Faith in a Seed
By Andrea Lani
Deep within the arboretum across the street from my office, along the edge of a field of raggedy wildflowers, sixty American chestnut trees grow in four neat rows. The trees were planted fourteen years ago, on a sunny but cool morning in June. My husband worked at the arboretum at the time and invited teams of draft horses to plow the furrows into which he planted the knee-high whippets just dug from their nursery beds. I took our infant son, Milo, to the arboretum that day, to watch the enormous horses draw plows that peeled back wide strips of sod, to see his father lower tiny trees into the ground. Milo, two weeks old at the time, snuggled deep in a front pack, his still-wobbly head asleep against my chest. Neither horse nor tree made an impression on his newborn mind. I might have forgotten the day myself, if not for the momentousness of it being our first big outing after his birth, the connection of his father to the event, and the proximity of the arboretum to my workplace, allowing me to return and visit the chestnuts years later.
Here in Maine, we sit at the northern fringe of the American chestnut’s former range, which in the 1800s spread south to Georgia and west to Ohio. Chestnuts made up one quarter of the timber in eastern hardwood forests; that is, one in four trees—or, more precisely, one in four potential boards of wood—in the forest was a chestnut. The chestnut grew fast, flowered late enough to avoid frost, and produced abundant crops of nuts that fed wildlife, livestock, and humans alike. Its wood was light, strong, straight-grained, and rot-resistant, good for everything from railroad ties to dulcimers. As a tree, it was almost too good to be true. Until tragedy struck.
In the late 1800s, nurseries began importing Chinese and Japanese chestnut trees, species more compact and suitable to cultivation than their big, wild American cousin. Along with these trees came an invader—a fungus for which the Asian species had defense mechanisms but which devastated the American chestnut. It infected the trees through wounds in their bark and cut off the flow of water and nutrients within the tree. At first, foresters tried a scattershot of strategies to slow the spread of the fungus. Once they realized there was no stopping the blight, they encouraged landowners to cut down the remaining trees to salvage the wood, eliminating any possibility of naturally blight-resistant individuals to survive and spread their genes. Within half a century from the time the blight was first discovered in 1904, the fungus and concomitant logging operations had obliterated more than four billion trees.
“The loss of the chestnut completely altered the character of the eastern forests..”
The loss of the chestnut completely altered the character of the eastern forests, from which plants made up the understory to the species of wildlife that foraged there. The demise of the American chestnut likely contributed to the demise of the passenger pigeon. But unlike that ill-fated bird, whose last known member died in 1914, the American chestnut lived on in isolated individuals, stump sprouts, and research groves. After numerous failed attempts to hybridize American and Asian chestnuts to create a blight-resistant tree, scientists began a program of “back-crossing” in the 1980s, with the goal of creating a tree that had the stature of an American chestnut and the vigor of a Chinese chestnut. The process entailed the careful crossing of the two species, with each generation possessing a little more American genetics than the one before, while retaining the Chinese tree’s resistance. Offspring of each stage in the crossing were planted in groves, inoculated with chestnut blight, and examined for resistance. Some pollen or seeds might be collected for further cultivation, but none of the trees in the early back-crossing generations were meant, or expected, to survive, let alone grow to one hundred feet tall.
I grew up in Colorado, far from the chestnut’s natural range, decades after that tree had faded from the landscape. I had probably heard the phrase “chestnut blight” at some time or other. I imagine it occupied the same part of my brain as “Dutch elm disease” and “gypsy moth”—bad things that happened to trees in faraway times and places. Otherwise, my associations with the tree were limited to “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and the taste of an actual roasted chestnut from an aluminum foil packet my dad bought at a street fair one winter. The nut, likely from an Italian chestnut, had a waxy texture and a sweet but moldy flavor—more of a smell than a taste, settling in the back of the throat rather than the tongue. Though an adventurous eater, I declined a second bite.
Twenty years later, as I watched my husband lower chestnut seedlings into the ground at the arboretum, our baby nestled against my chest, I didn’t know much more about the chestnut’s plight than I had when I bit into that warm, funky-tasting nut. I had only a vague awareness that the seedlings had something to do with the American Chestnut Foundation’s efforts to restore the tree. It would be a few months before I read Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel about love, fecundity, and the American chestnut. The book helped me begin to understand a bit about what we lost when we unwittingly unleashed a deadly pathogen on our forests and then willfully harvested what remained of the trees, but it would be years before I would truly feel in my own heart the loss of the tree I had never known.
The drafty old red-brick building where I work is one of several functionally and aesthetically similar structures built over a period of a hundred years or so to house the state’s mentally ill patients. Over the last few decades, as the inpatient population dropped, many of the buildings on the euphemistically termed “campus” were either abandoned or converted into state office buildings, such as the one I work in. Even after the last of the patients moved to a shiny, modern hospital in 2004, state workers remained in the old buildings, and on hot, humid days the blond interior brick walls of my office exude the mingled smells of urine and despair of the hospital it once was. It is necessary to escape those walls, and in fine weather, I make weekly, if not daily, pilgrimages to the arboretum across the street.
The arboretum spans 224 acres of woods, fields, and wetlands, with trees – both cultivated and wild-born – scattered throughout. The property served as the farm for the mental hospital, providing not only food for the patients, but also horticultural therapy, before that was a thing, until the state eliminated unpaid labor by patients in the 1970s. The property became an arboretum in 1981. Since I moved to central Maine in 1997, I’ve regularly walked, snow-shoed, and cross-country skied its trails. My usual route takes me through a hay meadow, past six species of oak, along a dilapidated boardwalk that crosses a manmade wetland, through a stand of white pines, by a shallow pond and up and down a hillside trail bordered by carefully tended hosta plants and shaded by gracefully arching paper birch trees. This loop takes me about 30 minutes, my lunch break, if I don’t stop and dawdle over the turtles in the wetland or the dragonflies near the pond. When I really need to get out—for my mental or physical health—I venture farther afield to the deep woods, the rhododendron garden, the green ash and larch plantations, and the nut tree collection.
It is near the nut trees—butternut, hickory, black walnut—that the chestnut trees march in their four straight rows. I probably ambled by the trees over the years as they grew from saplings, but they did not make an impression on me until one late-summer day three years ago, just over eleven years after we watched them go into the ground. I don’t remember if I headed with purpose toward the chestnut grove that day or happened upon it on my wanderings, but once among the trees, I sat beneath number C-13, my back firm against a trunk as stout as an elephant’s leg, and marveled at how much they had grown. Those spindly whippets reached up into the sky at least twenty feet. Most of the trees were still healthy then, their limbs dense with foliage. The ends of the branches bore clusters of spiny burrs the size and color of tennis balls, each one housing a nut, the seed of another generation. At eleven years old, the trees were reproducing.
Eleven is an in-between year, a pupal phase, the age everything changes. At ten, my son’s cheeks still held their soft baby roundness, his feet pattered across our wood floors, his voice, though never high-pitched, still rolled like marbles. By twelve, his face had sharpened into its adult contours, he thudded as he walked, his voice dropped into a baritone I didn’t recognize over the phone. These physical changes crept in during eleven, unnoticed by me until they had taken firm, irrevocable hold. Eleven also brought about a rending of the fabric of our relationship marked by aversion to physical affection, small rebellions against homework and school, and a know-it-all attitude, all played against a soundtrack of heavy sarcasm. By twelve, my son had returned to the fold of my arms, reengaged in schoolwork, and ratcheted down the smart-aleck tone to humorous irony. I didn’t realize it on that day, beneath the bright green branches of the eleven-year-old chestnut trees, that my son was in the midst of a year of transition, of distancing himself from me, from childhood, as he made his first major leap toward becoming a man, and that the chestnuts, too, balanced at a hinge-point.
American chestnut trees, in their heyday, were not the tallest trees in the forest, growing to a height of only one hundred feet. (The eastern white pine, Maine’s state tree, is said to have reached 230 feet prior to European settlement.) But the chestnut was glorious in the horizontal dimension, with a one-hundred-foot crown spread and a diameter of ten to twelve feet. Had my son and I known an American chestnut tree in its full glory, we’d have been able to lie down head-to-head behind a tree, our toes not poking out past the edges of the trunk. We could camp in the shade of its massive crown with six-hundred or so of our closest friends. But we never knew the chestnut, nor did we witness the eastern hardwood forest before the blight, dominated by trees of such majestic breadth and prolific food production. We don’t, in effect, know what we are missing.
“But we never knew the chestnut, nor did we witness the eastern hardwood forest before the blight… We don’t, in effect, know what we are missing.”
But we do have a forest we know well. Outside our front door, a little to the left, grows a stand of eastern hemlock trees. Though they fall far short of the chestnut’s height and girth, they are great shaggy beasts. Lacking the regular, conical form we expect of trees in the pine family, their limbs and branches, bristly with short, uneven needles, careen every which way, like a field-grown pine crossed with a fir and badly in need of a shave and a haircut. For a few days each winter a porcupine takes up residence in one of the trees nearest the house. From the living room window we can watch as it clips and drops feathery branches onto the snow below.
If we push aside the lower branches of one of the hemlocks and wade through the prickly wild raspberry canes that border the yard, we drop down a short hill onto a trail that follows a ridge of glacial till before making a U-turn downhill to the west branch of the Eastern River. The trail passes through two more hemlock groves, one farther along the ridge and another lining both banks of the river. We moved into our house when Milo was a year old. At the beginning of that winter, he wanted me to carry him over the “snow-wadee”—or “snow-water,” his word for the wet, slushy stuff of November. By February, freezing and thawing had packed the accumulation of many snowstorms firm enough to support even my weight. Milo would run through the woods over this crust, with no regard for the trail, heading in whatever direction took his fancy, disappearing beneath curtains of the hemlocks’ enveloping branches.
The ash trees are less noticeable than the hemlocks. They grow tall and straight, their crowns fading into the sky, high above eye level. You don’t notice them until you look for them, and then you see them everywhere, the neat bark of their trunks ridged in narrow, even plates like the spines of books on library shelves, their compound leaves attached opposite each other to twigs high above your head. White ash, along with white pine, American beech, paper and yellow birch, red oak, and red maple, fill in the stretches of woods between the hemlock groves, and black ash grow with wet feet down in the swampy area we cross on wobbly, rotten logs.
Both of these trees, the hemlocks and the ashes, may stand on the brink of the same fate as the chestnuts. Both face foes that, like the chestnut blight, were unwittingly introduced from Asia and to which the trees have shown almost no resistance. The hemlock wooly adelgid is an aphid-like insect whose larva inserts a feeding tube into the base of a hemlock needle and extracts nutrients, causing the needles to dry out and fall from the tree. Unable to grow and photosynthesize, limbs and branches begin to die back and within four years the tree may die. A US Forest Service bulletin on hemlock wooly adelgid states, “This non-native pest has impacts comparable to those of the gypsy moth, Dutch Elm disease, and chestnut blight.” The larva of the emerald ash borer, a beetle also imported from Asia, burrows through the inner bark of an ash tree. Its tunnels cut off the flow of water and nutrients within the tree, in much the same way that the chestnut blight fungus strangles its host. Trees die within two to four years of infestation. In a review of the insect, authors Daniel A. Herms and Deborah G. McCullough write, “As [emerald ash borer] continues to spread, its ecological and economic impacts in North America are expected to rival or exceed those of chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease, invasive pathogens that devastated natural and urban forests in the twentieth century.” How many more chestnut blights can our forests withstand?
“Both of these trees, the hemlocks and the ashes, may stand on the brink of the same fate as the chestnuts. Both face foes that, like the chestnut blight, were unwittingly introduced from Asia and to which the trees have shown almost no resistance.”
Scientists have been scrambling to understand the biology and behavior of these insect invaders, their efforts eerily mirroring those of the chestnut’s champions. Quarantines and control strategies have been tested and discarded. Landowners have been advised to salvage their standing trees. Genetics have been mapped and cross-breeding programs begun. Pests-of-the-pests have been tested and released. The process appears to be moving at a faster clip than when the chestnut blight was first discovered, in the early days of forest pathology, which gives me hope that we’ve learned something since then, if not the most vital lesson of all: don’t create the problem in the first place.
If efforts to control hemlock wooly adelgid and emerald ash borer prove successful before these pests reach our own backyard here in Maine, that does not necessarily mean our forest is safe. Nearly every tree in our woods has a foe with its name on it: white pine blister rust, beech bark disease, spruce budworm. The Asian longhorn beetle has more catholic tastes and would happily dine on most of the hardwood trees in our woods. The biggest unknown is what will happen to our trees, their pests, the other plants and animals in our little kingdom as the climate continues to shift to milder winters, hotter summers, and more extreme and unpredictable storms. Regardless of the outcome of insect infestations and climate change, I think it’s safe to say that if my son wanders these woods as an old man he will walk through a changed forest. Perhaps we can attribute such change to the natural flux that has characterized our wild world since the beginning of time, or perhaps the landscape will be diminished in diversity and ecological value due to the insatiable hungers of mankind. I expect that, if nothing else, a forest of some kind will still cover these acres. Trees can’t not grow here, as the stone walls that meander through our woods, once the boundaries of open farm fields, can attest. My husband bush-hogs our two meadows twice a year to keep woody vegetation from taking over the grass and milkweed and goldenrod.
If the forest does change—catastrophically or gradually—over the next fifty years, will my son even notice? At fourteen, he is more given to playing the guitar than running through the woods, though he will walk with me to the river if I ask him. He has never complained about our rural existence, but I don’t know how much the woods outside our front door mean to him. I don’t know if even he knows. I’m fairly confident he can tell the difference between a hemlock and a pine and a fir, but I don’t know whether he could pick an ash out of a lineup of hardwoods. I had meant to teach him the names of all of the trees and birds and flowers on our land when he was little, but it turned out that being in the woods mattered more to us than naming them. This may have been an error on my part. “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names,” goes a Chinese proverb. Studies have shown that children today can recognize hundreds of corporate logos but can’t name the trees in their own yard, while another study found that the more plants and animals children could name, the more appreciation they had for nature. If, one hundred years ago, people had not known the name of the huge tree that littered the forest floor with nuts every fall and filled the air with an odd, pungent fragrance each spring, would they have gone to such great, though largely futile, lengths to save the American chestnut? Would they have mourned the tree deeply enough to devote decades to bringing it back from death? Will anyone mourn the hemlocks and ashes with such intensity? Will my son?
Since rediscovering the chestnut grove three years ago, I have made a point of returning to it at least once each year, in August or September. I like to sit at the base of a tree, leaning against a trunk no thicker than my waist, and try to imagine its giant ancestors. The tallest of the trees reaches maybe twenty-five or thirty feet, and I can see how a tree that has grown that much in fourteen years could shoot up to a hundred feet, unimpeded by disease. At that time of year the chestnuts bear fruit—burrs that cling to the ends of branches, shrouding the trees’ seeds within their spiky armor. The leaves, which have not yet begun to turn autumn brown, resemble beech leaves—wide in the middle and pointed at both ends, with deep, furrowed veins and serrated edges—but chestnut leaves are longer and darker green with sharper teeth than beech leaves.
Milo just started high school. He will be taller than me by his next birthday. Much of what goes on in his days—and in his head—is a mystery to me. My son is growing up and the chestnuts the arboretum planted when he was a baby are dying. All but a handful are bare for the top ten or fifteen feet; many have withered back to bundles of branches that sprout from the roots of the sickly parent tree—mighty giants reduced to shrubs. The bark of the dead and dying chestnuts is brittle and brown, peppered with tiny orange dots of fungus.
This year I make a second pilgrimage to the grove, in late October. The leaves have turned russet, their scalloped edges curling back on themselves like fossils of ancient sea creatures. The burrs, too, have turned brown, a rich, chocolatey color, their spines dried and splintered. They have split open, blooming outward in four lobes. The inside surface is the exact opposite of the outside, soft and velvety, a gentle cradle for the growing seed. I search the ground for ripe nuts but find nothing. I wonder if squirrels or deer have taken them away or if the burrs were sterile, hollow husks all along.
A few days later we come to the arboretum as a family for a volunteer breakfast. After my children stuff themselves with sausages and French toast, I drag them out onto the trails. As we walk, I quiz them on the trees. Beech. Birch. Pine. Cedar. Aspen. Maple. Fir. Oak. They get them all correct, and though we pass no hemlock or ash I am relieved that I have taught them this much at least. We wander the trails, making turns at random, and I don’t realize we’re approaching the chestnuts until I see in the distance their barren limbs held aloft, graceful as dancers’ arms. My chest tightens. What will I say to Milo when we step into the grove? Will I tell him about that day more than fourteen years ago when his dad planted these trees while he slept, cradled to my chest? Will I tell him about the forests of giants that once spanned the eastern states, and how human mistakes felled the entire species? Before we reach the grove, however, my husband turns down a trail that takes us in another direction. I feel relief and a pang of guilt. Why do I dread talking to my son about the chestnut trees? Am I afraid that the knowledge will hurt him too much, or that he won’t care at all?
If I had thought about it at the time, I might have chosen a more auspicious first outing for my first baby than to go watch the planting of doomed trees. But on that day, I could no more imagine fourteen years in the future than I could fourteen thousand years. In the throes of new-motherhood, the prospect of my sweet baby becoming a teenager was as unforeseeable as the destruction of the keystone tree species of the eastern forests must have been to the early nurserymen who inadvertently invited the chestnut blight fungus onto our shores. Since becoming a mother I have held something akin to a chestnut burr in my heart—the tender, velvety inside holds hope for my children’s future; on the brittle, spiny outside is skewered despair about what that future might hold. The saga of the American chestnut manifests that burr. On the outside is a terrible tragedy, both ecological and economic, representing the worst side of humanity—hubris, an insatiable desire for control over nature, a refusal to consider the consequences of our actions. Cradled within is a story that highlights our best selves—the ability to recognize mistakes, the desire to right wrongs, the tenacity to persevere in the face of terrible odds. After all, the history of the American chestnut’s demise and rebirth might be the most auspicious first story to introduce to a child.
“Cradled within is a story that highlights our best selves—the ability to recognize mistakes, the desire to right wrongs, the tenacity to persevere in the face of terrible odds.”
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” This philosophy applies not only to the blight-resistant chestnut seeds that so many dedicated souls have worked to create over the years, but also to our children. We plant the seeds of love and kindness, time in nature, a healthy start at life, and stand back, prepared to expect wonders. To bring a species back from extinction—for the American chestnut is functionally extinct—is an act of faith, of peering fate directly in the eye and declaring that you will not be undone, on par with only one other human act that I can think of: bringing an infant into this world, raising him through the trials of each stage of childhood, and launching him into an uncertain world when he becomes an adult.
“To bring a species back from extinction—for the American chestnut is functionally extinct—is an act of faith, of peering fate directly in the eye and declaring that you will not be undone…”
I can’t say whether my son absorbed the seeds of the noble traits expressed by the American chestnut’s champions as he snoozed through the planting of the saplings, or if those traits have taken root inside him over the last fourteen years. He’s still too young to have made great mistakes that require righting. I do know that I imagine him growing up to be like an American chestnut—tall and strong and bountiful with his gifts—crossed with the love and persistence of those who wish to restore this iconic tree to its former glory.
I have a vision in my mind: a tree one hundred feet tall, and beneath it the child I gave birth to, gray-haired, a little stooped, his blue eyes nestled in wrinkles, resting against the broad trunk, in the vast shade cast by the spreading crown, a tree driven to extinction long before his birth and reborn during his lifetime.