In which I look at an old legend through a new lens
In an example of excellent seasonal timing, today is the historian-approved birth date of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed.
Remember him? The guy who planted all those trees? Yeah, you know him.
He was born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts, to…to…you know what, I can’t do this, guys. I just can’t. I’m sorry.
I had such a nice autumnal story in mind, and I can’t bring myself to go through with it. How can I? How can I expound on any kind of American legend when the country that spun those legends is showing through like the thinnest of paper? When the house is crumbling, and the rot in its foundation exposed, and the powers that be responding with apathy at best and violence at worst? I just don’t have the emotional energy. I fear that Johnny, who had to work hard enough to spread a message of community and peace and love and apple trees in his own day, would look at us today and marvel at how the task went from difficult to nigh-on impossible.
This is the latest manifestation of a bitter malaise that has plagued me at intervals for months now, flaring up at certain times. As it has plagued millions of Americans, I suppose, alongside the medical plague that is plaguing us. The most recent episode is occasioned by the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the news of the lack of justice for Breonna Taylor’s murder. These events themselves are upsetting enough, causing many to feel effectively abandoned; but the implications of the far-reaching effects of these events are even more harrowing. The jeopardization of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision; the potential loss of the last vestige of women’s right to bodily autonomy; the determination that the value of property—and the lives of white neighbors—outweighs the value of a Black life; the judgment that the police are entitled, even encouraged, to kill and brutalize and terrorize Black people with impunity…
And all on the eve of a true life-or-death election.
Undoubtedly we have entered dystopian territory, the stuff of the books we devoured as adolescents. I told a cousin last week that it has never felt so wrong or so right to be outside the United States. Every explosion of doom-and-gloom news further complicates my expatriate existence. To watch my home country descend into madness—and, in some places, spontaneously combust—overwhelms me with guilt that I am safe. Guilt that I have any part in American-ness, and that even my stateside family are protected by their skin color and their generational wealth. Nothing outlandish, nothing compared to the billionaire class (I beg you not to get me started there), but the comfortable advantage of time. I joked when I was younger that my ambition was to be identified by my European ancestry, by the ancestral language I was learning to speak, and not by my citizenship. Even then, the strongest portion of that ancestry attained whiteness for themselves in America by stepping on more widely marginalized and despised groups, by exploiting the racism woven into the fabric of the New World, by clawing their way to the top. Italians are white in America today as they were not white a century ago. Guilt there as well.
Now I am ashamed to be an American. And then ashamed to be ashamed. I strain to take pride in the country that raised me and cared for me and gave me the resources that allowed me to go elsewhere, but that is becoming increasingly unrealistic with every glimpse of the torn, struggling communities for which it has not cared, never cared. Communities pleading for their lives. The very idea of pride, meanwhile, is twisted into virulent nationalism to propagate a genocidal agenda more boldly than ever before. Can a love of country coexist with a disgust at these conditions? Rage at the cruel systems built to serve one class and subjugate all others? Was any prior generation so confronted with this question? And if so, why are we trying and refusing to learn the same lessons?
The story of Johnny Appleseed concerns an ordinary person who, through willpower and kindness and patience and tenacity, was allegedly responsible for the proliferation of apple trees throughout the as-yet-unsettled western United States. But then I think of how settled those regions in fact were, by people who were forcibly evacuated from their land and herded away as a new government tried every tactic it knew to destroy them and their traditions. And so, as much as I wish I could wholeheartedly embrace the story, I can’t help but count it as perhaps just another story we told to make ourselves feel better.
I’m left at a loss. I want to believe in America. I want to not abandon it in its hour of need. But if I am an ocean away, signing my little petitions and making my little donations, listening as more and more of my fellow citizens perish from systemic negligence and aggression, haven’t I already done it?
Through the darkness and complexity of the American myth, through the despair it inspires us to grapple with, it remains true that we can rely on the apple. The apple is a symbol of regeneration and resilience, a historically condemned fruit that defiantly continues to nourish and cheer. Goodwill—an apple for the teacher. Health—an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Necessary and precious diversity—different strains, colors, textures, flavors, some better for eating and some for baking, able to be made into cider and pies and donuts and applesauce and much more. It is one of the most natural forms of sustenance. It grows, and it helps us to grow.
Whoever Johnny Appleseed really was, he believed in the apple. For me, there is no option but to do the same.
Eat an apple today. It might not make a difference, but it might. In any event, we can hardly hope to set about the work of saving ourselves and our democracy on an empty stomach.
Image: from Howe’s Historical Collection