The botany of desire: a plant's-eye view of the world
nineteenth-century Ohio.
    • • •
    Like Dionysus, John Chapman was an agent of domestication. With every cider orchard he helped plant, the wilderness became that much more hospitable and homelike. (It just happened to be a home he didn’t care to live in himself.) But the apple was only one of the many Old World plants John Chapman brought with him into the country; there was the small pharmacopoeia of medicinal herbs, too, and quite a few weeds. I met people in Ohio who still curse Chapman for introducing stinking fennel, a troublesome weed he planted everywhere he went in the belief it could keep a house safe from malaria. (Even today, Ohioans call it “Johnnyweed.”) His plantings helped remake the New World landscape in a more familiar image, in the process contributing to an ecological transformation of America the magnitude of which we’ve just begun to appreciate.
    Everyone knows that the settlement of the West depended on the rifle and the ax, yet the seed was no less instrumental in guaranteeing Europeans’ success in the New World. (The fact that John Chapman is remembered today along with frontier heroes such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett suggests that maybe we knew this before we completely understood it.) The Europeans brought with them to the frontier a kind of portable ecosystem that allowed them to re-create their accustomed way of life—the grasses their livestock needed to thrive, herbs to keep themselves healthy, Old World fruits and flowers to make life comfortable. This biological settlement of the West often went on beneath the notice of the settlers themselves, who brought along weed seeds in the cracks of their boot soles, grass seeds in the feed bags of their horses, and microbes in their blood and gut. (None of these introductions passed beneath the notice of the Native Americans, however.) John Chapman, by planting his millions of seeds, simply went about this work more methodically than most.
    In the process of changing the land, Chapman also changed the apple—or rather, made it possible for the apple to change itself. If Americans like Chapman had planted only grafted trees—if Americans had eaten rather than drunk their apples—the apple would not have been able to remake itself and thereby adapt to its new home. It was the seeds, and the cider, that gave the apple the opportunity to discover by trial and error the precise combination of traits required to prosper in the New World. From Chapman’s vast planting of nameless cider apple seeds came some of the great American cultivars of the nineteenth century.
    Looked at from this angle, planting seeds instead of clones was an extraordinary act of faith in the American land, a vote in favor of the new and unpredictable as against the familiar and European. In this Chapman was making the pioneers’ classic wager, betting on the fresh possibilities that might grow from seeds planted in the redemptive American ground. This happens to be nature’s wager too, hybridization being one of the ways nature brings newness into the world. John Chapman’s millions of seeds and thousands of miles changed the apple, and the apple changed America. No wonder Johnny Appleseed has shaken off the historians and biographers and climbed into our mythology.
    • • •
    As far as I know, John Chapman never set foot in Geneva, New York, but there is an orchard there where I caught my last and in some ways most vivid glimpse of him. Here on the banks of Lake Geneva, in excellent apple-growing country, a government outfit called the Plant Genetic Resources Unit maintains the world’s largest collection of apple trees. Some 2,500 different varieties have been gathered from all over the world and set out here in pairs, as if on a beached botanical ark. The card catalog of this fifty-acre tree archive runs the pomological gamut from Adam’s Pearmain, an antique English apple, to the German Zucalmagio. In between a browser will find almost every

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