Blighted icon: Volunteers aim to revive chestnut

Saturday - 12/8/2012, 9:50am EST

By ALLEN G. BREED
AP National Writer

WEAVERVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Jim Hurst has doted on his trees, arranged in three "families" on a bluff high above the rushing French Broad River.

He installed a drip irrigation system to help rejuvenate this former hayfield's powdery, depleted soil. To protect against browsing deer, he girded the delicate sprouts in plastic sleeving and wire mesh. In the four years since planting the fuzzy, deep-brown nuts, he nursed the seedlings _ through back-to-back droughts, a killing frost, even an infestation of 17-year locust _ applying herbicides and mowing between the rows to knock down anything that might compete.

Then, on a hot day this past June, Hurst moved methodically along the steep hillside, a petri dish in his left hand, and infected the young saplings with the fungus that will almost certainly kill them.

It wasn't malice, but science _ and hope _ that led him to take such an action against these special trees.

"My mother's family never stopped grieving for the (American) chestnuts," the 51-year-old software engineer and father of two said as a stiff breeze rustled through the 110 or so surviving trees, many already bearing angry, orange-black cankers around the inoculation sites.

"Her generation viewed chestnuts as paradise lost."

Hurst hopes the trees on his hillside farm _ part of a vast experiment in forest plots where this "linchpin" species thrived before the onslaught of an imported parasite _ might hold the key to regaining that Eden.

The American chestnut once towered over everything else in the forest. It was called the "redwood of the East." Dominating the landscape from Georgia to Maine, Castanea dentata provided the raw materials that fueled the young nation's westward expansion, and inspired the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Henry David Thoreau.

Then, the blight struck. By the 1950s, this mightiest of trees was all but extinct _ "gone down like a slaughtered army," in the words of naturalist Donald Culross Peattie.

Now, after 30 years of breeding and crossbreeding, The American Chestnut Foundation believes it has developed a potentially blight-resistant tree, dubbed hopefully, the "Restoration Chestnut 1.0."

At a national summit in Asheville in mid-October, the group's board adopted a master plan for planting millions of trees in the 19 states of the chestnut's original range.

This year, volunteers in state chapters established seed orchards that will soon begin producing regionally adapted nuts for transplanting into the wild. But as those who attended the recent summit heard, much hard work remains _ and much uncertainty.

The restoration tree is being introduced onto a physical and economic landscape that has long since learned to do without the once-indispensable American chestnut. Will it crowd out other trees and plants that we have come to value in the past century? How do you convince landowners and government agencies that it's worth the money and effort?

And there are those who will question the wisdom of trying to bring back something that could not survive on its own or, worse yet, "engineering" a replacement that can. But Hurst and the others at the summit are confident there is no obstacle they can't overcome in the effort to restore the East's "cathedral forests."

"I think that's something worth fighting for," he said. "To fix something that's broken."

___

In the spring of 1540, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto's quest for silver and gold brought him to the Blue Ridge Mountains, in what is now western North Carolina. A survivor of the expedition would later record: "Where there be mountains, there be chestnuts."

More than 500 years later, Peattie conjured that virgin landscape in full flower: "the great forest below waving with creamy white Chestnut blossoms in the crowns of the ancient trees, so that it looked like a sea with white combers plowing across its surface."

With trunks measuring 10, 12, even 17 feet in diameter, the trees' branches soared up to 120 feet above the forest floor.

Along the continent's Appalachian spine, chestnuts covered some 200 million acres _ comprising fully a quarter and, in some places as much as two-thirds, of the upland forest. It is difficult to overstate the tree's importance.

Settlers built cabins, rail fences and barns out of its light, strong, even-grained wood. They hunted deer, turkeys and squirrels made fat on its mast _ and themselves feasted on the sweet, starchy nuts.

Thoreau wrote lovingly of going "a-chestnutting" in the New England woods. In an 1857 journal entry contemplating the chestnut's spiny bur, he rhapsodized on the wonderful care with which nature "has secluded and defended these nuts, as if they were her most precious fruits, while diamonds are left to take care of themselves."

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