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A worthy mission to restore the American chestnut to its past glory

June 15, 2008

Illustrator Norman Rockwell met his contemporary J.C. Leyendecker in 1920, and decided he ought to have his fellow artist over for a meal. A cook was hired to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner in July, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

But an evening that had begun, as Rockwell described in his autobiography, with awkward silence got even more awkward when the cook tripped while carrying the turkey, which burst open on the floor and slid under the table.

The two great Saturday Evening Post illustrators looked at each moment, before preceding to crawl under the table.

"We met over the turkey, which was lying on its side among the table legs, one drumstick torn away from the body, stuffing gushing from the breast. I looked at Mr. Leyendecker. 'That smells good,' he said and, sticking his finger into the heap of stuffing, tasted it.

"'Chestnut,' I said. 'How is it?' 'Wonderful,' he said, and he ate some more. 'I say,' said his brother, looking under the table at us, 'bring that turkey out of there. Mrs. Rockwell and I would like some."

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If America is baseball and apple pie, Norman Rockwell and chestnuts, in their day, were not far behind.

The chances are good you've seen chestnut, even if you've never seen "a" chestnut. It's the rich, dark wood that trims many older Hagerstown homes and also found its way into staircases, mantels and furniture.

And why not? In it's day, one out of every four trees in the Eastern mountain ranges was a chestnut. The numbers were in its favor. A chestnut produced up to 6,000 nuts a tree, three to six times what the standard oak will produce.

Through the 1800s, the towering chestnut trees defined the forest; they were food and shelter in one magnificent package. Wildlife gobbled up these nuts, and they were widely gathered as a source of livestock feed. People filled up on them too, and the distinctive aroma of roasting chestnuts wafted through the streets of New York City each Christmas. Chestnut wood is easily carved and split, the lumber is straight-grained and it contains a natural preservative that resists rot. Its bark was used to tan leather.

From the first settlers through the industrial revolution, life without the chestnut would have been hard to imagine. What eastern town still doesn't have its own "Chestnut Street?"

Then, at the turn of the last century, a load of lumber from Russia arrived at a New York pier. At least my dad always said it was Russian lumber, but I don't know. He was of the generation that blamed the Russians for everything. Whatever the source, the ship did harbor an Asian blight that was first noticed attacking a city chestnut tree in 1904, and within a few decades it had obliterated the species.

Last weekend the Appalachian Trail Conservancy quite properly celebrated an anniversary in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., by using the time to raise awareness of the tree that once would have lined the ridges from Georgia to Maine. In conjunction with the American Chestnut Foundation, many hands are working to bring the chestnut back. (The foundation's Web site, www.acf.org, lists ways we can all get involved.)

It's not a simple process. American chestnuts (they still survive out west, where they were planted out of the blight's reach) are crossed with the blight-resistant Chinese chestnut, a shorter, squat version of the American. This hybrid is then recrossed with another, and then another, American chestnut until the tree bears no characteristics of the Chinese model, save for its resistance to blight. The first nuts of these crosses were harvested in 2005 and are being planted throughout the East and Midwest.

My dad, a forester, took a keen interest in the chestnut. He would show me their dead trunks lying on the forest floor up at Catoctin, still undecayed, decades after they had been killed. He tried grafting American chestnut scions to Chinese chestnut root stock, but I don't know that anything came of the project.

Of course the chestnut had enough problems without the blight. Settlers cut down all but 2 percent of the Eastern forests for their farms, and as the sans-chestnut woods have come back, the change has been dramatic.

Dutch elm disease wiped out another prevalent species, and in the north, disease has destroyed the valuable beech. Diseases and insects are attacking hemlock, dogwood and ash. Because of the wet spring, you may have noticed that sycamore foliage has a brown cast this year, the product of leaves that have been killed by leaf blight.

Even man's good intentions of forest-fire prevention have had an effect. Oak seedlings prefer light and would thrive in a burned over parcel. But another species, the red maple - sometimes uncharitably described as a junk tree - thrives in shade and has been more than happy to move in.

The red maple's wood is weak compared to other hardwoods, but the leaves do contain a chemical that repels the gypsy moths that have turned large swaths of oak forest on South Mountain brown.

Without chestnut and beech nuts, the oak, and to a lesser extent the walnut, is one of the last manufacturers of food for wildlife. If the oaks are squeezed out by red maples, the ecological implications will be severe.

Unless, of course, we can bring back the chestnut. Trees grow slowly, and a lot of us won't live to see any potential, large-scale chestnut recovery. But along with being an ecologically sound project, it is a project - in these self-centered days - that recognizes that there are, and will be, other people in this nation besides ourselves.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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