Long ago, before you were born, extinction came to claim the American chestnut tree. Nearly a third of all the trees in the Appalachians were American chestnuts, and they were about a quarter of the forest trees from Ontario to Mississippi. Eastern settlers who headed west and wanted to make someplace new feel like home carried chestnuts with them to plant. Those isolated trees, far from their home range, helped keep the species from vanishing entirely.
My family tells stories of Uncle Arthur, thrice-great uncle to the youngest of us, a botanist who devoted himself to saving the American chestnut and otherwise lived childless. He came to Thanksgivings bearing enormous bags from the Yale nut research plantation. Every kind of edible nut that could grow in New England filled those bags, and the ancient primate activity of nutcracking kept the children out of the kitchen all Thanksgiving day, every year through the 1950s and 60s. For that matter, it kept Uncle Arthur out of the kitchen, too. He was a man of his time, and thought it funny to surprise whichever lady of the family bent over to baste the turkey. Maybe in another age he could have outgrown that creepy habit, maybe not. But the most human thing, the most redeeming thing about him in the family lore is how it broke his heart to watch the chestnut blight rip through the country. He and many scientists like him did everything they could, but his generation of American chestnut rescuers reached the ends of their lives believing they had failed. For decades, that was his story, and our story of the trees.
Now I get to tell my descendants a happier story, though I only learned it at a funeral.
If you have to be mortal, the best way to go about it is Uncle Jack’s way. He lived to be 91, to know his many descendants down to a passel of great-grandchildren, and to help decades of kids as a school counselor. He knew the green world and the human heart could heal each other, so he got those kids out into the woods whenever he could. And when he retired from working mostly on the human side of that relationship, he devoted his later years to preserving and restoring forests. In particular, he gave his time to breeding blight-resistant American chestnuts, teaching young people how to gather and preserve the nuts to give them the best chance to become mature trees.
They’re not a sure thing, these two sprouts I have. The breeders are not ready to go to the public calling for a wave of volunteers and say now is the time to bring the species back to its old habitat. But they took a chance on those of us who came to pay our respects to Jack. Maybe the love we have for him, the grief, the care for his legacy will make up for our lack of expertise. If we follow directions (test soil, add lime to ph 6, etc.), and we catch a little luck, maybe our children will get to see what few have seen in a century: American chestnut trees ten stories tall.