American Chestnut (all image credits Gary)
First, a bit of natural history. Please bear with me if you know this part already.
This is a shot of a small American Chestnut seedling, Castanea dentata, along the Reese Hollow Trail near Mercersburg, PA. This is from a healthy plant that nearly certainly will die within the next 10 years. Wikipedia tells us more:
Once an important hardwood timber tree, the American Chestnut is highly susceptible to chestnut blight, caused by an Asian bark fungus accidentally introduced into North America on imported Asiatic chestnut trees. The disease was first noticed on American Chestnut trees in what was then the New York Zoological Park in 1904. The airborne bark fungus spread 50 miles a year and in a few decades girdled and killed up to three billion American Chestnut trees. New shoots often sprout from the roots when the main stem dies, so the species has not yet become extinct. However, the stump sprouts rarely reach more than 6 meters (20 ft) in height before blight infection returns.
Here are 2 stunning historical facts:
It is estimated that the total number of chestnut trees in eastern North America was over three billion, and that 25 percent of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American Chestnut.
The number of large surviving American Chestnut trees over 60 centimeters (24 in) in diameter within the tree's former range is probably fewer than 100.
I always get excited when I see chestnut saplings when I run along the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains. They speak to me of perseverance and of hope.
The American Chestnut Foundation is aggressively working to develop a blight-resistant strain, and results thus far look promising. So there is a very good chance that the chestnut may be successfully reintroduced here in the U.S. Read more on that valiant effort here.
You'd think with that long introduction, and my title--The Return of American Chestnut to the Forest--that this post would be about hopes for restoring the American Chestnut to its former glory.
But no, you'd be wrong. This post is about a single piece of American Chestnut board from over a century ago. I just returned it to the forest.
The board was a leftover from from a chestnut-sided barn (that still stands) near Tower City, PA, that was probably built by the bride's great-great grandfather in the late 1800s. When I say "leftover," the builder left a stack of unused exterior sheathing boards inside the barn for future use in replacing siding that might fail in the future. These extras were not needed due to the bulletproof nature and durability of chestnut, which was the early natural version of pressure-treated lumber.
Well, 100+ years on, when the ancestral family farm was finally (and sadly) sold off, my father-in-law gave me a couple of these boards. Why? So I could create some birdhouses for wrens, that would have legacy value for family members. I've done that.
He didn't get all sentimental about the wood or the tragedy that befell the chestnut, he just gave me the boards--no, he entrusted the boards to me--and each of us knew both sides of the unspoken back story.
So it was with this background that as a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) trail overseer, I came to need a piece of wood that was a full 1" in thickness, not the nominal 1" dimension lumber from Lowes that actually measures a scant 3/4" thick. This board was to fit snugly underneath and become the rot-resistant stout base of a vintage rural mailbox that I just installed for a trail register. It's located along the Tuscarora Trail at its junction with the Reese Hollow Trail just west of Mercersburg, PA.
The base of the mailbox--that fits up inside the recessed bottom of the mailbox--is made, as you will have guessed by now, from one of those old American Chestnut boards.
The base prior to installing the mailbox
And with the mailbox in place
So if you ever get the chance to hike this part of the Tuscarora Trail and chance upon this trail register, sit down beside the trail post and take a glance up under the mailbox. Reach under and touch that old wood and just ponder a bit.
The trail is a good place for pondering.