America, thou hast it better Than our ancient hemisphere; Thou hast no falling castles, Nor basalt, as here. - Goethe
Most of my life has been spent in the space of country between the Mason-Dixon Line and the Roanoke River, which I always considered the true border between the Old Dominion and the Tar Heels. This patch of country has been called many things by many people. In ages past, they used to call it “Columbia” after the Angel. But like all good symbols it had two meanings, the second being a nod to the Genoan who many still find necessary to condemn half a millennium after he got here.
It was in Columbia where I joined the Boy Scouts of America, one of those relics from an America that made sense. Slept under the stars everywhere from the Eastern Shore to the Goshen Mountains, from age eight to age eighteen. That decade taught me that if you pay attention, you can feel the soil change from place to place. But I don’t expect anyone to notice when it’s covered by Toll Brothers houses and Starbucks parking lots.
This patch of country, hemmed in by the Chesapeake in the east and the Alleghenies in the West, was one of the spots where the American Chestnut dug its roots into the dirt. They used to surround the Appalachians, like a mountainous sun sans basalt around which orbited a wooden asteroid belt. They went as far west as the near bank of the Mississippi and as far north as the Finger Lakes and Ottawa. They’re the real indigenous inhabitants. The Chestnuts were old when the Red Man first laid eyes on what he’d come to name the Shenandoah.
If I correctly recall, it was the summer of 2017. Almost half a decade ago at the time of writing. I was wearing the relic uniform of the relic Boy Scouts, at a summer camp you could both literally and metaphorically call, “An Archeological Dig” on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was there where I saw my first and last American Chestnut.
This was a time when teens can’t really be called young boys but can’t be called adults either, so the elders generally throw up their hands and forget us in the grey area til time and taxes torture us into into the ranks of “The Old.” Though this gray area had its drawbacks, one of the perks was never being expected to do anything. Not so for the “Naturalism” classes I had to take at the dig site.
The chick teaching it was some twenty-something bleeding-heart from Delaware with an attitude, who thought it’d be a good idea to spend her summer brow-beating teenage boys for being teenage boys. I can’t say I was innocent of being a teenage boy, I made it a personal goal to piss her off something fierce and boy oh boy did I succeed beyond imagination. She had the last laugh though, cause she didn’t pass me through the class on a technicality. Regardless, she gave me two moments I will remember: Taking me to an abandoned amphitheater in the woods and sharing with me the story of the American Chestnut tree.
The American Chestnut used to be a third of the trees east of the Mississippi. It’s fast-growing grooved trunk bears leaves which resemble saw-toothed spearheads, and drop sweet-tasting nuts throughout the summer enjoyed by Black Bears and their prey alike.
A little over a century ago, American Chestnuts were as common as bad attitudes are today. It was world renowned, seen as the finest tree of its whole genus. The global world had its demands, however, and its long-lost cousin, the Chinese Chestnut, dipped its roots into American soil. For a time they coexisted, each keeping to their space. The American Chestnuts wanted to be good hosts. Yet, as time went on, many noticed the once fine and healthy trees were afflicted. Blighted. It took no Sherlock Holmes to determine the source, but the Chinese Chestnuts had already spread from California to Connecticut.
And just like that, the tree important enough to warrant a Christmas tribute by Nat King Cole found itself on its last legs.
So she told when she showed me the last living American Chestnut on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. They knew of two other dead ones with root systems that a sapling could use, but this was in a forest of countless thousands of trees. And I didn’t forget it after I left.
The story she gave me had a similar effect to how I imagine Masonic initiation to be, where you’re taught the mysteries and recognize the symbols in public buildings built by fellow Masons. Hiding in plain sight. When I returned to the Shenandoah, to the Piedmont, forests I’d played in since before I had memories, I noticed. Not a single American Chestnut.
The Chinese Chestnut can be found from Hunan Province to Korea. It’s so widespread in the Orient in fact, that its exact range can’t be properly determined. The same can be said of it here, as it grows from the shores of Gran Francisco to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. And after half a decade contemplating it, considering it while walking into the woods watered by the blood of my fathers for four-hundred years, I came to a conclusion. Had the roles been reversed and the Chinese Chestnut was blighted, it’d still have a range beyond charting in the Orient. The American Chestnut has nowhere else in the world to go. No range outside Old America east of the Mississippi.
I read recently that they’re going to try to genetically engineer the tree in order to save it. I say that defeats the point of saving it. Odin says in Stanza Seventy-Six of Havamal, “Cattle die, kinsmen die, all men are mortal. Words of praise will never perish, nor a noble name.” I wonder how much folly there is in trying to preserve something that will die the moment you stop trying to preserve it?
My grandmother, that umbilical cord between me and the Shenandoah, took seven years too long to cut. In ages past her house was surrounded by Chestnuts, but they died before she was born. She was kept living for those seven years by air pumps and plastic tubes. She never said it, but I could see in the shaking of her irises that she lived in a seven-year long hell for the sake of her seven grandchildren. I breathed relief when she passed, that the iron cage which wrapped around her lungs could no longer keep her from the cousin of sleep.
When I stayed the night at her house after the funeral, just my brother and me, I looked for Chestnut trees but didn’t find any. They seemed to pass from this world like my Grandmother, like the name of Columbia, like the America that made sense. I have no ties to Shenandoah save those I knot myself, though I’m left with no rope strong as an umbilical cord and no anchor strong as a Chestnut tree.
I grew up with the image of a country much different and older to most other people. My family is old stock, like the Chestnut trees, and spilled blood in Shenandoah soil for four hundred years. I have a kinsman asleep in the Gettysburg cemetery. I have another six buried beneath the shadow of the Blue Ridge. Virginia state historical markers bear the surname of the blood that bore me. The first houses they built were out of Chestnut wood.
I can recite everywhere they lived on these New World shores, memories I have that I never experienced. All to watch the soil tied to my soul covered over by Starbucks parking lots and Toll Brothers houses. Seeing the forests fought for by my forefathers stripped of their Chestnut trees by blight and belligerence. And knowing that no one else cared, except for the bleeding-heart Delaware chick who probably wanted Starbucks anyway.