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

The Red Gods Call

When I fly out of JFK airport and can look out from a window seat I gaze at the empty marsh below instead of the Manhattan skyline after our wheels lift off runway 4L.  I’m thinking about Bob Morris, the New York surgeon I wrote about last time, and imagine him stalking a raft of ducks. The T.S.A. would not be happy if our pilot reported him leveling a twelve gauge between the reeds. But Bob left the marsh long ago.

The Jo Co Marsh was his favorite hunting ground after arriving as a medical student in New York City in the 1880s. At the end of the day’s work at Bellevue Hospital or the Cornell Clinic or assisting with surgery on patients in their own homes (it was more risky in hospital early in his career) he would often catch a train from Penn Station in Midtown to Rockaway, the closest drop-off point for Jamaica Bay. He’d collect his firearm from a friend at the Atlantic Hotel before heading to the marsh.  When ducks and geese were not in season, he’d pick up fishing gear instead. There were plenty of striped bass, bluefish, porgies, flounders, and sheepsheads in the Broad Channel. Sometimes a friend helped to set lobster pots, catch soft shell crabs, or collect all the oysters they could cart back to the hotel for a roast. They had sea appetites and marine treasure to satisfy them.

The Bay was still quite productive by the 1930s, even as the metropolis was encroaching on his paradise. He now visited the marsh with a camera instead of a gun, and was a patron of the Audubon Society. He wanted the Jo Co to become a bird sanctuary, and its channels and little islands “forbidden to visitors.” Now that ninety airlines operate from the airport and the marsh is closed to the public he seems to have gotten his wish, if not all his hopes. The din of Rolls Royce engines a few hundred feet overhead is a better bird scarer than anything heard on a farm.

Reaching a more reflective age, he wrote, “When a man retires from the swift rapids of an active professional life he arrives at a long stillwater, but the banks of that stillwater are so alive that his days continue to be brimful.”  He had heard “the Red Gods calling him to go” to borrow an expression from his soul-mate, Rudyard Kipling. There was still time to pursue his love of nature after the years of work, but they would be spent elsewhere.

He retired to his own sanctuary which he had purchased serendipitously on a whim many years earlier.  It was a 440 acre estate near Stamford, Connecticut, and was rich in wildlife and virtually unspoiled. He was sanguine about leaving behind his career as a renowned surgeon, knowing how quickly fame fades. He was one of the first to bring aseptic surgery to America and had made many innovations in wound healing and in what today is called minimal access operations. He was comfortable, even anxious, to move on to the next phase of life, and would have cared little that along with a few others I had started to focus a light on his legacy.  He wrote, “I felt that I had been born for the woods, the rivers, the mountains, and the sea. Anyone who wanted New York might have it and all that was in it. My light heart was out of doors. Only my heavy feet remained in town.” He couldn’t resist the call of the Red Gods: it was as if the poetic right side of his brain had gotten the better of his professional left.

The estate, called Merribrooke, lay barely 18 miles from New York City limits.  While he couldn’t protect Jamaica Bay, at least he had more control over his own property and could dedicate his time there to conservation, writing, and horticulture. He even honed his grafting skills to try to bring back the American chestnut which had become almost extinct from an imported blight.

There can be little doubt from his memoirs that this was one of the happiest times of his life, blessed by the arrival of a daughter, Mary, in his graying years. There was a dark side. It wasn’t the burden of owning such a large estate, but the responsibility he felt for preserving a beautiful place for future enjoyment. He had plenty of run-ins with corporations and lawyers who wanted to develop the land or divert the Mianus River running through his property down to the sparkling Long Island Sound. “If succeeding owners can keep Merribrooke as a wild park for centuries to come with residences only on road frontage I shall ask these other people to be grateful to me for preserving a beauty spot intact near New York City at great personal effort and financial loss while “improvement” ogres stood about with snuffers all ready for putting out Nature’s light.” Those words, which we rediscovered among his papers, were scrubbed out of the original manuscript for his Fifty Years a Surgeon (1936).

Merribrooke largely survives today as the Mianus River Park, a fine woodland with public access.  A Park website gives no clue whether anyone knows how such a place avoided being swallowed up by developers, or at what personal cost. Bob would have shrugged his shoulders – we are all forgotten sooner or later.

I was musing about his life on a flight from JFK to Virginia. As we flew parallel to the East River I saw on its banks the gray stone edifice of the New York Presbyterian Hospital which houses Weill Cornell Medical College. My wife and I worked at the College until we took early retirement, so many decades after Morris.

I used to regularly attend Grand Rounds in the hospital to keep pace with advances in other specialties. The Rounds were generally full, but quite a number of seats were taken by doctors of advanced years, some so advanced they leaned on their canes or struggled on the stairs. They all wore freshly-laundered white coats. These were distinguished men whom, a generation earlier, you might have asked to care for a sick relative or for yourself, but now…? One of them, a former departmental chairman, confessed to me, “It’s pathetic that we can’t keep away … can’t give it up.”

Many people never hear the Red Gods calling, and some unfortunately can’t afford to go, but for the rest I urge them to go – go – go.  Abandoning the vocation you love is painful, but there is a time for grasping something you feel passionate about, that has been held in suspension for years, before the chance slips away forever – if not nature study, then golf or painting or DIY or growing bonsai trees, or anything else for the sake of heart’s ease. Women seem to be more successful in this than men.  The call came urgently to me because my father never had the chance to go, and Bob’s died a few months after finishing his heavy duties as the Governor of Connecticut.

He must go — go — go away from here!

On the other side the world he’s overdue.

‘Send your road is clear before you where the old Spring-fret comes o’er you,

And the Red Gods call for you!

From The Red Gods by Rudyard Kipling

Next Post: Appalachian Spring