Saturday, May 13, 2017

Make America Great Again: The American Chestnut (Bear With Me)

There is a thing that disappeared from this country in the 20th century whose loss impacted the way of life of a large swath of American folks. All the way from Maine, through Appalachia, to the Ohio Valley... A part of the landscape simply disappeared. The return of this thing might tangibly make America great again...

I am speaking of the American Chestnut tree (Castanea dentata). Watch this video, it tells the story of the tree, and the impact the loss had on a way of life, better than I could. It is also heartbreaking. To make a long story short, the American chestnut once made up 20-30% of all hardwood over most of the eastern part of this country. 3 to 4 billion trees. In the early 1900s a blight started in a NYC (that damn cursed metropolis...) botanical garden which quickly spread. Virtually all American chestnuts died. 

The trees were used for wood, the nuts were forage for livestock and wildlife, the leaves returned nutrients to the soil... All suddenly, in historical terms, gone.

There remain isolated stands of American chestnuts scattered across its original range. But the hopes for a widespread return of the tree to its original numbers are slim. The blight remains and most trees do not survive past 10 years.

There are various organizations out there fighting the good fight to save the American chestnut. Take a look (maybe donate a bit...) at The American Chestnut Foundation. Scientists are doing their science thing (backcrossing, genetics, etc...). In fact, for some New York pride you should know that Cornell and SUNY-ESF are leading the way on this.

I don't know why this issue has put its hooks in me, but it has. I went ahead and bought 4 tiny saplings.

All seem to have taken root and are breaking bud into tiny leaves! I'm excited.

I will try my best to raise these little tree-babies. When they are affected by the blight (seems to be inevitable) I will try to nurse them through. We will just have to wait a decade or so to see what happens.

The American chestnut flowers into long whispy catkins in late spring or early summer. There are descriptions of people standing in the Appalachian mountains watching the white catkins undulate with the wind across the entire landscape as far as the eye could see... It must have been beautiful. It must have been great. I will never see this in my lifetime. But maybe my children could, or my grandchildren...

Imagine chestnut fed, Appalachian-hog, country hams. Imagine handcrafted chestnut furniture. Imagine just sitting in the shade of one of those stately behemoths...

"A society grows when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in" is the old proverb, right? Cliche as it is, it is a great sentiment. I'm trying to do my small part to affect positive change. You have to try, right?

Maybe look into getting a couple of saplings. I don't know, it could be fun for you and make you feel good.

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