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America Lost Its One Perfect Tree

The Atlantic: Lumber, shelter, delicious nuts—there was nothing the American chestnut couldn’t provide. [read free] “Across the Northeast, forests are haunted by the ghosts of American giants. A little more than a century ago, these woods brimmed with American chestnuts—stately Goliaths that could grow as high as 130 feet tall and more than 10 feet wide. Nicknamed “the redwoods of the East,” some 4 billion American chestnuts dotted the United States’ eastern flank, stretching from the misty coasts of Maine down into the thick humidity of Appalachia. The American chestnut was, as the writer Susan Freinkel noted in her 2009 book, “a perfect tree.” Its wood housed birds and mammals; its leaves infused the soil with minerals; its flowers sated honeybees that would ferry pollen out to nearby trees. In the autumn, its branches would bend under the weight of nubby grape-size nuts. When they dropped to the forest floor, they’d nourish raccoons, bears, turkey, and deer. For generations, Indigenous people feasted on the nuts, split the wood for kindling, and laced the leaves into their medicine. Later on, European settlers, too, introduced the nuts into their recipes and orchards, and eventually learned to incorporate the trees’ sturdy, rot-resistant wood into fence posts, telephone poles, and railroad ties. The chestnut became a tree that could shepherd people “from cradle to grave,” Patrícia Fernandes, the assistant director of the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, told me. It made up the cribs that newborn babies were placed into; it shored up the coffins that bodies were laid to rest inside. But in modern American life, chestnuts are almost entirely absent. In the first half of the 20th century, a fungal disease called blight, inadvertently imported from Asia on trade ships, wiped out nearly all of the trees. Chestnut wood disappeared from newly made furniture; people forgot the taste of the fruits, save those imported from abroad. Subsistence farmers lost their entire livelihoods. After reigning over forests for millennia, the species went functionally extinct—a loss that a biologist once declared “the greatest ecological disaster in North America since the Ice Age.”

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