From the bottom up

They once carpeted more than 200 million acres of Appalachia and accounted for nearly half of the tree population in Buncombe County.

Today, spotting even one American chestnut tree is big news: It doesn’t happen very often. In fact, the number of thriving American chestnuts is so small, and the trees themselves are so widely scattered, that an accurate tally has not been assembled. Leah Florence, administrative manager of the American Chestnut Foundation’s Asheville office, says the chestnuts you see on the ground probably dropped from a Chinese chestnut — and while the foundation sometimes fields calls from folks who believe they’ve discovered an American survivor, such reports must always be verified by the organization’s experts.

Unfortunately, a stroll through these forests today is infinitely more likely to turn up “gray ghosts” — the American chestnut’s eerie skeleton, which provides the valuable “wormy chestnut” wood seen in mountain dulcimers and other handcrafted items — or, maybe, sprouting tree stumps. Stumbling upon one of the latter might seem like a happy coup (a student hiking along the Appalachian trail last summer cited over 30,000 examples), but there’s little hope those sprouts will ever become grown-up trees.

“It’s not an indication that the tree is coming back. It’s just an indication that it’s doing what it’s been doing for the last 100 years — trying to [come back],” explains Forrest MacGregor, vice president of the ACF’s development cabinet.

Obviously, logging is not the villain of this awful tale — though the majestic trees, which grew to 90-plus feet in height (and considerately clustered their branches near the top), were highly valued by the timber industry for their extremely rot-resistant wood. Instead, it was a deadly fungal blight that wiped out this lofty mountain resident, transmitted by an infected Oriental species of chestnut imported around the turn of the 20th century.

By 1938, 85 percent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s American chestnuts were diseased or dead, according to an ACF report.

Couching the loss in material terms, ACF Staff Geneticist Paul Sisco quotes a 1925 economic report, “Chestnut and the Chestnut Blight in North Carolina,” introduced by then-State Forester J.S. Holmes: “Chestnut is one of the most important commercial trees in North Carolina, and probably the one for which it would be most difficult to find a substitute. It is by far the most abundant and widely distributed species throughout the mountain counties of this and other Appalachian states, and is used for a greater variety of commercial purposes than any other tree of the region.”

A passage in the modern report concurs: “The economic loss in timber, jobs, tannin, soil, water and forage is incalculable, and not replaceable by other species. Only the restoration of the [American chestnut], and its surrounding web of dependent and interacting species, can restore the productivity of the forests that literally built this country.”

While related species like the Chinese chestnut (which, being neither blight-resistant nor a naturally reproducing tree here, cannot be considered a satisfactory replacement) do supply some food for wildlife, the American tree remains an unequaled constituent in the ecological structure of the eastern forests.

“The thing that [primarily] took over the space left by [American] chestnuts were poplars and oaks. Neither one of them have the kind of reliable output chestnuts do. One year out of three, oaks fail to produce anthing at all. You have two or three years of good oak harvest, and squirrels and bears will take advantage of that fact. And then, one year, you’ll have a late frost or a drought, and the oaks produce nothing … and then the animals will literally starve by the billions,” reveals MacGregor, sharing a grim memory: “Two years ago we had such a year, when the oak [harvest] failed, and there were bears that came into Beaverdam Road in North Asheville, off the Parkway. The same year, I drove to Johnson City and squirrels were moving continually across the highway, trying to find food sources. I stopped counting dead ones at 200 — and I still had 40 miles to go.”

An article by Joseph Allawos, published in the November-December 1998 issue of Wild Mountain Times (the journal of the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project), states that the American chestnut blight is “often described as the single greatest economic and ecological disaster ever to strike the eastern United States.”

Candler Jones, an elderly Big Sandy Mush resident quoted in the piece, remembers that the sound of the dying trees hitting the forest floor was called “clear-day thunder.”

The tree is as much missed for its beauty as for its usefulness. Vintage photos show the humbling scale of these regal giants; moreover, Florence reports that during the tree’s early-June flowering stage, many mountainsides appeared to be snuffed in snow. Today, vestiges of the ill-starred species can be found in barns and split-rail fences (a testimony to the wood’s legendary rot resistance) and in its ubiquity as a place name: a sorely depopulated Chestnut Ridge can still be found in many rural areas, and hardly any town exists without a Chestnut Street, the ACF notes.

Emily Lower, a Jackson County folklorist currently at work on an oral history project about the tree, provides a human face for the issue through her interviews with older WNC natives.

“For many, the existence of the tree — its presence, proliferation, size and companionship — was simply an integral part of their memories of ‘days gone by.’ … The tree was a literal foundational building block in the mountains, providing wood for houses, furniture, fences, coffins, telephone poles, etc.

“I can say, at this point, that all [the interviewees] spoke of the grandeur of the trees — their size and dominance in the forest,” she continues. “The forest somehow felt different in those times. A couple people have said, with a sigh, that to have the trees back in the forest for their grandchildren would be an ‘awesome’ sight — my contemporary word for what I have heard as their longing.”

Seeds of hope

Great scientific breakthroughs have been made in recent years toward creating a blight-resistant American chestnut: “We’re teetering on the edge of our initial release of trees, reveals MacGregor. Planting is slated for 2006.

“We thought our original breeding program was going to take a lot longer — but we were better at growing trees than we thought,” he adds.

Learn more on March 21, when American Chestnut Foundation Staff Geneticist Paul Sisco delivers a free lecture, Restoring the American Chestnut to Eastern Forests, at Asheville’s Botanical Gardens. The lecture begins at 7 p.m. For details, or to learn more about the movement to resurrect the American chestnut, call 281-0047.

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