by Bill Adamsen
Against the new fungus enemy, scientists at the Botanical Gardens, and at the Laboratory of Forest Pathology at Washington, will muster their forces in the interest of the lovers of chestnut parks and woodlands. the New York Times – May 1908
As we age, experience tempers our perspective on loss with incredulity replaced by pragmatism, intellectualizing the events leading to loss. We migrate from a position of disbelief to one of expectation or at least resignation. For instance, the inevitability of death and taxes prepares us for the losses we'll encounter through both. As adults we understand the permanence of such losses. Entropy follows a specific direction through time.
The Dealers are Crying Chestnuts is the title of an 1886 article in the Philadelphia Inquireras quoted in Mighty Giants. The autumn crop was scarce that year and street corner sellers complained that “selling is a losing business.” Farmers of the nineteenth century were used to crop failure and famine and the vendors no doubt saw their loss as simply that – ephemeral and not permanently catastrophic. That is, they expected the crop to return the following year and their coffers to once again fill with the cash the crop brought. There was no sense of permanence to their loss.
The past six months of the US economy has subjected many if not most of us to diminished portfolios. And those forced to sell realize that “selling can be a losing business.” Many of us have recent experience to draw upon – recessions from 1929, the 1970s, '80s and even the the millennium. One would think the experience of repeated loss would have prepared, even inured us to what has happened to equity markets over the past six months. Loss is like that – shock and disbelief followed by resignation and, if not careful, by growing cynicism. We've all read about and imagined, or even experienced, someone who lost it all. What is that like – how can we empathize with those who have truly lost it all? Of course history has many examples of those who knocked down rose up to earn their fortunes once again – examples include: Jay Gould, Heinrich Schliemann and Donald Trump.
This made me wonder – how did the people of the early twentieth century cope with the loss of the chestnut? They had experienced years when the harvest was poor so we've read. But did they see the end of the harvest approaching? Did they ever fathom that the world could change for the foreseeable future? When did people recognize that the harvests they had come to depend on were a thing of the past – how did they respond?
Trees affected only by severe weather conditions an expert declares. I find no evidence on the leaves of anything that could have changed their color to such an extent. Dr. W.A.Murrill the New York Times October 1908
In 1907 it was reported that over 600 million board feet of chestnut were cut in the United States. The estimated total that year for chestnut retail value (boards, food, tannins) was placed at over twenty-two million dollars. In today's dollars, the retail value of the lumber alone would exceed three billion dollars. The total food and industrial value is hard to estimate. We know from sources that Chestnut was a source of cash for those who might have grown or bartered for most household needs. Plus chestnut served as food for animal forage with accounts of man competing with his beasts to gather chestnuts before the animals devoured what reached the forest floor. Even in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a bushel of chestnut brought upwards of five dollars or more. This was welcome cash for mountain folk from Georgia to Vermont, the American chestnut's natural range.
And it wasn't just in the Appalachia. A New York Times article from 1892 (before the blight) talks about how the gathering of chestnut in Hamburg, Connecticut (present day Old Lyme) represented perhaps the best opportunity for a family to earn cash.
When the season for Chestnuting opens, all other business is laid aside for the time being. Women go first with baskets and pails, and if there are children at school they are taken out and set at work. Families frequently make $12 to $15 a day during the season, which usually lasts three weeks.
Although unknown at the time, In less than a generation, chestnuting would end in Hamburg Connecticut. Within another generation – chestnuting would end throughout the tree's native range. A NY Times article from 1908 projects that the Chestnut tree is doomed!
That all the trees in the United States are doomed to destruction by a mysterious disease called chestnut blight or canker is the gloomy prediction of Dr. W.A.Murrill … now he asserts there is nothing to be done against it; that it must run its course like all epidemics. The chestnut is one of the principal sprout tree of the east … a vast loss will be entailed on the eastern forest region should this disease prove as destructive as is at present threatened
And without specifics, foretells the laments of the families from Hamburg, Connecticut that no longer chestnut during the three weeks the trees used to bear fruit.
While too young to have experienced first-hand the devastation of the chestnut blight, I believe working to restore the species has helped make me more aware of what its bounty might have been. Visiting Chestnut orchards in Europe, or even at the CT Agriculture Experiment Station helps one visualize what might be when the tree returns. I hope it also it also better prepares me to understand the significance of threats from other pathogens and pests. On earth day, thinking about the impact of globalization and the shrinking of the globe – at least as far as pathogens are concerned – one can attempt to draw parallels with the Chestnut blight. The Emerald Ash Borer, Asian Long-horned Beetle, and Woolly Adelgid are all pests with potential to alter forest ecology – and to at least some extent impact our culture. So the question begs, what in terms of ecological and cultural impact is the next chestnut blight, and what lessons have we learned from chestnut that inform our ability to deal with the losses and envision the renewal.