Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bringing back the American Chestnut

For those who still mourn the loss of the American Chestnut and who hope researchers can come up with a way to revive that lovely tree, Hanna Miller's story in the News & Observer and Charlotte Observer Monday was good news indeed. Here's a link. The good news is there's lots of promise and early signs of progress. The bad news is that we won't know, perhaps for half a century, according to one researcher, if they've really succeeded.

As Miller reported, "You can only declare continued optimism rather than victory at least for another 50 years or so," says Dr. Fred Hebard, staff pathologist for The American Chestnut Foundation's research station in Meadowview, Va. "When those things are 100 feet tall, you can definitely declare victory."

It's important in so many ways, particularly to the mountain economy.  Life in the Blue Ridge was made especially hard when the blight struck in the late 1920s and began killing off a noble three that provided so much for mountain families: food for the family, mast for animals of the forest, a cash income, lovely wood that was easy to work yet made strong furniture, and as one book once described it, was so light that even "porch babies" could move it around.

When the blight struck, the government advised land owners to cut down their chestnuts and salvage the wood before the blight ruined it. That turned out to be a terrible mistake, because the blight would not have killed every tree. In fact there are many hundreds of survivors spread over the Mid-Atlantic states. I know of one not too far from where I write, and have read of many others. Scientists have taken samples of these trees in their efforts to figure out why some trees are resistant to the blight -- and how those samples can be used to develop hardier trees.

Some years ago I discovered that the old outbuildings on our farm were made of chestnut and cherry planks. Outside they are weathered silver and gray from decades of exposure to the winds and sleet and snow and rain. But if you can get the nails out and run those board through a planer, a gorgeous rich tan board emerges that looks good and takes well to woodworking. I've got a few of those planks set by. When when time allows I'll harvest a few more off old sheds and small barns that, as I watch out the morning window, seem to lean away from the prevailing winds more each day. It won't be long before they lie down again in the soil that nourished and gave them life in the early part of the 20th century.

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