Another Remembrance Day

Boy-scoutVeterans Day came round again last week. It brought to mind a boy standing in the drizzle beside a war memorial near London on what is called Remembrance Day over there. I have a black and white picture in my head of the 1st Farnborough boy scout troop on parade.

We marched on November 11 (or the closest Sunday) from the George & Dragon pub car park to the cemetery at Saint Giles Church where we assembled in serried ranks beside girl scouts and opposite rows of veterans from two World Wars. The men stood stiffly to attention, some needing help with a cane. Almost all wore a dark gabardine mackintosh with a poppy in their buttonhole and bright medals dangling from ribbons. We were in scout uniform, which in those days meant short pants and a green beret pulled over an ear so the rain drained on our shoulder.  Cold, wet, and unnaturally subdued for boys, we had to show a stiff upper lip because our fathers were there.

St. Giles' Church
St. Giles’ Church and war memorial, Farnborough

We waited for a roll call of the fifty names engraved in the granite memorial, followed by the Ode to Remembrance.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

The assembly repeated the last line before a two-minute silence. Then a bugler on the memorial steps called the Last Post (Taps in America).  We then filed into the church through the narthex to the back pews where we fidgeted on the hard wooden boards for the next hour. The rector stepped up to the pulpit in a black cassock and white surplice, probably still wondering in his bowed head how to preach about the unspeakable.

Our parents and grandparents in front of us were remembering comrades, friends, and neighbors whose faces and voices still rang in the halls of their memory. Our family had lost some members, but that was long ago. How could a boy share the same emotions as his elders? How could he remember someone he had never known? The best he could do was to stay awake during the sermon, try to imagine the horrors of war, and resist his attention from drifting to the girl scouts nearby.

I guess it is easier today for American youngsters to have a fuller heart than we had for our veterans of the World Wars because they are likely to know someone who has served in war zones. A personal connection puts flesh on the statistics of conflict, as I appreciated when I saw a brawny young man in a wheelchair with his legs sawn off above the knee. I was tempted to ask, “Was it an I.E.D.?” I should have simply said, “Thank you,” but for me he put a human face on the sacrifice of war which helps me remember when stars and stripes are fluttering again in churchyards and beside mailboxes at this time of year.

While I was musing that personal connections help to make remembrance more heart-felt I wondered about all the other people I have never even paused to think about and all the things that I take for granted in daily life. It doesn’t seem such a big sacrifice to unclutter the mind for just two minutes of meditation once a year for them, although there is the excuse of an endless thank you list that would tax the brain. But I am getting started, and although my choice seems odd I hope the reasons are clear by the end of this post. I am thinking of TREES!

Loblolly pines

No memorial day is set aside for them, although there is a National Arbor Day when planting and caring for trees is encouraged. If there is ever a day for remembering the bountiful forests and our continuing dependence on them Joyce Kilmer’s Trees will probably be its anthem:

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree…

Some trees are so magnificent that they can even stir the heart of a lumberjack who makes his living by clear-cutting forests to the horizontal, like machine-gunners who admired the enemy’s courage even as they slaughtered at the Somme, Passchendaele, and Marne. We say we love trees, yet our actions speak otherwise. A storm of yellow and red leaves out of a maple tree in the fall is mesmerizing, but then we complain about clearing them from our yard. Trees do not just embellish the landscape but are emblematic of all that is grand and worth preserving in nature.

Forests were where most people lived before they were cleared for lumber and to make way for farms, concrete and asphalt. Saint Giles himself was a 7th Century forest-dweller. For untold centuries they provided nutritious food and wood for heating, cooking, tool-making, and furniture, and they harbored an astonishing biodiversity. They still do. Our ancestors felt much more connected with trees than modern man as they dreamt of (and sometimes worshipped) tree spirits—dryads in Greece, kodema in Japan, Ah’ret in Cambodia, and green men in England. The spirits were defenders of the forests and could sway human destiny. It was vital to preserve the sylvan environment for posterity. But when people moved to towns and cities the caretaking spirit was forgotten and timber just a way of making a living and another table.

“The wrongs done to trees, wrongs of every sort, are done in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief…” (John Muir).

Perhaps we are coming round at last to thinking about the great forests in a fresh way, if only because we are alarmed at the prospect of a world without them. We know that they are the lungs of the atmosphere and buffer the rising levels of carbon dioxide, but this realization came late and action to care for forests around the world, and particularly in the tropics, is still ponderous, patchy and often short-sighted. Like the parable of the blind man in Bethsaida who only saw people “looking like trees walking” until he was fully healed, when we look at trees we only see dollar bills and people with wants and needs.

Sequoia grove in California
“Any fool can destroy trees…” John Muir

To meditate on trees it helps to take a trip to see the giants. It is as impossible to avoid looking up in awe at a grove of sequoia in California as to turn aside from looking down in amazement from the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. You never forget. On the other side of the country children have fun holding hands in a ring to measure the circumference of the biggest yellow poplar. The stories they take home are lasting.

yellow poplar
Measuring a giant yellow poplar.
Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, NC State Universities Libraries

This last tract of virgin hardwoods containing giant poplar trees in the mountains of North Carolina has been protected by the US Department of Forestry since 1936 when it was named after the poet, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.  Outside the preserve every large tree was taken down because they all had a price on their boles. The titanic American chestnut trees that once dominated the forest canopy even over the poplars had a different fate since they fell everywhere to a malignant blight, and few people are alive today who can remember them. But to stand among the surviving giants can feel like being among veterans sharing a solemn remembrance of the fallen, including Joyce Kilmer himself who lay down among the trees that died the same day on the Marne battlefield not long after writing his poem.

Paul Nash
We are Making a New World. Paul Nash 1918.

Next post: In a nutshell

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