Virginia Nature Journal for May

The virtual extinction of the American chestnut across its range is like the story of the sack and burning of Troy. A few old timers can still remember when it was the dominant canopy tree both sides of the Appalachian mountain chain, although even then it was in retreat. In a few decades from 1904, entire regiments of trees were killed by a blight, and just a few old soldiers survived underground to sprout like ghosts in spring. There is an example in a friend’s yard.

Long before we were born, it was probably a giant over one hundred feet tall with broad spreading limbs providing shade over his family home. But when it cankered after being attacked by blight its ring of cambium died and the old fellow rotted. Only its roots survived, and they are wearing out.

American chestnut tree
An old chestnut tree regenerates in my friend’s yard

For years it has struggled to grow shoots and branches, and last year managed to reach 20 feet and produce flowers for green burrs in fall, but it cankered again and was cut down to knee height. The cycle is repeated over and over, but each time the root system is less able to regenerate because there is insufficient nourishment from leaves. A Virginia forester who loves chestnuts told me that cankers can be stopped by rubbing them with dirt, because it contains antibiotics. But a remedy that depends on our helping hands will never work across a forest, and is impractical when a tree grows up.

There were still three or four billion American chestnuts in Longfellow’s time. A specimen he depicted in a poem grew in Cambridge MA until 1876 when it was cut down and some of the timber rescued to make a chair for his 72nd birthday.


The chestnut has been called “the perfect tree” because it can produce a huge harvest of nutritious nuts and wonderful timber that won’t rot, and it is ornamental. The strong arms of the hard-working blacksmith are like the bows of the productive tree, and his virtuous life like the generosity of the forest giant. The loss was said to bring tears to the eyes of old-timers who treasured and depended on chestnuts, but have they gone forever?

My wee Restoration Chestnut
My wee Restoration Chestnut

As an iconic tree, they still have friends and admirers today. Researchers have been laboring to create a transgenic chestnut and hybrids that are blight resistant from backcrossing and intercrossing to incorporate genes that were evolved by the Chinese chestnut over eons for protection where the blight was endemic. The latest generation of Restoration Chestnut from the American Chestnut Foundation is nearly 95% American and groves of them are being planted in Virginia and other eastern states. I care for one I planted in my yard last year from seed. Will it survive? Only time will tell. But blight is not the only threat—a marauding deer munched its crown last week.

Next Post: Dough birds



Shifting Baselines

Captain John Smith
Monument to Captain John Smith, Jamestown, Virginia

In 1608 Captain John Smith led a crew of fourteen to explore the Chesapeake Bay in a shallop brought over from England in the hold of the Susan Constant.  Leaning over the side of the small craft they could see nearly four fathoms down through clear water. The bed of the estuary was encrusted with oyster reefs, enough to completely filter the bay every week, and some of the shells were large enough to serve a hearty meal. In his journal, Smith recorded, “the oysters lay as thick as stones … (there are) more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog or man … (and plenty of) grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays, brits (?), mullets, white salmon (striped bass/ rockfish), trouts, soles, and three sorts of perch.”

The sailors must have been in awe of the bald cypress trees lining the shore like a curtain behind which a mysterious forest stretched to the horizon. The canopy was taller than any cathedral they knew in Europe, and was home to unfamiliar birds and game animals. Native people never went hungry where there was so much good fishing and hunting, and they grew corn, beans, and squash in the clearings. Smith noted the country was “very goodly.”

He never found the gold he came for, nor did he realize that the real wealth lay under his boat. It wouldn’t be harvested until the Oyster Rush in the 19th Century, which made shellfish a rarity. When they were still plentiful, their shells accumulated in the sediments leaving a record of when the Bay still teemed with life.

Fishermen and commercial watermen plowing the bay today are content with their normal catch of seafood because its original abundance stretches our imagination, if we think of it at all. We define what is normal not from the deep past, which is barely-known, but from our own experience and stories passed down by elders—“You should have seen the catches in my day, boy!” The pristine state of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed predate human memory, and explorers like Captain Smith have left scanty records, if any. But does it really matter what the Bay looked like, because in a fast-moving world our attention is fastened on managing a man-made present and future? History is bunk, isn’t it?

Daniel Pauly disagrees. He has a theory that each generation makes its own mental map of what is normal, and consequently it can have lower expectations of richness and diversity in the environment than the previous generation if that has already deteriorated. Progressive generational myopia is called “shifting baselines,” and as a marine biologist Pauly had ocean fisheries in mind, although the concept applies generally in conservation biology and social science. To remind me of the concept I have a list of favorite shifting baselines, starting with shifting waistlines:

  • A Gallup Survey showed that Americans weigh 20 lb more than they did two decades ago, which many people thought was “just right” or normal.
  • House finches can be seen most days in Eastern Virginia, but that would not be normal for previous generations of birders.
  • Thin topsoil in my yard is normal, although I now know that a farm exhausted the land years ago when it was much richer.
  • Since average Americans watch live TV for 34 hours a week I presume they are satisfied with normal programs, though old curmudgeons who remember the hey-days of TV excoriate them.
  • Slow journeys to work in congested cities are not frustrating to everyone as we might expect because new residents accept lengthy commutes as normal.

You will have many more examples of your own, but I must get back to my theme.

There is no doubt that we have been poor stewards by polluting and overfishing the oceans. As consumers we feel the scarcity in our pockets from spiraling prices of tuna, cod, and anchovy, etc. That such a wonderful food is becoming only affordable in the rich world is a tragedy, and governments have been slow to protect collapsing fisheries, perhaps because conservation science has been blinded by the wrong baselines. Maybe a better knowledge of the original state of the environment can help to protect oceanic health and stabilize harvests because everything in a living ecosystem is linked with something else, like a spider’s web which is sensitive to changes in tension anywhere in its orb.

All things are connected.

Whatever befalls the earth

Befalls the sons of earth.

Man did not weave the web of life,

He is merely a strand in it.

Chief Seattle (1780-1866)

Chief Seattle
Chief Seattle

The wisdom of an old Native American chief who lived close to nature chimes with modern ecology. But how can we discover what stable and healthy environments looked like before they were exploited—from poring over the logs of old explorers, fishermen and whalers, or dredging up sub-fossil remains like oyster shells? The baselines that Captain Smith knew have been lost and there are precious few pristine places anymore to serve as models.

It was not however the sea but the land that alerted me to one of my own shifting baselines. I knew that most of our eastern forests are secondary or tertiary growths that have been rapidly regenerating since farming and logging started to decline here. But my error was to assume they were in the process of becoming facsimiles of the virgin forest and would again harbor the same native species with huge tree boles and towering canopies, as if we had never trammeled the land. And I thought the few remaining stands of uncut forest and reforested land protected by the Wilderness Act were pristine.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act into law in 1964 he said something that used to strike a chord in me: “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning…” (emphasis added). I wish it could true, but regret I have been naïve.

I see many native trees and shrubs on my hikes that have seeded naturally—oaks, maples, hemlocks, et cetera. I fooled myself that the mixture is normal. I thought that wildness guaranteed the forest is the same as it was in the beginning, but in fact it is coming back differently. Some species that used to be dominant are now absent and replaced by foreign species. Suppression of natural wildfires (a well-meaning forestry policy) encourages the succession of fire-resistant species by others, and firebreaks create more edges where different species thrive. A history of logging and poor farming practices has often exhausted or eroded the soil, and dams and mills have altered floodplains and sediments which, in turn, alter the vegetation that grows there.

The American chestnut tree was my biggest blind spot. The tree used to inspire country folk to dub it “king of the forest,” but it is completely eliminated by blight (American Chestnut: the Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree by Susan Freinkel). There is now a host of introduced diseases and insect borers working their way through our pines, oak, hemlock, ash, and dogwood, and they are very hard to control. Sometimes alien species out-compete the native flora because grazing beasts and insects in their new country find them unappetizing.

George Washington
George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

If we could resurrect Captain Smith from his London grave he would tell us tales of a primeval forest he knew that is very different today. We have inklings of it from archives of the colonial era when land surveyors like a young man called George Washington were drawing plats in Virginia’s western frontier for farmers, lumbermen, and land speculators. “Witness” trees that were used as boundary markers on plats give a rare glimpse of species that grew there over two centuries ago.

land plat
A land survey plat by George Washington

And in the North-East and Appalachia sub-fossil records show that giant beech, hemlock, and spruce of the old-growth forests are now substantially replaced by maples in regenerating forests. This difference may not seem unwelcome because maples are ornamental natives, but they are less productive for supporting animal communities and the farm animals that used to run in the forest. The most productive species of all, the oak family, has declined across the range.

Gaudineer Scenic Area in West Virginia. A tiny fragment of uncut, old-growth Appalachian forest

I know that it is no good fawning over the old forests, whatever they were actually like, because they will never come back. Looking back at their green light is unlikely to make a difference, and it is futile to “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past (The Great Gatsby). The land passed a tipping point of no return a long time ago when drivers of change were first released into the environment, and they continue to mold it. These changes may even accelerate with global warming.

But if the land is slipping further away from its original state, we can be more optimistic about oceans according to marine biologists. Some of them say the tide of ocean poverty can still be turned by careful management, and the Chesapeake Bay is improving, if agonizingly slowly. For eons, the Bay danced only to nature’s tune, rolling with the seasons, and generations of Native Americans who had little impact on it therefore shared a mental baseline for what they thought was normal for its waters and in the surrounding forest. Only when European colonists arrived with technologies for rapidly extracting resources was there much change, and after four centuries of exploitation Captain Smith would find the Bay strange and much diminished.

I was musing that we condemn people responsible for war, prejudice, and human bondage but rarely blame those who have spoiled the environment by industrialization, mining, overfishing, clear-cutting, and draining, eroding and poisoning land. I wondered if we excuse the pioneers because they struggled to survive in hostile territory and perhaps felt a God-given right to subdue it? Or was it because as their power of exploitation grew they didn’t realize the sea and land have limited abilities to recover? Or do we forgive them because we have benefited from their excesses. Perhaps it is a bit of all of them, but those who don’t know better can’t be held responsible for error.

I then wondered if the excuse is wearing thin on current generations and if we will be judged more harshly than we judged the past. We are no longer ignorant of our impact and are leaving plenty of evidence of our own stewardship. If future generations live in a more impoverished world than ours they will not be so blinded by shifting baselines and would justly hold us in contempt, just as President Johnson warned.

Next Post: Scavengers and Decomposers

A Tree for Hugging

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.Artemis

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.”

Smash the conker!
Smash the conker!

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.”

Chestnut hybrid on former Morris estate
Chestnut hybrid on former Morris estate

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. Chestnut plate#2Some 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.Chestnut treehugger#2

Next Post: Return of the Native

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