I suspect you are familiar with the fate of the American Chestnut tree. Once they were the backbone of the hardwood forests of the American east, especially in Appalachia. There were an estimated three to four billion of them.

Figure 1. Antique photo of American Chestnut trees. Photo in public domain.

In 1904, in New York, it was noticed that the local chestnuts were diseased with an orange-colored blight that popped through the bark, cut off the flow of water and nutrients up the tree, and killed everything above the initial infection area. It turned out to be a fungus imported from Asia with some Chinese chestnuts, and it was unstoppable. Year by year it radiated outward. In scant decades, almost every American chestnut tree—billions of them—was dead. The entire ecosystem suffered a massive rearrangement.

As one drives along I-476 from Allentown to Scranton, one can at intervals see hillsides with numbers of skeletal dead trees standing among living ones. The dead ones have been dead for so long they no longer have any bark on them, yet the rot-resistant wood persists. Traces of the chestnut die-off are not far to seek.

Since they had an attractive wood that was easily worked and rot resistant, you will find chestnut competing with oak in houses of a certain age and in furniture, too. Its nuts were sweeter and tastier, they say, than the sort you can get from an Italian street vender (and those are pretty good). These billions of dead-yet-standing logs were a resource begging to be exploited, although many were hard to get to. But they are salvaged even today. Rot resistance will only get you so far: the dead trees have been standing so long that many of them have by now been attacked by worms, which leave holes in the wood. A virtue has been made of necessity and ‘wormwood‘ carries a cachet and sells well.

I find this an incredibly compelling story: an ecological disaster bringing terrible loss, but with the ghosts of that loss visible all around us. Which brings me to the point of my post.

When I bought Moldy the other day I also asked the good people at Olde Good Things if they had any American Chestnut bits or pieces, thinking to refinish one like Loggy and to have a piece of this terrible story to reflect on. As it happens, they had reclaimed a tree locally and parted it out parsimoniously. All that was left were some pieces of the outermost portion of the trunk with the bark attached. Think of the peeling from a carrot.

Still, there was a good centimeter of wood, a little of it heartwood, so I took it home with the intention of finishing it once I’ve completed the Loggy project.

Loggy is well, btw., but it’s been so humid here lately I haven’t applied polyurethane, so that project is stalled. If you wonder why I seem to be on overly familiar terms with a log, see Loggy McLogface I, Loggy McLogface II, Loggy McLogface III, Loggy McLogface IV, Loggy McLogface V, and Loggy McLogface VI.

I wasn’t sure the piece was Chestnut at first, because it was covered in dirt and even the workman at OGT wasn’t sure. Who keeps attentive track of scraps? But here is the piece after a brisk cleaning (figures 2, 3); see for yourself. The wood has been wetted down for this picture to bring out the grain.

In keeping with the ridiculous names I have been inventing for my little projects, I’m calling this plank ‘Chesty.’ Still, better than typing “the chestnut plank” every time.

And in fact, if you compare the broad ridges of bark that occasionally cross in an X pattern in Chesty with the bark in figure 1, I think it’s clear that the fellow at OGT was right on the money. The grain is still too hard to see for me to be sure, but it seems to agree with what the bark makes pretty clear. Ignore the horizontal marks of the saw that ‘peeled’ Chesty off of the money wood. I LOVE the fact that the bark still has moss on it!

If you follow the link in the first sentence in this post you’ll discover two interesting things. First, a massive Manhattan Project to revive the American Chestnut has been underway for many decades. Yay! It involves cross breeding the American Chestnut with the immune, or highly resistant Chinese Chestnut in successive generations so that in the end what one has is effectively a pure American chestnut with the immunity genes contributed by the Chinese strain. Yay again! But now, of course, they can just splice these things in, obviating the need for decades of laborious cross breeding. Oops! But either way, they’re going to start reintroducing the American Chestnut in our lifetimes with the blessing of the Forestry Service.

Secondly, the fungus doesn’t do well at all in the west of the United States. Neither does the American chestnut, but there are a few trees that were planted in arboreta and elsewhere in favorable climates: these are the only functioning, unaltered, mature American chestnuts in the world, and they have contributed their DNA to the revival project. But I might add that there are a few MIRACLE MUTANTS in the forests of the east that are resistant to the blight. It’s an event when one of these is found, and these survivors, too, contribute to the revival effort. Still, consider that out of maybe three to four billion, you could count all surviving American Chestnuts without passing 10,000, and the number is in fact closer to 1,000.

Intrigued by the effort to revive this quintessential species of American hardwood? Send a sawbuck the way of the American Chestnut Foundation. Disclaimer: I have no connection financially or in any other way with the ACF, though I do have a personal relationship with one of their charges.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you for the article!
    American chestnut is recognizable as opposed to oak – they look very similar. American chestnut has a more even and uniform grain. It also has a very slight but somewhat noticeable greenish tinge to it. Generally it’s quite a bit lighter in weight than oak and it’s also on the brittle side it’ll split really easy. One last thing is if it has worm holes in it it’s much more likely to be chestnut as opposed to oak.

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    1. No wormholes in the specimen I have, but it is, I think, lighter than oak. As to the grain, the difficulty is that since the piece was cut roughly parallel to the surface of the trunk, only a few grain lines are visible. I think a lot of it was sapwood, too.

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