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Photo of a chestnut tree
Saving an American Icon

by Susan Freinkel

How a passion for our country's heritage, some cutting-edge science, and a little bit of luck may bring back the beloved chestnut tree.

Early in the twentieth century, Martin Hicks planted a handful of American chestnut seeds on the ridge overlooking his farm in West Salem, Wisconsin. The planting was an act of faith: Chestnuts are not native to the Midwest. The seeds, a gift from Hicksmother, came from trees in Pennsylvania, the heart of a vast chain of chestnut forests stretching from Georgia to Maine. Though new to the Wisconsin terrain, the seeds sprouted into saplings that flourished and multiplied into a stand of more than 5,000 soaring, straight-trunked trees.

But in the chestnut forests back East something was going terribly wrong. While Hicks's trees decorated the hillside with waving white blossoms in the summer and littered the ground with sweet mahogany-colored nuts in the fall, the eastern chestnut woods were falling victim to the most destructive plague ever to strike an American forest. The cause was a fungus that originated in Asia and first surfaced in New York State in 1904. Over the next 50 years, the blight rampaged through the chestnut's traditional range, eventually killing some four billion trees and devastating communities that had come to rely on the chestnut for food, lumber, and livelihoods. Today, all that remains are the memories of old folks and the dream of a younger generation that wants to bring the forests back. They see in the woods at West Salem -- the largest existing stand of American chestnuts -- a living embodiment of that dream.

It's a dream sustained by the tree's own tenacity. Even now, a century after the blight began its deadly campaign, chestnut saplings continue to sprout from the stumps of fallen trees. These saplings offer a glimpse of the forest that was and inspire hopes for its eventual return. But the blight has shown equal tenacity in this long-running duel and strikes down most sprouts before they reach maturity. It is not a duel the chestnut can win without human intervention. Is science up to the task?

Photo of Fred HebardChestnut researchers are generally pursuing two complementary strategies: fixing the tree so it can fight the fungus and fixing the fungus so it can't hurt the tree. Fred Hebard of the American Chestnut Foundation has led the way in efforts to create blight-resistant trees. Sandra Anagnostakis of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station has pioneered methods of rendering the fungus less lethal. Both once may have hoped their focus would be the salvation of the chestnut tree. However, they -- like most chestnut researchers -- now agree that beating the blight may require a combination of strategies. There are no rivals in this fight. "Everyone who works in chestnut is passionate," says Anagnostakis. "You have to be. The odds aren't in your favor."

But nature does not yield readily to the longings of the human heart, even when they're coupled with the best tools of science. Whether the quest to rescue the chestnut can succeed remains an open question, as Hebard is all too aware. When an admirer recently said to him, "Isn't it great to think you can die knowing that you were responsible for bringing back an entire species," the laconic Hebard remained guarded. "Yeah, it'll be great," he said. "If it works."

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Long before she'd ever seen an American chestnut tree, Susan Freinkel fell in love with its story. Now she's writing a book on the efforts to bring the tree back. Her writing has also appeared in Discover, Smithsonian, Reader's Digest, and Health. She lives in San Francisco.

Photos: Forrest MacCormack

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council