-cost, low-maintenance way of involving people in productive enterprise, putting Scotland’s vast reserves of vacant land into use.

“Positive graffiti” is Hancox’s term for it: when people are able to materially alter their environment through their own efforts, rather than relying on governmental institutions to impose a specific conception of what the public space ought to look like. It’s this inclusivity and empowerment that makes community controlled spaces different from those designed and laid out by the council, or allotment plots. Though individual allotments do typically provide creative fulfilment to those fortunate enough to have the use of one, that reward is essentially private. Community agriculture brooks a radically different notion of shared space – as an environment open to the exercise of direct and consensus-based control over its design and purpose.

Interest in this form of political engagement is growing- Hancox estimates that there are over 500 community orchards now operating in schools and on disused plots of public and private land in Scotland, plus tens of larger community farms in ForresFairlieAngusGlasgow and elsewhere, as well as intermittently active groups more overtly aimed at challenging traditional property rights – such as the Glasgow Guerilla Gardeners. Nor is this trend rooted only in agriculture: Scotland’s Hacklabs – “community-operated physical spaces where people with common interests can meet, socialise and collaborate”- in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Findhorn offer skill-sharing opportunities and community use of costly tools and machinery, thereby democratising access to high technology and education.

I love this term “positive graffiti,” to describe one way people materially improve their environments, even when at times it involves challenging or ignoring ideas about “private property,” which might otherwise restrict their opportunities to take an active role in making their own communities more liveable spaces. I am also intrigued by the parallels between Scotland’s urban orchards, some on privately-owned but neglected urban spaces and John “Appleseed” Chapman’s efforts to establish apple tree nurseries on the lands of absentee land speculators on the American trans-appalachian frontier. To some extent, both present modest challenges to the status quo at moment when property law was a barrier to building strong, healthy communities.

I urge you to read the entire article, and to check out the Commonwealth Orchard Project’s blog. Scotland’s COP is another example of the ways that the simple act of planting fruit trees is helping to create a healthier, more democratic world.

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.

Wildflowers or Apples? Can’t We Have Both?

city fruit logoA recent Op-Ed in the New York Times castigated advocates of urban gardening as “greedy,” and “short-sighted,” arguing that the recent trend of planting orchards and edible plants in cities is a threat to wildflowers and the pollinators who depend upon them.  Mariellé Anzelone is the Executive Director of NYC Wildflower Week, and she seems to think that urban orchardists, rather than asphalt parking lots, concrete freeways, and contaminated brownfields, are the real threats to native pollinators.  In advancing this argument, Ms. Anzelone relies heavily on an old nativist trope, describing most fruit trees as “imported,” and thus, we are to conclude, bad and environmentally harmful.  Yes, it is true that peach, pear  and apple trees–and some plum varieties–have only been in North America for four to five hundred years, as has the European honey bee, one of the primary pollinators of these trees. “Most commercial fruit trees, and food crops for that matter, hail from other ports of call,” Ms. Anzelone reminds us, and declares that “A monoculture of exotic imports offers little nourishment for our wild neighbors” as a specific variety of fruit trees will only be in bloom for a short time each year.

philly orchard project 2 colorThe problem with Ms. Anzelone’s argument that urban orchards and food forests are “monocultures” is that it doesn’t much resemble reality, and she could learn a great deal by visiting these sites and speaking with their volunteers. Organizations like the Philadelphia Orchard Project aren’t exactly planting acres of “monoculture.”  These modest-sized orchards typically incorporate a variety of fruit and nut trees and berry bushes, with each variety blossoming at different times, thereby offering pollinators an extended feeding period.  The Boston Tree Party’s “urban, decentralized orchard” is really just pairs of apple trees dispersed throughout the city. Seattle’s new Beacon Food Forest, currently just 1.5 acres with aspirations to grow to a total of 7 acres, explodes with edible plant diversity.  In fact, most urban orchards contain gardens of other flowering plants as well.

portland fruit logoAdvocates of urban orchards and gardens and the champions of wildflowers are in fact natural allies, not enemies.  Both are deeply interested in the health of pollinator communities. Urban orchard organizations are staffed primarily with committed volunteers, and are not profit-driven affairs, seeking to maximize short-term production without regard to long term environmental health and sustainability.  The kinds of people involved in them share the same values and perspectives that most champions of wildflowers do.

Is this urban orchard in Philly a threat to native insect pollinators?

Is this urban orchard in Philly a threat to native insect pollinators?

Instead of declaring groups like the Philadelphia Orchard Project, the Boston Tree Party, Seattle’s City Fruit, the Portland Fruit Tree Project, and Los Angeles’ Fallen Fruit collective to be the enemy, organizations like NYC Wildflower Week should be reaching out to them as potentially valuable allies. Certainly urban orchardists are open to learning about and adopting new methods for making their plantings more pollinator friendly, and given the modest size and dispersion of these orchards, it is much easier to make them pollinator friendly than it is to do the same to large scale rural commercial orchards which cover vast tracts of ground. Planting wildflower verges around urban gardens and orchards, and sowing clover or wildflowers in the midst of an orchard are some simple and practical ways of providing food for pollinators over a longer season. And I simply can’t imagine advocates of urban orchards actively working to replace urban wildflower lands with “exotic monocultures.” I would urge NYC Wildflower Week to reconsider their campaign against urban orchard, and instead to reach out to groups like Fruit TreesNY, who I am sure would be eager to work cooperatively to make the city a greener, more pollinator-friendly place.

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.

Adam’s Apples Reviews Johnny Appleseed & the American Orchard


Available in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and Nook versions.

Available in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and Nook  and Sony Reader versions.

Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard received a nice review on Adam’s Apples blog a few weeks ago.  I was especially pleased to get a favorable review from Adam because his blog has been my go-to blog for informed and reliable opinions on apple varieties for a long time.  Whenever I encounter an apple variety at a farm stand or in the grocery store that is new to me, I check out Adam’s opinionated catalog of apples, and more often than not, he has images and a spot-on review.  His catalog includes both old heritage varieties and the newest cultivars on the market.

Here’s an excerpt of the review from Adam’s Apples.  I urge you to check out the blog and opinionated catalog as well.  I think you will find it to be an invaluable resource.

Here’s an excerpt of Adam’s review:

Historian William Kerrigan has given us a view of Chapman’s life, but also of ourselves, in his book Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History (Johns Hopkins University Press 2012).

Kerrigan traces Chapman’s story from his family’s beginnings in colonial Massachusetts to his apotheosis into folk legend and Disney character, a process mediated by American culture.

Along the way Kerrigan, a history professor at Muskingum University in Ohio, paints a vivid portrait of the American frontier in the time between the Revolution and Chapman’s death in 1845.

His account of Chapman’s life veers fruitfully into stories about apples and cider and their social and economic significance in American life. These detours include some of my favorite stories of his book, chronicling the social and political divide between lowly sapling pippins and high-born grafted cultivars.

Cider figured in the presidential election of 1840 and was later a target of the temperance movement.

Kerrigan brings us up to date with accounts of the Red Delicious bubble of the 1980s, recent Johnny Appleseed scholarship, and modern business models for breeding and marketing new apple varieties.

Thanks, Adam, for the nice review!