Time for some good news. So let’s look at a piece of history that is being resurrected without controversy, with benefit to many.
In nearby Culpeper County, steps were taken last month in the long, ongoing fight to restore the American chestnut. Two potentially blight-resistant versions of the tree were planted, and an interpretive marker was unveiled honoring an Orange County man, George Grover Cole, who bequeathed a large portion of his estate to American Chestnut Foundation, which is trying to restore the chestnut.
Now, this might not mean much to those who are not familiar with the legendary status of this tree.
Thomas Jefferson called the white oak and the tulip poplar the “Jupiter and Juno of our groves,” admiring their strength and grace.
But the American chestnut could be said to be their superior. It grew rapidly, attaining heights of up to 130 feet and producing strong, rot-resistant, straight-of-grain wood that was perfect for everything from furniture to buildings.
Those old log cabins and barns? Chestnut wood, more than likely. Iconic split-rail fences? Probably chestnut wood. Pioneer bedsteads and corner cupboards? Again, often chestnut wood.
Nuts to fatten hogs and cattle before sending them to market? Not just acorns but chestnuts as well.
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”? The lyric was written in 1945, after the worst of the blight, but trainloads of chestnuts had been sent from our mountains into America’s major cities to supply this holiday treat.
The importance of the chestnut to both humans and animals and to the economic well-being of Appalachia can hardly be overstated.
And then, the great chestnut blight hit. The final die-off of many of the trees coincided with the Great Depression, adding insult to injury.
The blight had been introduced around 1904 from imported Japanese chestnuts. American trees could not resist the parasite that came with the trees. Within 40 years, the majestic monarch of the Appalachians was gone. Destruction of the chestnut is considered one of the nation’s worst ecological disasters.
A small ray of good news survives — as, in fact, do some chestnut roots. New plants are still sprouting from the hardy roots, but the young saplings inevitably succumb to the blight. At least, however, there are genetic remnants of the tree available for preservation.
Furthermore, hopeful scientists are trying to breed resistant chestnut trees and find ways to combat the blight. If it becomes possible to eliminate the parasite, perhaps chestnut saplings may be able to grow to full stature. Or, perhaps a new strain of chestnut can be created that is both blight-resistant and genetically similar to the revered American tree.
That’s where recent events in Culpeper come in. The trees dedicated there are a hybrid that restoration enthusiasts hope will prove…