Citybillies, the rumors are true.
It’s confession time. About a week ago, I gave in to the holiday spirit and dressed up in costume.
Why would I do such a thing? Well, I mean, the list of reasons isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Friends, women, chocolate and wine. Good friends and outgoing women. Free chocolate. Lots of wine…and just a basic, thirsty yen for society.
Hey, it happens.
This wouldn’t be just some cheap costume picked off the racks.
If I was going to dress up, then I would spend Hallowe’en, not in costume, but in embodiment…walking in someone else’s shoes…seeing the world through the eyes of another….and nothing to do with chocolate or candy or nougat or taffy…this would be about nature’s candy…my favorite seasonal fruit…a change of season in every crunch.
I spent Hallowe’en dressed up as one of my favorite figures in all of Turtle Island’s long, storybook history…one of the greatest farmers that ever put seed to dirt…the man behind the myth…one of those weird, wonderful, whimsical, virtuous madmen that lurk in the margins of the history textbooks…the one and only John Chapman.
All right. Fine.
Some people are surprised when they hear that he was real.
Citybillies, it doesn’t get any realer.
Traveler, planter, preacher…he was friends with the sylvan Indians and friends with the pioneer folk alike…wanderer, grower, loner…he made the thick woods his home, the wild frontier his farm, the starry nights his curtain….vagrant, lunatic, hermit…he was odd and he was weird and he was wild to the core…as real as you and me.
When I first saw him, according to a few frontier journals, he was floating down the Blanchard River in a canoe loaded with appletrees…this is the Appleseed man you certainly must have heard of, who goes around in the country to plant apple trees.
Always one step ahead of the frontier, Johnny Appleseed planted orchards of apple trees up and down the Ohio and the Allegheny River Valleys of western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. He would then sell these apple orchards to the pioneer families settling out west.
Back then, in Johnny Appleseed’s time, an apple orchard in the wilderness was like a well in a desert.
With no source of clean drinking water, an apple orchard was a pretty easy sell to a frontier family. An apple orchard could provide a steady supply of good, old-fashioned, occasionally hard cider. Contrary to popular myth, these trees did not grow edible apples. They grew pressing apples, for cider…which is why Michael Pollan once called him the American Dionysus.
Johnny Appleseed. That’s who I’d go as.
This would be my costume…what I’d dressed up to be… …for it is the testimony of all who knew him that, notwithstanding his ridiculous attire, he was always treated with the greatest respect by the rudest frontiersman… no, this called for more than just a costume.
This called for a disguise.
A man has appeared who seems to be almost independent of corporal wants and sufferings. He goes barefooted…
…and so shall Jon Spruce…
....barefoot and loving it…through the pine duff and through the wet clover...
...this is the life...just like Johnny...bounding barefoot over rocks and roots...
...skipping through the mums and tramping through the chestnuts...
…all the while armed with new eyes, horny feet and six-packs of cider…all the while barefoot…and that thin, muddy boundary between myself and the ground? No rubber.
A good Hallowe’en?
But it got me a-thinking.
Philadelphia has its own historical madman of the woods.
His name was Johannes Kelpius and he was a member of a small sect of religious outcasts who settled into William Penn’s charter over a hundred years before John Chapman’s time.
Johannes Kelpius, by all accounts, turned his religious community into a doomsday cult and, based on his studies of astronomy, botany, music and Egyptology, he predicted that the world would end in 1694.
With doomsday looming, he went to live in a man-made cave carved into the rocky bluffs of the Wissahickon woods…to wait out the end of days…eventually dying of pneumonia in 1708.
His cave still survives.
OFF HERMIT LANE
You can find it, appropriately enough, off Hermit Lane.
There, the paved road ends and a wide, sandy driveway snakes behind a settlement of cul-de-sac apartments and one-family homes…the Wissahickon woods as a back-yard. This driveway eventually turns into a pleasant tangle of small, tight, winding trails…
…that will eventually lead to the Cave of Kelpius.
One should not take these trails lightly.
One should never pursue the mad.
I knew that going in. And the danger is double-fold for someone like me. Let’s be honest. I’m really only two paychecks away from just cashing it all in…only one burn-out away from hanging it all up.
Sometimes? Sometimes, I feel like…all it would take…and all I would really need…is just one, small, perfect epiphany and then?
I’m going native.
Hunting down the Cave of Kelpius? That would be, with minimum damage, a foolhardy expedition…and, at its worst, it would be a suicide mission, fraught with danger, full of traps.
And I’d be exposing myself to the precarious edge that transforms a scholar into a bushman…a loner into a recluse…a traveler into a vagabond…a believer into a heretic.
And yet I couldn’t stop myself. I was compelled.
To the woods…to walk the trails of the weird wizard of the Wissahickon…into the doomsday dale…to enter the Cave of Kelpius…as treacherous a journey as they come…and just in case…just in case I returned as a different person…
…one quick note to both sides of my family…one last hurrah to my parents and siblings currently toiling away in the sunnier climes of Arizona…one final farewell to the other side still slaving away in South Jersey…and then off…
…to follow in his footsteps…the mad monk of the woods…the hexmeister…Kelpius.
ON THE PATH
One of the first notable trees along the trail is a double-trunked honey locust…
…one of the most planted streets trees in the entire city and, yet, here in the wild, it’s a danger to large mammals like myself, with its dizzying array of woody spikes creeping out of its cracked and plated bark.
Down the road some…an autumn stand-out was on fire.
This is the winged euonymus…one of the most common native shrubs found in the woods hereabouts…frequently used to decorate parking lots and courtyards but its proper place is here, flourishing humbly on the edges of woodland trails.
The winged part of its name originates from these corky tabs that grow along its thin branches.
What is their use? As Thoreau always asked, what part does it play in the economy of the world?
Maybe to catch water…maybe to encourage easy travel for small, crawling insects like ants…maybe it’s the plant’s way of mimicking birds to draw attention to its berries, much like the way the mimic of an orchid attracts certain moths. Who knows?
In the fall, this bush is called by another name. Because of that astonishing burst of red color…those crimson flames lighting up the greeny woods…the winged euonymus is also called the burning bush…which, of course, is a reference to another legend of a mad prophet taking to the frontier…an epic of water and stone…angels of death and floods of frogs…babes in the bulrushes and voices in the wilderness.
Right before the driveway ends and the woods begin, there is a skyscraper of a beech tree, growing straight as a column, anchored right at the turn of the trail.
Tall and towering, this beech surely was growing here during Kelpius’s time. I wonder if it was such a landmark even back then, over three hundred years ago.
Could you tell, three hundred years ago, that this would be the tree to take over this turn of the trail…or was it just a sapling back then, one of many unremarkable saplings passed over when Kelpius first took these woods?
This one beech tree is like an entire ecosystem. All life in this one small corner seems to be wrapped around this beech tree…the tendrils of native ivy coiling up its leathery trunk…those gray pipes of a root system sucking the ground into the sky…
Would Kelpius recognize this beech? What towers of trees did Kelpius know here that, since, have fallen…which trees stood a chance of surviving his prediction…which ones were marked for doomsday?
Already, I could feel Kelpius’s mad influence on my meandering thoughts…stirring the echoes and twisting the mind…I must stay on the trail…
…must stay focused, must stay in time…
…cannot get distracted…cannot get sucked in…
It’s too easy to get lost in the woods. It’s also too easy to find your place. Look at Johnny Appleseed, look at Johannes Kelpius. Why the woods? Why the wilds?
For a lot of people, the woods offer an affinity that cannot be found in polite society. There’s something inside the woods that eases certain people’s minds…a map of trails that seem to mirror their own restless, circling thoughts…a place to clear your head and also a place to cram it full of new thoughts and new paths.
You just got to remember to get out before it’s too late…before that moment of no return.
Which is why I, suppose, we are lucky to have these legs, these feet, these mobile roots. Unlike trees, we are not rooted to one place for all of time…we are not clamped down to one spot…
…which is why the legends of Johnny Appleseed and Johannes Kelpius can be such a tantalizing dream.
They didn’t get out in time. They stayed outside, well past the curfew of the civilized mind.
They saw something inside these mahogany woods that made a better home than a house or an urban cabin…they planted themselves into the wild shadow…
…seeing deeper…going closer than most ever dare to go themselves…
The big difference between the two? Johnny Appleseed was a constant rover, always staying a few miles ahead of the marching wall of the frontier.
Kelpius? He stayed put.
THE CAVE OF KELPIUS
I slowly approached…
…staying focused, keeping the mind tethered, feeling the pull of that abyss…got to keep it from taking over…
…as I followed in the footsteps of a madman…tiptoeing forward along the razor’s edge toward the maw of that dark, dark cave…
…into the very earth itself.
So far, so good. I still had my wits about me, still had my faculties intact.
I turned around and watched the world through the Cave of Kelpius.
So this was his perspective…this is what he would’ve seen, in November…his view of the impending doomsday.
He was an educated man so I find it hard to believe that he didn’t have his doubts, or that he didn’t waver…especially during this time of year, just when the Freeze Up Moon starts earning its name.
But he stuck to his guns…even as the year 1694 came and went without the forecasted fireballs, earthquakes and supernovas.
And he would, eventually, die indoors, surrounded by his believers, believing till the very end that, post death, his being would be translated into some other form…a belief seen every day in the woods here.
Kelpius. Maybe he wasn’t so scary after all. Maybe his shadow here isn’t as dangerous as I thought…and so, with a few hours left of sunlight, I decided to explore the rest of the trails here in this part of the Wissahickon…right outside the entrance of the cave…
OFF THE TRAIL
What sort of devilry is this?
I dragged myself away from the cave…away from his influence…but it was too late.
It was a trap. I was off the trail.
Fallen trees blocked my path…
…webs of broken branches surrounded me…everything out of whack…beech trees bubbling from the inside out…
…and the night was falling fast and faster.
Everything here in the woods was breaking down and my mind was following the same destructive path.
I needed to find a way out but there was only one way out. The only way out was in.
I’d have to out-Kelpius Kelpius…ride out the crazy train…embrace it, squeeze it out.
If you believe the teachings of the mad woodsman of folklore, then there must be a connection somewhere here in the wild…some sort of passageway that could link me back to the real world…but where is it?
…in this pattern of exposed roots. Like the mazes of the ancient Greeks, here was a labyrinth that could lead me out of the wilderness and back home…
…but I couldn’t untangle the roots…couldn’t figure out the pattern…couldn’t find the way out no matter how deep I reached.
Somewhere in these woods, there had to be the key. There had to be some portal, some doorway, some tunnel that could lead me out of this madness and take me home…
…I just had to look in places where I never dared to look before.
I’d have to peel away at the superficial surfaces of things…
…scratch away past this stubborn reality…
…and find the heart of all things, where everything joins the cosmic dance, everything becomes one, everything returns to its original translation of dirt and sand and dust.
Nothing. And with darkness falling, there was only one choice left.
Enjoy the crazy.
Wait, there’s a second choice. I could hide.
I could find myself a home here in the woods…a secluded, hidden place where no one could find me…
…where even the inevitable apocalypse couldn’t touch me…
…and I’d wait and I’d wait, there in the darkness…
…until the flash of sanity returned to show me the way home.
But then I remembered.
JOHNNY APPLESEED TO THE RESCUE
There was a third choice. I still had it with me. I could put on my Hallowe’en costume.
I could shake off this Kelpius influence and wear, instead, my Johnny Appleseed disguise.
That was the way out. After all, even in these mad woods, even here in the doomsday dale under the Freeze Up Moon, there were still signs of life, still signs of survival. There was still green.
The way out? It was easy to find wearing my Johnny Appleseed costume.
Thanks to the Johnny Appleseed costume, the way home was all around me now, in the dried-up fruits of the tulip poplars, just waiting to catch a stiff breeze that would scatter its winged seeds.
What would John Chapman see, lost in these woods? Signs of the doomsday? No. He would notice the other side, the totems of eternity.
Even in their grosser, ruder forms.
Chapman? He’d just hunker down and wait out for the inevitable spring.
Doomsdays? Actually, doomsdays just come and go.
And even if a doomsday does come true, here in the woods, it could never erase all of our marks and all of our mementos.
Our pervasive, obstinate footprints.
Kelpius or Chapman. Those are two stark choices you can take while getting lost in the woods. Those are two disguises you can wear on the trail, or off the trail.
I’m not going to judge either one…except to point out the differences.
You can be a Kelpius or you can be a Johnny Appleseed. You can stay put and wait for the end of days or you can move around and plant trees.
Jon Spruce? It turns out I’m not a follower of Kelpius. That’s not my way home.
I’m more a child of the Appleseed man.