My Father’s Shoes, by Marcia Aldrich


This lovely little story and loss and moving on from loss, set in an apple orchard, popped up in my facebook feed this morning. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.  It comes from River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative .

Photo "Old Brown Shoes" provided by Khánh Hmoong, via Flickr creative commons license.

Photo “Old Brown Shoes” provided by Khánh Hmoong, via Flickr creative commons license.

The day my father died, my husband and I drove in the bright, tilted light of autumn, past farms, pastures, and ponds, finally arriving at the orchard. We parked the car, picked up two half-bushel bags to fill, and walked up the trail of powdered dust, fine as confectioner’s sugar, that led to the grove. That’s when I noticed them—my father’s shoes on my husband’s feet.

They’re old man’s shoes, beige like the walls in retirement homes that take in widows and widowers when they have nowhere else to go. That’s where my father moved after my mother died, where by each identical door, on a little ledge, the resident displayed plastic flowers and stuffed animals.

I was disconcerted when Richard wore his shoes. I didn’t want him to put his feet where my father’s feet had rested. On the trail up the hill, Richard was shuffling like my father did the last time I saw him.

When we entered the lane of Mutsu trees under clear blue skies with fast moving clouds and the grass growing tall between the trees, the light went very pale. I no longer knew exactly who I was: was I a daughter following the footsteps of my father or a wife following my husband? Was my father dead or resurrected in my husband? Richard moved down the lane and disappeared inside the canopy of a tree. I could only see his shoes, my father’s shoes, glistening in the wet grass.

Marcia Aldrich

Mutsu Apples. Wikimedia Commons.

Mutsu Apples. Wikimedia Commons.

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Aside

The Urban Orchard Movement


Over the last decade, an urban orchard movement has emerged in cities all across America.  In Los Angeles an organization called Fallen Fruit, taking advantage of an old law that declares fruit hanging from branches that overhang public sidewalks and roadways is free to the passerby, publishes maps of the greater Los Angeles area, directing gleaners to such fruit.  The Philadelphia Orchard Project has been planting fruit trees across the city since 2007, enhancing green spaces and food security for the city’s residents.  Similar organizations have emerged in other cities, including The Portland Fruit Tree Project, Seattle’s City Fruit, and The Boston Tree Party.  All of these organizations share an “apple idealism” which links them to the tradition of the nation’s moat legendary tree planter, John “Appleseed” Chapman.  Lisa Gross, the founder of the Boston Tree Party, is evangelical in her belief that apple trees can improve the experience of urban living.  “Imagine our cities filled with fruit trees,” Gross exclaims, “planted in civic spaces, at schools and hospitals, parks and businesses, houses of worship and more.  Imagine these communities coming together to care for these trees, to harvest and share their fruit.  Imagine these trees as tools of environmental restoration, helping to restore the health of our soil, to improve air quality and to absorb rainwater runoff. Imagine these trees as community focal points, opportunities for participation, learning and connection.  This is the vision of the Boston Tree Party.”   For a longer discussion of the place the urban orchard movement has in the larger history of the American orchard, pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) from your local bookstore or favorite internet retailer.

An Unnatural History of Orange Juice


McPhee.oranges.1In 1965 John McPhee drove down to Florida during the harvest season, anticipating the opportunity to taste Florida’s famous orange juice at its freshest. When he stopped at a state welcome center promising free Florida orange juice, he was disappointed to be handed a small cup of juice reconstituted from frozen concentrate. Along the highway he noticed a sign for a restaurant which advertised orange juice, the word “fresh” still barely visible after being covered in white paint. And at a motel restaurant surrounded by orange groves, a waitress explained to him that all they offered was reconstituted juice. In 1965, nobody wanted fresh orange juice.  “Fresh is either too sour or too watery or too something,” the waitress explained. “Frozen is the same every day. People want to know what they’re getting.” McPhee wandered through the brave new world of hydroponically grown trees and frozen concentrated orange juice as an outsider—a man from another, much earlier time.  His description of the Florida citrus industry in an earlier stage of its embrace of industrialized processes is a fascinating read today, and it leaves the reader wondering if he had any idea what the next half century would bring. Could he have predicted that in 2013, most Americans would abandon the frozen concentrate, which seemed the height of modern back in the 1960s, and instead embrace something officially called “not-from-concentrate” because they believed–wrongly–it was somehow more authentic and natural, and, well, almost “fresh?”

Graphic from Business Week.

Graphic from Business Week.

Today the biggest American orange juice brands are subsidiaries of the two soda pop giants, Coke and Pepsi. A recent article in Business Week describes the very complex processes employed by soda giants to deliver consistent, “fresh-tasting” orange juice to grocery stores twelve months a year:  “The raw juice is . . . flash-pasteurized and piped to storage tanks as large as 2 million gallons each for up to eight months. Inside the tanks, the juice is slowly agitated at the bottom so it doesn’t settle. A nitrogen gas blanket at the top keeps out rot-inducing oxygen. Batches of juice from various crops and seasons are segregated based on features such as orange type, sweetness, and acidity. In-season juice is typically mixed with off-season juice.” Flavor essences are extracted from rind and pith, then eventually reintroduced into the juice. Coca Cola chemists employ an algorithm they call “Black Book” to ensure that the juices from these older and newer oranges, as well as the flavor essences, are mixed exactly right to achieve perfect consistency in taste.

squeezedThe juices created by these processes appear in the supermarket under brand names like Simply Orange, which touts itself as “honestly simple” and Tropicana Pure Premium, which declares itself to be “100% Pure and Natural.” To be fair, anyone who takes the time to visit Tropicana’s website can watch this video “Grove to Glass: How Tropicana Makes Juice,” and learn how complex the process actually is. But is it deceptive to declare that these juices are “honestly simple,” “fresh-tasting” and “100% Pure and Natural” on their labels? Alissa Hamilton, author of Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice argues that the typical consumer of orange juice believes they are getting something closer to fresh, when they plunk down extra coin for juices that tout themselves as “not from concentrate” and “never frozen.”

Perhaps Americans, caught between the conflicting desires for fresh and natural, on one hand, and convenience, consistency, and “permanent global summertime” on the fresh a perishableother are willingly bamboozled. Or perhaps the very meaning of terms like “natural” and “fresh” are in flux. In her fascinating book Fresh: A Perishable History Susan Freidberg contends that the very meaning of the word “fresh” has changed as we have developed new technologies to keep things from spoiling. Freidberg examines the changing meanings of “fresh” for a range of food products, from fruits and vegetables to milk, fish, and beef. “On the surface, few food qualities seem as unquestionably good as freshness. Dig a little deeper,” Freidberg warns, “and few qualities appear more complex and contested. At bottom, the history of freshness reveals much about our uneasy appetites for modern living, especially in the United States.”

The May Apple


A not quite ready may apple at the New Concord Reservoir woods.

A not quite ready may apple at the New Concord Reservoir woods.

At this time of year, in the woods where I walk my dogs every day, the forest floor is covered with may apples. They were even the first green shoot to rise up out of the blackened soil after a fire recently burned a section of these woods.  The may apple is one of the many wild fruits indigenous to North America, harvested and enjoyed by native peoples before the arrival of Europeans on these shores.  My friend Jason Mancini, senior researcher at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut, calls the may-apple “the sweetest fruit.” I have never been able to taste it myself, for as soon as the green fruit ripens to yellow in midsummer, the animals of my forest gobble them up. (If you decide to experiment on your own, know that the plant itself is poisonous, and the unripe fruit can have a laxative effect.) One early European explorer who tasted the fruit, considered a delicacy by Native Americans, declared that it “taste like apricocks.”

Many early engravings of North America depicted a land of extraordinary abundance.

Many early engravings of North America depicted a land of extraordinary abundance.

Early European explorers of North America paid close attention to the fruits of the land, and most did not hesitate to try the strange fruits they encountered, offering up descriptions of both their taste and their abundance. These early chroniclers sought to assess the suitability of these lands for European settlement, and they devoted much space to describing the soils, climate, and “air,” but also the abundance or scarcity of wild game, fish, birds, and wild fruits. By describing a landscape as “fruitful” colonial promoters were declaring that it promised abundance, health, and prosperity to those willing to colonize it. In contrast, any lands lacking in edible, delectable fruits were to be avoided. On a more practical level, an abundance of edible wild fruits, nuts, and berries (as well as fish and game) could be an important source of sustenance in the first years of any colony.

Colony promoters often tried to paint a picture of a New World Eden, where ripe fruits could be simply plucked from bushes and trees without labor. “This Countrey is a fruitfull soile, bearing many goodly and fruitfull Trees” declared George Percy, an early promoter of the Virginia colony. Percy described encountering “a little plat of ground full of fine and beautifull Strawberries, foure times bigger and better than ours in England” and an American wilderness as “all flowing over with faire flowers of sundry colours and kindes, as though it had beene in any Garden or Orchard in England.”

Thomas Harriot, holding an apple.

Thomas Harriot, holding an apple.

Thomas Harriot, another early English promoter of colonization visited Virginia in 1590 and found “the soils to be fatter” and “more plenty of their fruits, more abundance of their beastes.” Harriot wrongly identified persimmons as a type of Medlar, and described the prickly pear as “a kind of pleasant fruit.” New world grapes he deemed “a merchantable commodity” and declared the native wild strawberries “as good and as great as those we have in our English gardens.” Other fruits he identified as familiar were “mulberries, apple-crabs . . . and hurtleberries.” Almost two centuries later, William Bartram noted that North American strawberries were “a finer, [more] delicate fruit” than any grown in Europe, and another traveler described them as covering the ground “as with a red cloth.” The abundance of fruit suggested a life beyond mere survival, and one in which the promise of comfort, even luxury was possible.  Who could not read a description of abundant fields of strawberries and trees bending downward under the weight of fruit and not taste the sweet juice on their tongue, or feel it dripping over their lip and down their chin?

Roman politician Lucullus, gastronome of the first order.

Roman politician Lucullus, gastronome of the first order.

Reactions to the first tastes of New World fruits were mixed. Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano described the native crab apples of the Americas to be “apples worthy of Lucullus.” As Native Americans generally roasted them in the fire or marinated them in maple syrup to counter the crab apple’s bitterness, perhaps Verrazano’s first impression was the result of taste buds conditioned during a long sea journey by the consumption of dried up limes. In contrast, one Englishman warned others to be careful with the persimmon, for “if it be not ripe it will draw a man’s mouth awry with much torment.”

While adventurous explorers and promoters often provided positive reports of native fruits, other European observers were less enthusiastic about New World varieties. Historian Alfred Crosby has pointed out that “Europeans would come to the New World in great numbers only if a dependable supply [of] familiar European food was available.” Cultural prejudices which Europeans brought with them to the Americas made many at first reluctant to adopt Native American foods, and typically did so only out of necessity. English settlers put aside their initial prejudice against Indian maize, for example, only after confronting the reality that it was much easier to plant and tend in unbroken soils than English wheat and barley.

Father Paul Le Jeune

Father Paul Le Jeune

Upon his arrival in Quebec in 1634, Jesuit Father Paul LeJeune declared that “all the fruits they have (except strawberries and raspberries, which they have in abundance) are not worth one single species of the most ordinary fruits of Europe,” and promptly set out several rows of Old World apples and peaches to remedy the perceived deficiency. As waves of Europeans migrated to North America and established permanent colonies, they brought the fruits of their home with them.  Some, like the Old World apple and peach thrived in the new environment, and some Native American tribes began to cultivate them and incorporate them into their diet. At the same time, Europeans grew to value many of North America’s indigenous fruit, including the pumpkin, blueberries and indigenous strawberries.  But the fruits of the wild may apple, which still fill the forest floors of much of eastern North America, has mostly been left for other animals to enjoy.

May Apples were the first plants to sprout from the forest floor after a recent fire.

May Apples were the first plants to sprout from the forest floor after a recent fire.

The most dangerous tree in the suburbs


The Sweet Gum Tree

A classic suburban Sweet Gum tree in the Fall.

A classic suburban Sweet Gum tree in the Fall.

A forty foot tall Sweet Gum tree rises from the northeast corner of my back yard. On this early spring day, the tree is still a skeleton, although leaf buds are just beginning to emerge and dozens of Sweet Gum balls dangle from its naked branches like shriveled Christmas tree ornaments. Hundreds more lie scattered throughout the grass, and spill out onto the alleyway asphalt, where most are flattened by car wheels. In a few weeks, the Sweet Gum’s glossy green leaves–five pointed stars–will emerge. Then a new crop of gumballs, green throughout the summer, but gradually drying out to become spiky brown seed-carrying hulls. The finches, nuthatches and chickadees will then begin pressing their small beaks into the Sweet Gum balls’ many chambers, extracting the two edible seeds that each chamber contains. Larger bird species with beaks too large to get to the seeds leave these to their smaller competitors. In the fall the Sweet Gum’s leaves will turn yellow, then purple, then red, and will be among the last of the leaves in my yard to drop. One by one, from late fall steadily through the winter, most of the dried out gum balls, long since deprived of their seeds, will drop from the Sweet Gum’s branches.

The bark of the Sweet Gum, sometimes called Alligator Wood.

The bark of the Sweet Gum, sometimes called Alligator Wood.

Liquidambar styraciflua gets its name from the resin the tree produces. It was used to add a distinctive balsamic flavoring to the first pipe of tobacco Aztec Emperor Moctezuma shared with Conquistador Hernando Cortez. Spanish physician and New World explorer Francisco Hernandez became an early convert to its value, claiming it had a range of healing properties. He claimed it was effective in treating gonorrhea and diptheria, was a pain reliever and a sleep aid, and that it “relieve[d] wind in the stomach.” In some parts of the American South, where the tree is abundant, locals call it Alligator Wood because its furrowed and scaly bark resembles the skin of that southern reptile.

Sweet Gum Balls from my yard.

Sweet Gum Balls from my yard.

My southeastern Ohio yard is near the northern edge of the Sweet Gum’s natural range. This is a southern tree, and in warmer climates, undisturbed, the tree can reach heights of one hundred or more feet high. Mine has probably reached its peak height, and its natural conical symmetry has been compromised by the regular hair cuts it has received from American Electric Power crews determined to keep its east-reaching branches out of the power lines which run along the edge of my property. My house was built in 1962, by Dr. William and Beatrice Fisk, and while this tree might have preceded the house, it fits so nicely into their carefully designed landscape plan I suspect they deliberately planted it there.

A nuthatch among the Sweet Gum balls.

A nuthatch among the Sweet Gum balls.

There was a time not too long ago when the Sweet Gum was a popular choice for suburban yards. It grows relatively fast, has a pleasing symmetrical shape and fabulous fall color. In the mid 1940s, as Dutch Elm disease swept across the midwest, killing off the graceful elms which lined the streets of so many towns, the Sweet Gum was a popular replacement tree.  The Arbor Day Foundation gave out thousands of young Sweet Gum saplings to the children of Springfield, Illinois who eagerly planted them along the sidewalks in front of their homes.

A close up look at a Sweet Gum ball.

A close up look at a Sweet Gum ball.

But today, the Sweet Gum has disappeared from most of the tree nursery catalogs catering to the suburban homeowner, and the Sweet Gum now appears on many top ten lists of the worst trees to plant in your yard. It not only made the list of the “Five Worst Trees for the Lazy Landscaper,” but it was the runaway victor in the website’s “Which of these is your least favorite messy tree?” poll, earning 60% of the votes. The Catalpa came in a distant second place with just 15% of the vote, followed by the Magnolia (13%) Pecan (8%) and Oak (5%).  The Sweet Gum’s primary liability, according to the makers of this list, are the thousands of spiny brown seed balls–gum balls if you will–that it casts upon the ground around it.

Birth control injections for Sweet Gum trees.

Birth control injections for Sweet Gum trees.

According to the Lazy Landscaper, these “hard, brown, spiky balls that can create some serious hazards. Not only can they wound you if you slip and fall into them, they can also roll unexpectedly, causing sprained ankles.” Because of their spiky nature, they are difficult to rake up.  And don’t try to run your lawnmower over them, Lazy Landscaper warns, as “when airborne they are as dangerous as grenades.” As demand has plummeted for the Sweet Gum some national nurseries like Stark Brothers’ Nurseries responded by offering a hybrid Sweet Gum tree, billed as “nearly gumball free.” But even that was not enough to sustain demand for the increasingly despised Sweet Gum, and Stark Brothers has stopped carrying Sweet Gums altogether. Some  Sweet Gum Ball foes have offered another  solution–birth control for Sweet Gum Trees. Apparently by drilling a series of holes around the base of a Sweet Gum tree and injecting hormones into each hole you can keep a Sweet Gum tree from fruiting.

Perhaps I need to place this sign near my Sweet Gum tree.

Perhaps I need to place this sign near my Sweet Gum tree.

The anti-Sweet Gum movement appears to have reached a new stage in the very town that turned to the Sweet Gum as it grieved the loss of its beloved elms. In 2012, Springfield, Illinois launched a Sweet Gum eradication campaign, offering to remove the tree from the tree lawns of residents, and replace them with a variety deemed more suitable, all for a city-subsidized cost of just $250. The Sweet Gums, even one of its quasi-defenders claims, create a “death-defying obstacle course for distracted walkers, runners, and everyone in between.” And while a few of Springfield’s residents have spoken up for the nuthatches, finches, and chickadees, the bulk of the criticism appears to be coming from residents who believe that the city is not removing these menaces fast enough. Very quickly after announcing the program, Springfield had received requests to remove 338 Sweet Gums, and Springfield’s anti Sweet Gum citizenry are just going to have to be patient.

Now I’ve been pushing my gas powered mower over a lawn full of Sweet Gum balls for years, and have escaped unwounded. And while barefoot walks around my raggedly lawn often yield an unwelcome sharp prod or two from one natural hazard or another, I have managed to escape serious injury. Is my lovely Sweet Gum tree really a hazard to people and pets? Am I failing to be a good citizen by not cutting it down? It didn’t seem right to reject the complaints of the growing anti-Sweet Gum movement out of hand. In the interest of science and good neighborliness, I thought I should conduct a test, with myself as the lab rat. I would conduct my own firewalk of sorts. I would walk barefoot under my Sweet Gum Tree.

Two dangers in this picture: Sweet Gum balls and the blinding white glare of my winter foot.

Two dangers in this picture: Sweet Gum balls and the blinding white glare of my winter foot.

I confess to having some trepidation during my first naked-footed pass under the Sweet Gum. I stepped gingerly and with much anticipation, keeping one hand hovering above my backyard fence, ready to grab ahold of it should a quick sharp stab cause me to collapse into a bed of thousands of menacing spiked balls. But on my first pass I experienced just a few mildly unpleasant jabs on the bottom of my winter-softened feet. Passes two and three were equally non-eventful, and I grew bolder in my steps. By the fourth pass I was actively looking for Sweet Gum balls to press my arch down upon, and each time I was disappointed by the mildness of the pain, as the grass underneath gave way, cushioning the impact of the Sweet Gum ball’s spikes. I finally I settled upon a more challenging test–I would walk barefoot across the pavement of the adjacent alley, where several Sweet Gumballs were scattered, not yet crushed by passing car wheels. I spotted an especially large one on the pavement and planted one bare foot firmly down upon it. Yes, it hurt a bit. And had I not been prepared for it, it is possible that my knee might have buckled in response to the surprise pain, and I might have tumbled to the pavement, skinning knees and risking infections. Still, my foot got the better of the encounter. The spiky Sweet Gum ball lay crushed and broken on the pavement, and the tender skin under my winter-softened foot remained unbroken.

I have resolved to become a Sweet Gum defender and steward of my town’s remaining Sweet Gum Trees. The finches, nuthatches and chickadees need an ally. Perhaps I will write a song about the Sweet Gum and play it on my ukulele.

The War On the Cider Apple


johnny appleseed coverJohn “Appleseed” Chapman was a propagator of seedling apple trees–trees whose fruit was of unpredictable quality and often too bitter for fresh-eating.  While early 19th century farmers could find many home uses for seedling apples, among the most common uses was the production of hard cider.  As improved roads and canals began to link more rural Americans into the market economy, the seedling apple tree came under increasing assault, not just from agricultural reformers who disdained it for its lack of commercial value, but also from temperance reformers who viewed it as an important source for alcohol.  The following excerpt from Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard explains how the temperance movement’s war of the poor seedling apple tree emerged:

. . . by the end of the 1820s, the threat to John Chapman’s seedling orchards was not simply economic and scientific but, increasingly, moral. Fruit from a seedling tree had many uses for a family of course, but in a world where more and more farmers grew food to sell rather than consume, the seedling orchard came to be seen as having just one purpose, the production of hard cider and cider brandy. Per capita alcohol consumption rates in the United States were among the highest in the world in the 1820s, and a temperance movement emerged to combat the evil of drink. Whiskey and other distilled spirits were the focus of many of the early temperance advocates, as their extremely high alcohol content made them the greatest threat. Homemade apple 220px-Peter-Cartwrightcider began its life free from alcohol, then gradually fermented to a content of 6 to 8 percent. “New cider” was the term most frequently used for that beverage that had yet to ferment. When the circuit-riding minister Peter Cartwright stopped at an inn for a dinner of hot bread, he and his companion washed it down with “new cider.” It was not until they mounted their horses and renewed their journey that they realized the refreshing beverage they had so eagerly quaffed was not so new, as both men had trouble staying upright on their horses. Because the alcohol content of cider was not enough to ward off the growth of bacteria, cider-makers frequently fortified it with corn whiskey or other distilled spirits to get its alcohol content above 10 or 12 percent. Another common method was to leave the barrels outside on a cold night and scrape off the ice that formed in the top half of the barrel overnight; what was left behind, often called applejack had roughly double the alcohol content.

Some early advocates of temperance viewed hard cider as relatively harmless, even as moral thermometera healthful alternative to distilled spirits. Benjamin Rush was among the earliest advocates of moderation in the consumption of alcohol and boasted that a crowd of seventeen thousand who had gathered in Philadelphia on July 4, 1788, celebrated with nothing but beer and cider, “those invaluable federal liquors” in Rush’s construction, in contrast to hard liquor, which he associated with antifederalism. Rush also produced a “moral and physical thermometer” assessing various beverages on their health and moral properties. Water, milk, and “small beer” were at the top and the drinks of the truly temperate, while gin, whiskey, and rum were the beverages of the most dissipated. But Rush placed “Cider and Perry” just below the beverages of the truly temperate and suggested their effects were not all bad–that they produced “Cheerfulness, Strength, and Nourishment, when taken only at meals, and in moderate quantities.” Farm laborers seemed to agree, as farmers who took on hired hands in the harvesting season were expected to provide their workers with a ready supply of hard cider to refresh them and keep up their strength.

In its earliest years, leading advocates of temperance called for moderation in the consumption of alcohol and the avoidance of distilled spirits. But as the movement gained steam in the 1820s, an “ultraist” faction began pressing for total abstention from alcohol. They rejected the view that cider-drinking should be tolerated or seen as a “healthy” alternative to distilled spirits. A man could get drunk on cider as surely as he could on whiskey. “It takes a long time to make a man a drunkard on cider,” one anti-cider crusader declared, “but when made, he is thoroughly made, is lazy, bloated, stupid, cross and ugly, wastes his estate, his character, and the happiness of his family.” Another ultra who campaigned against hard cider claimed its effect on families was often worse than distilled spirits. He cited the wife of a cider-drunkard who had told him that “cider made [the drunkard] more brutal and ferocious in his family. Rum overcame him quicker, laid him prostrate and helpless on the floor, or in the ditch; cider excited him and gave him the rage and the strength of a maniac.”

cider barrelBy the late 1820s, the ascendant ultraist faction in the temperance movement began to point an accusing finger at the farmer’s seedling apple trees. An article republished in religious and agricultural journals across the country in 1827 raised the question “What Shall I Do with My Apples?” Its author was determined to make the cider apple the newest front in the contest between God and Mammon, declaring that this was a question every Christian farmer should be asking himself. “If he gathers his apples, of course he must make them into cider; and if he makes the cider, of course he must sell it; and if he is to sell it, of course he must sell it to the distiller, or procure it distilled and then sell the brandy; and if the brandy is sold, it must be drank, and in this way every barrel will make and circulate liquid fire enough to ruin a soul, if not destroy a life.” The author of the piece rejected the farmer’s argument that to leave apples to rot was to waste God’s bounty and instead cast the farmer as acting in pursuit of profits in the marketplace at the expense of his neighbors. “If no other market can be found for our cider, but at the still, let it be a matter of conscientious inquiry with every farmer, whether it is right for him to make more cider than he wants for reasonable use in his own family” when he knows his surplus will be distilled into cider brandy and sold to the intemperate. The author of the piece concluded that the only righteous path for the Christian farmer to take in regards to his seedling trees was to “burn them.”

cider appleOthers began to pile on. A correspondent in Cincinnati’s Western Observer said that farmers who raised fruit for the cider and brandy market would only join the temperance crusade “if ever the dictates of conscience get the ascendancy over the mammon of unrighteousness,” framing the problem in the familiar language of a struggle between market-driven capitalism and Christian values. A letter in The Western Recorder condemned “a certain innkeeper for purchasing two barrels of Hard cider for $1.25 each” and selling it to his customers, one of whom “had a bill of $8 charged to him for his portion of the cider, which, at six pence a quart, would amount to thirty-two gallons!” The innkeeper was “a professor of religion” and therefore should have refused to sell alcohol. Instead, he had made a nice profit at the drunkard’s expense. By putting “the bottle to the mouth of his neighbor, [he] has done the deed, and is now calculating . . . on the wages of his iniquity.” The Western Christian Advocate recounted the story of a good temperance man and churchgoer who was regularly in the habit of turning his surplus apples into cider until the day he encountered a neighbor and fellow church member who got drunk on it. Troubled by his complicity in his friend’s downfall, he destroyed his cider press and never made the beverage again.

But other campaigners against cider, perhaps conceding that in a contest between piety and profit the latter would ultimately win, began to make the case that taking apples to the cider mill was neither in the farmer’s moral nor in his pecuniary interest. The costs of the hired hands required to gather all of the apples, the efforts to get the fruit to the cider mill, and the fees for processing them into cider were greater than the returns, these writers claimed, as cider fetched such low prices on the market. A more profitable strategy was for the farmer to let the hogs have those apples not fit for fresh eating. Self-provisioning farmers had long followed this practice, as it kept orchard floors clean and their small stock of half-wild pigs fat, and it required little of their scarce labor. But now horticultural improvers converted to temperance promoted fattening hogs on cider apples to a class of farmers concerned with maximizing the revenue on their farms. Those seedling apples lying on the orchard floor could be “converted” to pork with little effort. Both religious magazines and the agricultural journals devoted to improvement enthusiastically embraced the strategy of fattening hogs destined for markets on the old orchard’s windfalls.

By 1829, at least a few farmers had taken the advice of “burn them” to heart. One report circulated in several journals told of a New Haven, Connecticut, gentleman who “ordered a fine apple orchard to be cut down, because the fruit may be converted into an article to promote intemperance.” The editor of the New York Enquirer mocked this wasteful action, opining that “in this age of Anti-Societies, we may soon see the worthless of the land in league, to establish an Anti-Apple and Anti-RyeSociety. Every time and age has its mania:–We hope the world will sober down before dooms-day.” The story of the monomaniacal temperance man destroying apple orchards became part of the folklore of New England and the Midwest, and not only missing orchards 230px-Henry_David_Thoreaubut also abandoned ones were attributed to the zeal of the reformers. Years later, Henry David Thoreau bemoaned the loss of seedling apple trees across the New England countryside. He repeated a story he had heard “of an orchard in a distant town on the side of a hill where the apples rolled down and lay four feet deep against a wall on the lower side, and this owner cut down for fear they should be made into cider.” Thoreau was nostalgic for that time “when men both ate and drank apples, when the pomace heap was the only nursery, and trees cost nothing but the trouble of setting them out,” a time long past when he penned these words in 1859.

The number of orchards actually chopped down by temperance ultraists was likely not as great in reality as in local folklore. But the endless moral castigations orchard-owning farmers faced from the temperance crusaders seemed to have an effect. Many a pious farmer was surely troubled by the accusations that by selling apples to cider mills he was serving Mammon instead of God. Many writers attributed the abandonment and neglect of old seedling orchards across New England to the temperance crusade, their owners apparently deciding to forgo the attacks on their moral character by simply neglecting orchards and letting nature swallow them up.

Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard at your favorite bookstore.  Also available for Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader.

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.

 

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.