Six years ago to the date, or November 23, 2014, I squirreled away a Washington Post newspaper article entitled, A GMO rescue for America’s iconic chestnut tree? By Tamar Haspel. Ms. Haspel was actually reviewing a book by Susan Freinkel called, American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. What an odd coincidence that I should rediscover this story exactly six years later. But then, maybe not. It is fall, after all—the time when we start seeing chestnuts in the grocery stores or from vendors on city streets. Maybe I just could not get them out of my head.
It was this article that inspired me to write Squirrels of Vienna Farms, now in development. It begins with the Great Chestnut Blight, which forms the background folklore for the story. Large and varied squirrel families, who have lived in the forest for generations are forced to emigrate when the chestnut forest becomes sickened with blight and the trees start to die off. In my research I learned how adept squirrels are at staying ahead of such catastrophe. They actually do emigrate in mass, and can often accomplish great distances from the treetops when there are enough of them, causing the forest to shudder and shake under their vast numbers.
In my story, the squirrels end up settling in farmland surrounded by forests and are quite happy there. But before long the farmland is paved over, houses are built and the squirrels, rather than emigrate, simply adapt. That is how the story begins. In order to adapt to their changing surroundings, they will need to remember who they are and find strength and courage in the lore that has been handed down to them for generations.
But back to the American Chestnut: this much-loved tree, so much a part of life in the eastern and northeastern Americas, developed a spore sickness around 1904 and all but disappeared. No more yummy, highly nutritious nuts for humans, animals, and livestock, or wood for furniture and houses, or konkers for games. Not to mention its medicinal properties that the natives used. That’s a big claim: food, shelter, medicine and entertainment all in one tree. Adding to that, you could even call it a money tree; people would return to the forest year after year to collect the nuts to sell. A tradition and a way of life evaporated with these majestic trees—three to four billion of them! It’s hard to imagine how this continent looked with its pristine forests, but the American Chestnut was a prominent and much-needed presence among them.
It is comforting to think that the chestnut was on the menu when pilgrims sat down to dine and give thanks with the Wampanoag Indians, considering how close they came to starvation after their first year. Despite all their difficulty in finding and starting subsistence crops, discovering the forests knee-deep in food surely brought another pilgrimage to their mind when God sent manna from heaven. This straight-grained, hardwood tree was nearly one hundred feet tall, and often ten to twelve feet in diameter. Prolific and fast growing, it began producing nuts at seven or eight years old, and one tree could produce as much as one thousand pounds in one year and live anywhere from two to eight hundred years. That’s a lot of food!
There are currently nine species of chestnuts in the northern hemisphere, but the most common are the European, Chinese, Japanese, and American. A self-fertilizing tree, the leaves contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, insuring a constant supply of these nutrients in the soil. In the spring the catkins (tree flowers) form on the trees and look like great clouds. Then as now, they are a favorite of honeybees and other pollen-loving insects.
It seems hyperbolic to say the chestnut tree has been around for 50 million years, but its discovery (in many places on the earth) through various excavations proves its presence for the last tens of thousands at least, by some estimates. If it was beleaguered by climate or catastrophe it resolutely marched off in a different direction. So it bogles the mind that a tree so able and ready to adapt could be so stymied by a little sickness.
The spore that infected The American Chestnut was brought over with an imported Asian chestnut tree in the late eighteen hundreds, and at a time when the hazard of such things was not understood. Within fifty years, the American variety was devastated. This new tree was smaller and could not come close to producing the quantity of nuts that one American tree could generate in a year. Nor could it cover vast tracts of land claiming exclusivity and dominance. Sadly, the infecting spore still exists today, but it cannot live in the ground, so it doesn’t affect the root of the tree. It simply kills the upper portion—everything above the infected area. It is possible to find the American Chestnuts growing in the forest, but it is extremely unlikely they will ever reach maturity because they soon fall victim to the same spore.
But take heart—many efforts have been underway to restore this tree since the mid 1940’s. Natural selection was unsuccessful, and scientists tried breeding it with the Asian chestnut, but that alone was also ineffectual. But in the 1980’s and 90’s, using nascent GMO technology, they began to inject the tree embryo with a gene that was resistant to the spore. Initial efforts were a failure, and the first trees died within a few years, but through trial and error they are now finally beginning to see results. This is a very slow and painstaking process and will, no doubt, require a careful curating to keep the trees viable until they are strong enough to exist on their own once again. Cross breeding with Chinese chestnut and gene therapy will hopefully create the resistance this tree needs in order to make a comeback. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will benefit from all these efforts, not to mention all the animal life that it will once again feed and support.
This history now becomes part of our own lore. Something to teach our children as Wize Mel taught Chister and his friends in Squirrels of Speedwell Farms: “Wize Mel reminded Chister that squirrels had a knack for surviving disaster, and that not only would they endure this mystery, but solve it, remedy the problem, and somehow use it for their own purpose to benefit all Squirreldom.” I think we can learn a lot from squirrels.
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