April 30, 2005


Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree (SUSAN FREINKEL, 4/30/05, NY Times)

TO celebrate Arbor Day yesterday, President Bush added a new tree to the White House grounds - an American chestnut. At first glance it may seem an odd choice, since chestnuts have been largely absent from the American landscape for more than half a century. Yet if any species can help us see the importance of trees to humanity, it is the American chestnut, and its story makes it the perfect emblem for Arbor Day.

Chestnuts were once so plentiful along the East Coast that according to legend a squirrel could travel the chestnut canopy from Georgia to Maine without ever touching the ground. The trees grew tall, fast and straight. Many considered it the perfect tree: it produced nourishing food and a rot-resistant wood that was used for everything from furniture to fence posts. Chestnut ties were the sturdy foundation of the ever-expanding railroad lines; chestnut poles held up the lengthening miles of electrical and telephone wire.

Then in the early 20th century a deadly fungus imported from Japan hit American forests. Within 40 years this fast and merciless fungus spread over some 200 million acres and killed nearly four billion trees. The blight brought the chestnut to the brink of extinction. Even today new sprouts continue to shoot up from the roots of seemingly dead trees only to be attacked again by the fungus before they can flower and reproduce.

But, in memory at least, the tree endures. That's particularly true in Appalachia, where the chestnuts were vital to the local culture and economy. The sweet nuts that appeared every fall sustained people and their livestock. Families built their homes from chestnut logs, marked their property with chestnut fences and brewed home remedies for burns from chestnut leaves.

And God designed no better weapon for whipping at your brother than the chestnut.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 30, 2005 10:48 AM

Did the Times choose that headline as a subtle 1984 reference?

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at April 30, 2005 12:56 PM

The catalpa pod comes closing to matching it in its utility for fraternal combat.

Posted by: The Other Brother at April 30, 2005 1:36 PM

Arbor Day orginated in Nebraska. The state courthouses were closed yesterday because of it.

Posted by: pchuck at April 30, 2005 1:38 PM

You were probably using a horsechestnut, Orrin, (genus Aesculus)rather than the true chestnut (Castanea), though from a martial perspective there is probably little difference. Just don't try roasting and eating a horsechestnut or buckeye.

As a forester, and more specifically, a forest pathologist nothing would make me happier than the return of the American chestnut.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at April 30, 2005 1:56 PM

Highly localized here in America, but, nothing beats a juicy, ripe black olive.

They sting, and they stain!

Posted by: H.D. Miller at April 30, 2005 2:52 PM