A Green Apple
To quote Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish philosopher and mystic, “We can see from this (from Nature), as though in a mirror, how perfection stems from variety in heaven as well, since things that happen in the natural world offer us a reflection of things in the spiritual world.” When we look upon variety in Nature, that variety corresponds to a spiritual reality. I find myself standing in a wheat field; before me the crop stretches out across the undulating topography. As I walk the path, my eyes catch upon the uniform lines, the crops, perfectly ordered. After a short time, I reach the edge of a wood, and stepping across the threshold, moving from the field to the wood, my spirit is lifted, for I have gone from the singular to the varied. From the land ordered by man, to the land ordered by God.
Here, where the variety is at its greatest, there is a more perfect whole. To engage with it, to be caught up with it, to commune with this sacred symbiotic, is to have one’s spirit revivified. Swedenborg’s insights concerning spirituality and the natural order, have had a profound effect upon the landscape of ideas. This notion that we can view the natural world as a sacred experience, a place to encounter the divine, influenced Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, W. B. Yeats, and Carl Jung, to name a few - some of the individuals that occupy me. And so, we can consider Swedenborg’s approach in relation to apples, and more broadly to apple trees, in their great variety. Take the apple seed: in an apple seed you have the infinite potential for propagation, one seed begets a tree, which begets more apples, more seeds, more trees… an infinite wealth of variety. Swedenborg would take this insight, and see it as reflecting something of God’s character, reflecting God’s infinite and creative potential, infinite potentials branching off, and yet all one. Or, you could view God as a seed, in the sense that he is planted within you, as a conduit of love, hope, or compassion, and as those ideas root down within you, and become more than ideas, become part of you, you in turn propagate, and plant such seeds of compassion in others, which again take root, and on and on it goes, ad infinitum, a divine process within the great whole.
Take a green apple, a Granny Smith from the table, cut it in half, and recover one of the seeds. Go outside and plant it in the soil, and the seed will germinate, its roots will spread down into the ground, and a green shoot will break up out of the soil. Slowly it will reach up into the air, and after a period of time, six to ten years, the apple tree will begin to bear fruit. What you may not know, however, is that the tree will not bear Granny Smith apples. The seeds of an apple differ significantly genetically from the parent plant. So, the apples that the tree would bear would have a random assortment of characteristics. It would probably be more of a russet, with a rougher exterior than you’re used to, probably a less appealing colouration, and probably more sour than you’re used to also. In order to have our new tree bear Granny Smith apples, you would need to take a branch from a Granny Smith apple tree, cut it off, and graft it on to our new tree, thus cloning the original. And to complicate things slightly more, the proximity of the trees to one another is also important, because bees pollinate from one tree to the other. All the apples we can buy at the supermarket today are the result of English Victorian and pre-Victorian horticulturists experimenting with apples’ taste, colour, and textures, and have all been preserved since then by grafting and re-grafting. So, the Granny Smith apple, for example, was discovered by an English woman living in Australia, Maria Ann Smith, aka Granny Smith. She found the seedling growing in her compost bin (this is in 1868). She took it out of the compost, cared for it, and it grew into a tree that produced the characteristically green skinned, hard, crisp apple we know, and having been cut, grafted, and re-grafted, it became popular in Australia and New Zealand, and is now grown all over the world.
The Bible of course talks about grafting also, although not the grafting of apple trees, but of olive trees. St. Paul uses the analogy to talk about saved Christians. In Romans 11, it reads, “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” As English puritanism spread across England in the 17th century, it was probably inevitable that someone would take the words of St. Paul, and the English practice of apple grafting, put two and two together, and come up with a Christian analogy. And that is exactly what happened. The Oxfordian, Calvinist, horticulturist, Ralph Austen, in 1653 published the book called, ‘The Spiritual Use of An Orchard or Garden of Fruit Trees’. And the analogy was unfolded, as you might expect, along very conservative Calvinistic lines. Imagine an apple orchard, all the trees therein grafted in, to conform to the Christian ideal. They were the saved elect, and all the others, those out there, the wild others outside of the orchard, they were the damned. Remember Calvinism propagates the belief in predestination, so the apples outside of the orchard were outside of the grace of God, predestined to be so. And so, is there any wonder that those wild apples were the most sour, bitter, and gnarly of them all? Truly, the most wicked of people that they were.
In the 17th century, English colonists (amongst others) made the voyage to America, and they carried with them apple seeds, and apple tree branches, to carry on the English grafting practice, and bring with them the tried and true English apple varieties to be re-established, and re-grown across the pond in our American colony. The trouble is, once the colonists arrived in America, they had slightly different priorities. Scratching out a living as they were, they would often seed orchards in a wild, disorderly fashion, and skip the whole faff of grafting in tried and true English apple varieties. They couldn’t afford to spend the kind of time needed to cultivate truly delicious apples, unlike their genteel English horticulturalist counterparts, but what they did cultivate served them quite well - it fed their pigs, could be brewed into cider, and could be converted into vinegar for their tables. And so, in the 18th century, whenever well-to-do English gentlemen and ladies found themselves travelling across America for some reason, they’d often complain about America’s poor excuse for the apple. There wasn’t anyone much willing to defend America’s apple until our own Henry David Thoreau, in his essay, ‘Wild Apples’. Thoreau, not bound, obviously, by Calvinistic distinctions of election and damnation, celebrated the distinctiveness of each unique apple. The wild apple, to Thoreau, signified our own individual and enterprising nature, far more interesting than the mass produced singular, which was reproduced over and over, grafted and re-grafted, much like that field of wheat, row upon row. To Thoreau, the wild apple, all but forgotten, hidden in some grove out there, represented a thrilling possibility. After all, most apples, the Granny Smith included, delicious, crisp, and sweet, were discovered quite by accident.
In sharp distinction then to our Calvinistic friend, the horticulturist Ralph Austen, who saw the wild variety of nature as a sinful thing to be suppressed, Thoreau saw in that wildness the possibility of genius. “Every wild-apple shrub excites our expectation thus, somewhat as every wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise.” And quoting further, in expectation, that this wilderness might bear a majestic fruit, here, “Poets and philosophers and statesmen thus, spring up in country pastures and outlast the hosts of unoriginal men.” But Thoreau’s words, his endorsement of such wildness, relies upon that wildness having found expression, as I’ve already suggested, in America’s culmination, and for such an example there is no better person to turn to than Johnny Appleseed. He is an American folklore icon. I recall being at Summer camp in Texas, at Camp Coyote where I would go every year, and singing each meal time a food blessing which invoked thanksgiving in the name of Johnny Appleseed. I even remember a mural of him across a wall in the dining room, in garish colour. It depicted the classic image of a man, tall and skinny, bare feet, ragged clothes, throwing about his person apple seeds from a satchel he wore across his shoulders.
The real Johnny Appleseed, whose name was John Chapman, lived on America’s frontier in the early 19th Century. Unlike what the popular image of Johnny Appleseed portrays, he was a man who didn’t spread apple seeds randomly as he criss-crossed America, but rather he would establish fenced-in nurseries, not by grafting, but by simply planting apple seeds, which he would then leave to others to care for, or neglect, as they were so led. The apple seeds he gathered were from a cider mill. He had to sift through the neglected pulp to find the right seeds. Chapman’s devotion to the apple seed, you could describe as being sacramental, given such devotion as he afforded them. To him this fruit was actually a means of divine grace. And why did he have such high regard for the lowly apple seed? Well, it’s because he was not simply the planter of apple seeds; he saw the larger, divine picture in play. He was a missionary.
As he moved through Pennsylvania, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinoi, he spread the word of his faith, as a disciple of none other than Emanuel Swedenborg. He could speak ardently, describing the growing and ripening fruit as a rare and beautiful gift of the Almighty, with “words that became pictures, until his hearers could almost see its manifold forms of beauty present before them.” He viewed the practice of grafting, of cutting trees in that way, as abhorrent. He believed that trees shouldn’t be treated in that way. Rather, he claimed that the correct method was to select good seeds and plant them in good ground, and that God only could improve the apple. As he moved from place to place, seeding his apple trees, he seeded the word of Swedenborg also. For the most part Swedenborgianism was a faith of well-read intellectuals. It was the remit of the Emersons, Thoreaus, and James’ of this world. Swedenborgians have subsequently championed Chapman, for he was a man of simple faith, who nonetheless grasped the import of Swedenborg’s contribution. Lacking, as he did, skills of oration, he simply carried with him books written by Swedenborg, and upon finding room and board, he would tear pages out, and leave them, much like seeds, for others to discover, read, and inwardly digest.
If that’s the choice then, the wild, unkept, and unmanaged orchard, full of a variety of apples, beyond identification, beyond any kind of classification, beyond any politics of identity, for each is unique, or, of the orchard of the single kind, managed, and ordered, I choose variety. Give me the wild orchard! With Thoreau, with Swedenborg, I wish to celebrate variety. I wish us to embody such variety, to be in tune with the kaleidoscopic nature of God. May we embrace the wild orchard, the divine chaos, the uniqueness of each wild apple among us. May it be so, in the spirit of love I pray.