Can “The Redwoods of the East” Return?
These magnificent trees were our past. Can they be our future?
The survivors were crammed into the back of a gray Subaru that pulled up to an illegal parking spot a block down from my home just east of Ground Zero. Their savior, a Lorax-resembling retiree named Bart Chezar, had spirited them across the East River from Park Slope, Brooklyn. As he handed them over, he slipped me a bag of bagels as payment for the service I was to render. Then, looking tenderly at the fragile bunch, he whispered some parting advice: “The best way to kill them is to water them too much. The second-best way to kill them is to not water them enough.”
The clutch of saplings entrusted to my care were Castanea dentata, more commonly known as the American chestnut. Once the dominant tree in the primeval eastern forest, they were laid low in the early 20th century when a bark fungus, brought over on the trunks of imported Asian chestnut trees, infected the American species. First discovered in New York in 1904, the fungus spread rapidly, hopping tree by tree, sometimes stowing away on native oaks before shuttling on to the next chestnut. Eventually the blight spread up and down the coast and inland toward the Mississippi. In all more than three billion chestnut trees perished, roughly a quarter of all the trees that made up the greater Appalachian forest ecosystem. And these weren’t just some spindly little numbers you might ignore in a walk in the woods. They were towering, broadleaf giants, “the redwoods of the East” as Richard Powers calls them in his recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory. In addition to feeding farmers and farm animals alike, their plentiful nuts provided key sustenance for native fauna, helping bears bulk up for winter months, while their canopies gave lush grounds to insects, which in turn fed all manner of birds.
It’s said that before European settlers arrived, it would have been possible for a squirrel to get from Maine to Missouri solely by treetop.
Some trees with a natural genetic resistance to the blight likely existed. Chestnuts grow fast for hardwoods, and it’s not inconceivable that a subpopulation of asymptomatic survivors could have…