Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Chestnuts on a Virginia hillside

The Dan River starts as a seep near the edge of a cornfield just up the road and over the ridge from us. It makes its way a few thousand feet west before it becomes a pond or two, then a rushing creek, then a river that winds its way over to the Blue Ridge Escarpment and plunges down into the Kibler Valley near the Virginia-North Carolina state line.  It meanders for a good many miles, hooking up with the Mayo River near Mayodan and then in Eden with the Smith River, which has its headwaters in a lovely fold of the earth a few hundred feet from the rockers on our front porch.

Watching over this noble set of waters, well before it joins the powerful Roanoke River and eventually waters the Atlantic Ocean, is a group of dedicated folks who do the Lord's work in picking up trash and taking care of the aquatic life and helping folks understand how to do a better job of keeping the countryside healthy.  It's the Dan River Basin Association, and its members and small staff do a great many more things than keeping up with the needs of one lovely river.

So it was that the DRBA put out a call the other week for volunteers to work with the American Chestnut Foundation and with naturalists and other outdoors-minded people to help replant chestnut seedlings on a hillside in one of Southwest Virginia's lovely woods.  As a matter of policy, they don't bandy about where these fields are, in hope of avoiding a lot of pedestrian traffic from the curious about what the chestnut plants look like. A dozen or so of us answered the call one bright day not long ago and went about putting in year-old seedlings to replace an earlier planting that was not successful. Here's a photo of the volunteers after setting out about a hundred seedlings in a field that had been cut over in the past few years.

The first planting may have failed because the seedlings were not protected well enough from animals looking for a quick snack. So the job here was to dig new holes of sufficient depth to spread and plant the seedlings, then place a plastic tube around the stalk of the seedling and support it with a short post, and then to surround the seedling with a five-food high cage staked firmly to the ground.  
 After a slow start as volunteers learned how to put these things securely in the ground, the pace picked up. It wasn't a race, exactly, but crews of two and three volunteers worked together to break ground, chop up the clay soil, spread the roots and firmly place the soil around the roots, pack it just a bit, guide in the tube, pound in the stake and then figure out how to secure the cages to posts, either with zip strips or, as several of us learned, how to weave the flexible pipe posts through the cage wire before hammering them into the ground.
If all goes as hoped, these plants will get enough rain and sun to take root and grow into candidates for the return of the once-mighty chestnut forests that covered many parts of Virginia and other states before the blight  devastated the chestnut. It was  a huge blow to the Appalachian economy, because chestnuts provided mast for animals, good material for fences, better lumber for furniture and stout cabins, and cash income for farmers who shipped chestnuts to large cities in the northeast.

Just last summer I pulled a few boards off a crumbling farm shed down the hill a ways, planed the slabs, glued up a coffee-table top that would look good on our side porch, and thought once again about how the chestnut blight had robbed generations of the chance to work with a lovely and sturdy wood that almost seems to like to be shaped into something useful.  Maybe one day some of these seedlings we planted will somehow help instill that sense of delight in others who live in these old hills.

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