Friday, I experienced a wonder. I touched a tree.
Not just any tree mind you, but a very special tree. A tree that whispered of the past. A tree of a species that dominated many habitats in the Appalachians. A tree once so common that one out of every four trees in these mountains was of its kind. I laid my open hands on an American chestnut tree.
In 1900, the American chestnut was king of the Appalachian forest. Prolific, but so much more. Chestnuts fed about every creature that lived in the forest, from squirrels to bears to humans. The wood was both beautiful and stout–useful to our species on many levels. Settlers were so fond of the tree they took chestnuts right out of their native range and planted them all the way to the Pacific. No one could imagine these ancient mountain forests without them.
But in 1904 a forester named Hermann Merkel noticed diseased American chestnut trees in New York. They had contracted chestnut blight, a disease native to China and introduced to America via Chinese chestnut trees that had been imported largely for ornamental purposes. Our native chestnuts had no immunity to the blight, and it spread quickly southward down the the mountains, killing trees by the billions. Within a few decades the king of the forest was dead, killed by a fungi it had no evolutionary experience with, and no resistance to.
The natural world is a marvelous thing, however, and our great native chestnut trees have two refugia. The first is in those trees planted by the settlers outside its native range. The tree died at home but lives on in a few places in the upper Midwest, the Rockies, and the Pacific coast. These trees remain free of the blight. The second is in the the trees themselves. The roots remain resistant to the blight, and send up saplings that will survive for a few years–sometimes long enough to put out a few nuts and produce a few seedlings in the mountains where the species was born. The blight eventually kills most of these trees, but here and there you can find one that has defied the odds and lives on.
I have no idea of the history of the tree I saw Friday. I only know it was far from mature, but it was mature enough to put out a few nuts. The blight may eventually claim it, but for now the tree appears disease-free. It survives. It casts a shadow longer than its height. A shadow reaching back to the time when the species thrived, and forward toward an unknown but at least hopeful future. So please forgive my sentimentality when I say to see and touch this tree touched something in my soul.
I’ll likely visit this tree occasionally. I may even plant a nut or two from it in my home holler in the hopes of helping the species survive. But mostly I’ll just go to be in the presence of living history–and also living hope.