Portrait Gallery

Edgar Lee Masters

Selected Poetry, 1925

Johnny Appleseed

by Edgar Lee Masters

When the air of October is sweet and cold as the wine of apples Hanging ungathered in frosted orchards along the Grand River, I take the road that winds by the resting fields and wander From Eastmanville to Nunica down to the Villa Crossing.

I look for old men to talk with, men as old as the orchards, Men to tell me of ancient days, of those who built and planted, Lichen gray, branch broken, bent and sighing, Hobbling for warmth in the sun and for places to sit and smoke.

For there is a legend here, a tale of the croaking old ones That Johnny Appleseed came here, planted some orchards around here, When nothing was here but the pine trees, oaks and the beeches, And nothing was here but the marshes, lake and the river.

Peter Van Zylen is ninety and this he tells me: My father talked with Johnny Appleseed there on the hill-side, There by the road on the way to Fruitport, saw him Clearing pines and oaks for a place for an apple orchard.

Peter Van Zylen says: He got that name from the people For carrying apple-seed with him and planting orchards All the way from Ohio, through Indiana across here, Planting orchards, they say, as far as Illinois.

Johnny Appleseed said, so my father told me: I go to a place forgotten, the orchards will thrive and be here For children to come, who will gather and eat here-after. And few will know who planted, and none will understand.

I laugh, said Johnny Appleseed: Some fellow buys this timber Five years, perhaps from to-day, begins to clear for barley. And here in the midst of the timber is hidden an apple orchard. How did it come here? Lord! Who was it here before me?

Yes, I was here before him, to make these places of worship, Labor and laughter and gain in the late October. Why did I do it, eh? Some folks say I am crazy. Where do my labors end? Far west, God only knows!

Said Johnny Appleseed there on the hill-side: Listen! Beware the deceit of nurseries, sellers of seeds of the apple. Think! You labor for years in trees not worth the raising. You planted what you knew not, bitter or sour for sweet.

No luck more bitter than poor seed, but one as bitter: The planting of perfect seed in soil that feeds and fails, Nourishes for a little, and then goes spent forever. Look to your seed, he said, and remember the soil.

And after that is the fight: the foe curled up at the root, The scale that crumples and deadens, the moth in the blossoms Becoming a life that coils at the core of a thing of beauty: You bite your apple, a worm is crushed on your tongue!

And it's every bit the truth, said Peter Van Zylen. So many things love an apple as well as ourselves. A man must fight for the thing he loves, to possess it: Apples, freedom, heaven, said Peter Van Zylen.

Johnny Appleseed, by Edgar Lee Masters, in Selected Poetry, 1925. (PDF)