If the Ancient Greeks ever had a deity for protecting the environment it was Artemis. She was a goddess of the forests and wilderness, a defender of the vulnerable who once hid in a chestnut tree from Zeus when he was in one of his violent fits of temper.
Divine knowledge did not save the iconic American chestnut tree, which provided a glorious quarter of the eastern forest canopy. A blight carried by timber imported from Asia was first noticed on trees at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, and quickly spread across their entire range from Maine to Georgia along and on both sides of the Appalachian chain. Within a few decades they were extinct except for sprouts from old stumps and roots, which became infected long before they became trees. The chestnut provided some of the most beautiful and useful wood in the country, as well as heavy annual harvests of delicious nuts. I never knew this history, and none of the older people I met after arriving in the USA in the 1970s ever told me what I had missed. How quickly memories of the lately-departed can fade.
But I knew plenty about chestnuts in Britain, which are schoolboy favorites. On chilly winter evenings we warmed ourselves beside glowing braziers in London streets where we bought bags of roasted sweet chestnuts. Earlier in the fall, our school yards were battlegrounds for playing with chestnuts of another kind, the horse chestnut or conker tree. This tree sheds large numbers of nuts inside spiny burrs, burnished like the top of a prized wooden dresser with a round, pasty-white patch of skin, looking like a larger version of its American cousin. Too bitter to eat, conkers served us well in schoolboy wars. We could hardly wait for them to fall, and would throw sticks into trees to bring on the harvest.
In those days, wearing short pants and with pockets bulging with booty we trekked home to plan a campaign. We spread the nuts across a table to select the best for battle and reserve one for our pockets because grandma told us it was a sure cure for piles. The largest nuts were not the best for fighting, and we remembered that Goliath had cracked under David’s little “conker.” I preferred my chestnuts to be “cheesers”, whose flat sides could break my opponent’s nut after arcing through the air like a mortar bomb. We used a kitchen skewer to bore a hole through our conkers before threading a string or bootlace which was tied at one end with a knot. Then we were ready.
Conkers was first played on the Isle of Wight in early Victorian times, and because that is my birth-place and my cousin John McConkey is from there I feel I am a special authority on the subject! The game is played in pairs starting with the winner of a coin toss. With the string wound tightly around his forefinger and the other holding the conker he tries to strike the other nut which is held limply by his opponent. He aims to break it, preferably with a single beautiful, explosive “Crack.”
Starting as a none-er, the winning conker is promoted to a one-er, and the victorious boy looks around the yard for the next contestant. According to some rules, the score can be additive, so if he defeats a six-er his conker becomes a seven-er, whereas his opponent’s would be an eight-er if he wins a round with a one-er. Some pretty high scores can be run up, and a lot of shells and kernels cast across the yard. If he missed in a tangle of strings, the contestants call, “Strings!” and the first boy to shriek is rewarded with another shot. If a conker is dropped, it is fair game to crush it underfoot with a triumphant whoop, “Stamps!” After releasing so much youthful aggression, the boys troop back to their classroom where stories about the Trojan Wars seem placid compared with what happened outside.
Even schoolboys have codes of decency, if not many, and none when it comes to conkers. In the good old days, we had secret formulas for hardening our nuts. Mine was to bake them in vinegar when Mum wasn’t looking. Opponents always sniffed conkers before the game started to check for cheating, but the smell of vinegar was dissipated if they were aired for a while. I heard that the hardest nuts have been passed undigested through a pig for collecting at the other end, and I suppose the conker owner hopes the other boy has a really stuffy head cold. I swear the story is not a “porker” (slang for a big fib).
There is a part of boyhood that never grows up, and the chestnut is one of its totems. The great ornamental tree evokes memories of gazing into the fall canopy feeling the anticipation with hands deep in empty pockets. But the joy of conkering doesn’t have to stop after graduating to long pants; it continues in some shires and counties into manhood, where grown men stand in opposing pairs, often outside pubs and well-fortified. These are sturdy individuals who are fortunate to live in a country that tolerates (nay, celebrates) eccentricity, and doubly lucky if they don’t have to creep out the backdoor while their wives aren’t looking. It is no wonder that Britain and Ireland have produced far more champions than any other country—if only in this sport. Good luck to them in the next World Conker Championship, which will be held in the English Midlands next weekend (October 13) (I kid you not).
The game is hardly known in North America, except perhaps in New York where a winning conker is naturally called a “Killer.” It is mild compared to the national sport of head-bashing in football, which could have originated with conker players frustrated in a country where horse chestnut trees are rare (Ahem). The native American buckeye, sometimes called a horse chestnut here, is no more than a close relative, but its nuts are too small for respectable play, as are those of American chestnuts if you can find any.
The story of the native American chestnut is like a tragedy that preceded it by only a few decades—the annihilation of the native American Indian culture. These ghosts of the forests were formerly vibrant here in Virginia, but while one was felled by axes and fungal blight, the other disappeared in a hail of bullets and foreign viruses.
American chestnuts were not on my mind until recently when I was shown a typescript browning with age, titled Chestnut Notes. Pam Walker, granddaughter of the renowned New York surgeon Robert Morris (1857-1945), had found it in a bundle of papers from the time when he was preparing a book that become a standard work in arboriculture and horticulture (Nut Growing, Macmillan & Co., 1931). The script, dated October 1929, begins, “Something over twenty years ago when the chestnut blight became a serious matter in Connecticut I looked for resistant species and varieties for the purpose of making hybrids.”
I was curious whether this great amateur and forgotten pioneer was first to tackle the disastrous die-off of chestnut trees. He began experimenting very soon after the fungal epidemic was recognized, and could not have known in 1909 that it would spread across the nation. Accompanied by Pam last weekend, I visited the Morris estate in Connecticut which, before it passed through other owners to become a public park today, was 440 acres of forest between Stamford and Greenwich where he conserved trees and wildlife. I knew he had used American chestnut pollen to create hybrids with blight-resistant species of chestnut (Chinese chestnut and chinkapin or chinquapin) followed by backcrossing and testing every few years with the aim of producing almost pure American varieties that had inherited genes for resistance. It was a goal that could never be achieved in his lifetime. We found only a few specimen trees that may be derived from his work. Today, research continues under state management in Connecticut and Virginia where enormous progress has been made, giving prospects for people who are alive today to see American chestnuts flourish again.
Before all leaves have fallen, I will travel half-way across the state with a Virginia forester to see how far this work has progressed. And perhaps I will see a rare original specimen, not just a hybrid, that I am told stands a record 20 feet tall without blight. I will then feel well-prepared for an article I have been invited to write for a journal. To some this sudden absorption will probably sound nuts, but people who love our native trees will understand this beautiful obsession. As John Muir said, “Going to the woods is going home.”
These thoughts were running through my head one bright morning last month while I was walking in our yard. We have two or three acres of woodland, mainly loblolly pines, tulip poplars, hickories, and various oak species. They are old friends that stand like guardians around the home, and I pay them particular attention during the hurricane season. I know them all, or I thought I did.
No more than thirty paces from our house my attention was drawn to something I had never noticed before in the ten years we have lived here. Scattered on the ground there were 50 to 100 apple-green burrs. I stooped to pick one, but dropped it immediately because it felt as sharp as a sea-urchin and more spiny than any burr I had ever held. Some had been split by squirrels to remove their fruit. When I prized others open with a pocket knife I found three beautiful nuts inside that looked as bright as if they had been French-polished. There is only one tree that could have produced them in the small grove of pines: it has a bole a foot wide and reaches seventy feet to catch sunlight, where there were more prickly fruit among the long leaves waiting to fall.
I couldn’t tell if it was American or Chinese, nor did it matter. It was like a gift, and I ran inside shouting, “Come look! You’ll never believe it!” Afterwards I searched the neighborhood and even further afield for others, but this is the only chestnut tree. Thank you, Artemis.
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