UNITY, Maine — This time, Johnny Appleseed wore shoes and left his tin cap at home.
But he brought a snake in a sack.
John Chapman of Athens, the great-great-great-great grandnephew of the iconic, pioneering nurseryman, came to the Unity College orchard Thursday afternoon with a special mission in mind. He went to plant a sapling from the original lineage that had been propagated in the 19th century by his relative and namesake.
The black milk snake, one of the 25 species of reptile the animal lover and nature enthusiast keeps at his house, was just along for the ride.
“He loved nature, as I do,” Chapman said of his famous ancestor. “Without it, we aren’t going to survive.”
The 63-year-old Unity College graduate has been researching both the history and the trees of Johnny Appleseed. He told a small crowd gathered in the orchard that he had contacted a nursery in Ohio which specializes in historic trees and was able to get seedlings from the Rimbaud apple tree, the original stock planted by Appleseed during his westward travels.
“I wanted to transplant them into the state of Maine,” Chapman said.
At home in Athens, he has a couple of orchards with about 35 heirloom apple trees, including one from Appleseed’s own stock.
Chapman cleared up a few details that might have gotten lost in the blur of time — namely, that Johnny Appleseed was more of a businessman than he might seem at first glance. He didn’t just wander barefoot, scattering appleseeds from his home in Massachusetts through the frontier states of that time, including Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
Appleseed was born in 1774 in Leominster, Mass., and was primarily a nurseryman, according to Chapman. He traveled west ahead of the first farmers, picking the best spots to start orchards and nurseries and would then plant apple seeds with the intention of using the apples to make hard cider. Then he’d go to the cider presses, gather those leftover seeds up, and start traveling again.
By the time he died in 1845, Appleseed had acquired more than 1,000 acres of prime agricultural land. But he “got into religion,” Chapman said, and died poor — but with a legacy so rich it lives on more than two centuries later.
“He was just a person, like everybody else, but he was different,” he said. “He liked both Indians and frontiersmen. He was a character.”
With those words, Chapman hauled his black milk snake out of the sack and starting showing it off for his surprised audience.
“They’re just beautiful animals,” he said. “I like them, because they actually calm you down.”
Characters like Johnny Appleseed, and Chapman, fit right in at Unity College, according to Brian Thiebault, a forestry student from Beverly, Mass., who is the campus arborist.
“This is fantastic,” he said of the donation. “We’re a small, environmental college, based on the oddities. Having a tree this specialized in our orchard really brings it all together. It’s a special experience.”
Thiebault said he loves every aspect of working with trees, and has parlayed a longtime passion for tree-climbing into a viable career.
“My favorite part of trees is when trees and people come together,” he said, ticking off examples.
Wood for heating. Fruit for eating. Shade for beauty.
“Trees can provide a lot for people, and more people should embrace that,” he said, adding that Chapman was a good example of a person who has embraced trees. “I couldn’t imagine a better guy to be giving us a tree. He’s the embodiment of what Unity College stands for.”
Douglas Fox, the director of the Center for Sustainability and Global Change at the college, said that the orchard was first planted on Earth Day in 1997.
“It’s very wonderful, to be able to tie in history and love of nature,” he said. “The apple is such a great crop to do that with.”