Monday, December 24, 2012

American chestnut

Wikipedia photo: Castanea dentata, the American chestnut 

The venerable Manchester Guardian, a paper my family has been involved with as readers and writers for nearly a century (and yet of which I frequently dispair -- in much the way a middle-aged child may dispair of his own parents), has done itself proud with an exceptional photo essay on the recovery of American chestnut.

It's well worth a moment of your time, if you're even in the slightest tiny bit an American conservationist:

My favorite picture is the antique one of the old growth chestnut stand.

I think it's very hard for modern folk to truly appreciate what was lost when the chestnut blight struck. You have to have some farming or homesteading experience that has included the clearing of land, the building of fences and cabins, or the use of a wood fire or wood stove, to get the real feel of this ecological disaster.

Can you imagine what it meant to the European settlers of this country to find a tree so large and so abundant, that you could split and square easily with a simple broad ax, and that would resist rot for many years even when laid close to the ground? Nearly all the settler cabins of the original frontier backcountry -- the Appalachian foothills and mountains, including Waldo County, Maine -- would have been built with American chestnut. This was a huge contribution to the economic development of the country.

Only later, when water mills became widely available for sawn pine, spruce and hemlock lumber, did the classic American clapboard house become typical. Even then chestnut fence rails and firewood would have remained valuable.

Abraham Lincoln, when he was a log splitter, would have been splitting the American chestnut.

It should be obvious that the kind of sustainability science experience developed by these chestnut conservationists and breeders may again come in handy as we deal with ash die-back in the UK, and emerald ash borer and hemlock wooly algedid in the US, among other nasty invasives.

All of course are exacerbated by climate change.

Click here to find out about Unity College's work with these last two nasties, ash borers and algedids.

I can't under-emphasize the importance of these recent developments with new invasives. Both are potentially very damaging to Maine forests and woodlots, and there are billions of dollars of value at stake.

As a "settler" and farmer, I'm very fond of both trees and use them extensively. Ash firewood is our primary heating fuel at Womerlippi Farm, most of which is cut from our own land, essentially a second-growth ash grove, while locally-sourced hemlock from Gerald Fowler's Thorndike lumber mill is the primary building lumber we use for barns and other building projects.

Losing either tree would be a massive disaster for the state of Maine, and for the Womerlippis.

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