Laying Eyes on a Living American Chestnut Tree in Cape Cod Woods
A few weeks ago an old acquaintance of mine called up and asked if I’d like to go with her to see “a stand of chestnut trees.”
“American chestnuts?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “Skeptical?”
I was, since, as most of you may know, the American Chestnut, which once composed about a third of the original Eastern hardwood forests, was essentially extirpated by an imported blight in the early 20th century. The eminent naturalist, Donald Culross Peattie, lyrically expressed what was lost in his 1948 elegy for the chestnut: “In the youth of a man not yet old,” he wrote, “native chestnut was still to be seen in glorious array…waving with creamy white blossoms in the crowns of the ancient trees, so that it looked like a sea with white combers plowing across its surface.”
Oh, I’ve occasionally come upon the huge blasted trunks of long-dead chestnuts in the Cape’s woodlands, and a few times have even found live chestnut sprouts growing up from the base of an old stump. But these sprouts invariably die back before they reach any great size or produce fruits, and I had basically resigned myself to never seeing a mature American chestnut in the wild.
Still, hope, like chestnut sprouts, springs eternal, so I met my friend in South Orleans, and she took me to the John Kendrick Woods, a conservation area of about twenty acres abutting Namequoit Road. It’s a lovely tract of woods, mostly mature white pines, with a web of wide paths softly paved with fawn-colored pine needles. My friend hadn’t been here in a few years and she wasn’t exactly sure where the supposed “stand of chestnuts” was. In fact, at one point we wondered if we’d gotten lost. “I count on you to get us out of here,” she said.
After fifteen minutes or so of wandering about, we both began to have doubts about finding the chestnut stand: she about where it was, and I about whether it only existed in her imagination. Then, abruptly, there it was. Well, I’m not sure if two trees constitutes a “stand,” but it was definitely a pair of American chestnut trees – not sprouts and not dead trunks, but two live trees, more mature and healthy-looking than any I had ever seen. One was perhaps 5”-6” inches in diameter and 20’ high, with a half dozen or so smaller sprouts growing from its base. But the other one was unquestionably a substantial tree, 8”-9” in diameter and reaching upwards a good thirty feet. It had that heavily fissured trunk so distinctive to chestnuts, and, most remarkably, it had obviously been fruiting. We found over a dozen spiked husks scattered around its base. One of them still had a nut, apparently intact, inside the husk.
We speculated on why these two trees had managed to reach maturity without being attacked by the blight. Had a natural genetic mutation occurred here that made them blight-resistant? Or were there were so few chestnuts left to host the blight, and these so widely separated, that these trees had never been found by the parasite? In his short poem, “Evil Tendencies Cancel,” Robert Frost playfully speculated on this question:
Will the blight end the chestnut?/ The farmers rather guess not./ It keeps smoldering at the roots/And sending up new shoots/ Till another parasite/ Shall come to end the blight.
I picked up the nut that that still lay in its husk and placed it in my friend’s hand.
“Plant it,” I said.