There is nothing more evocative of “primitive America” than the American Chestnut. Once the dominant canopy tree in the Eastern woodlands, it was decimated by a fungus imported to the US in the early 20th century. By the mid-1900s the iconic tree went the way of the telegraph and the stagecoach with only a handful of survivors.
It’s hard to overstate the role the American Chestnut played in the evolution of our Continent. Visit any antique shop or 19th century log cabin, and you are likely surrounded by Chestnut lumber, furniture and fine instruments. The steady, predictable nut harvest supported teems of wildlife and humans alike. It would be hard to recognize a 19th Century West Virginia forest because the loss of the Chestnut so transformed the ecology of the entire region. But importing Chinese versions of the prolific tree (which were resistant to the blight they carried) spelled the fast and violent end of the American chestnut. Sort of.
Here’s where the metaphors are hard to resist. Get it, resist? Nevermind, it’s a blight joke. There were a few American chestnuts, hunted down and guarded by enthusiasts, reported and documented. Over decades, scientists have crossed these hearty survivors with Chinese chestnuts to produce blight-resistant strains that are 99% American chestnut, and 1% Chinese. We can never go back. The forests of the East Coast will never be what they were, and we can’t and shouldn’t want the past. One of my teachers at Duke always impressed upon me that there is no such thing as “natural”. The real question is, what do we want our world to be and look like? In this light, we can choose the Chestnut not because it used to be here, but because it is beautiful, bountiful, useful, and a part of us and our history, our identity. It may never again cover the hills of Appalachia, but we can plant a few seedlings. We here at the North American Bushcraft School have been jonesing for American Chestnut seedlings for years, but when a friend of the school asked if he could plant his here (a reward for donating to the American Chestnut Society which funds the research to produce the resistant trees) we danced in joy. The land the school is on has been in the family for generations, and it was heavily logged during and after the blight. Our desire to see American Chestnuts grace these hills again is personal and a little bit sacred. Wanting to undo a little bit of the damage done to these lands is perhaps a Sisyphean undertaking, but we’re with this land for the long haul, and we’re dedicated to its health, history and future.
As we watch the tiny sprouts reach upwards more and more each day on the kitchen table, we swell with wonder and pride. Not because we had anything to do with the amazing undertaking that is the resurrection of this American icon, but because it represents a spirit of caretaking and hope that makes my American heart sing.