The Star of the Frontier

by ritualofoak

Pollan, Michael.  2002.  The Botany of Desire.  pg. 3-58. Random House, Toronto, Canada.

Today I learned everything I didn’t know I wanted to know about the advent of apple culture in North America. I also learned a lot about Johnny Appleseed. A character in American mythology that doesn’t get the same kind of reverence in Canada as far as I know. I am, however, familiar with the tendency mankind has to sanctify it’s providers. Michael Pollan speaks at length about the contrasting pictures of John Chapman. One the Christian saint of the frontier. Fervent holy man, and tamer of the wild. The other, “the American Dionysus” (pg. 39) a more innocent and mild ‘child’ of the Greek icon. The sanctification doesn’t end with Chapman, however, Pollan explains that apples themselves have undergone a significant shift in public opinion in their time in North America.

Apples weren’t always so generously thought of as doctor deterrent. An apple a day actually came about around the time of the prohibition as an attempt by apple farmers to save their livelihoods. The transition from primarily growing apples for cider to primarily growing apples for eating was partly a result of the prohibition era. Cider had served the frontier well when it provided something safe to drink, but as America moved towards civilization, apples needed to adapt again.

Pollan talks about how John Chapman was able to make a big difference on the frontier by planting apples the way that he did. Since he was planting seeds with the intention of selling orchards to new coming settlers genetic diversity among the apple orchards flourished. This allowed the apple trees to adapt to the new world, to become American in their own right. In fact Pollan mentions that apples became so important to the frontier, and then further to North American civilization that they recieved a treatment like no other fruit. “How many other fruits do we call by their Christian names?” (pg. 47) That struck a tone with me. Apples had become so important to us that they were worthy of names.

I really enjoyed this reading as Pollan really does have a special way with dragging me into his stories. When I first opened up the chapter and realized how much of it would be dedicated to Johnny Appleseed, I sighed and thought that maybe I would write this post on the chapter later on in the book about the potato. Yet, as I closed the last page of the first chapter, I had come to realize the significance of this hardy fruit.

And to be quite frank, had developed a desire on my tongue for a little bit of that sweet cider.