The American Chestnut captures hundreds of years of the environmental and cultural significance of a once dominant species in the eastern United States
By Rebecca Adkins Fletcher
Dr. Donald Edward Davis is a preeminent environmental historian, independent scholar, former Fulbright fellow, and author / editor of seven books. His book Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians, won the prestigious Philip D. Reed Environmental Writing Award and is an essential reference for understanding Southern Appalachian environmental history.
Davis also conducts research in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania and Ukraine and was instrumental in establishing the Appalachian-Carpathian International Conference. He founded the Georgia Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, serving as its president from 2005 to 2006. He is employed by the Harvard Forest as a part-time research scholar and lives in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the Department of Appalachian Studies and the Environmental Studies Minor, Davis presented a lecture on his newest book, The American Chestnut: An Environmental History, at East Tennessee State University on Nov. 4, 2021. His talk illuminated the importance of the American chestnut tree in the eastern United States and Appalachian region. Through meticulous scholarship, The American Chestnut details the environmental and cultural changes resulting from the functional extinction of the American Chestnut following a blight in the later 19th century. Davis evaluates ongoing efforts to “bring back” the American chestnut through genetic modification.
Appalachian Places co-editor Dr. Rebecca Adkins Fletcher talked with Davis about the book and the Appalachian environment. We happily share this interview with Appalachian Places readers.
The story of the American chestnut tree is an iconic tale of an American natural history giant. Would you describe how you first became interested in the story of the American chestnut tree and its prominence in American and Appalachian history?
Growing up in North Georgia, I had heard stories as a young boy about the many chestnut trees growing on the ridge above our home. My grandmother and grandfather had gathered chestnuts there, but my father was too young to remember seeing live trees, as most had vanished from the ridgetop by the late 1930s. Not long after that, a neighbor, possibly with the help of a county extension agent, planted three Chinese chestnut trees at the end of our road, and I sometimes climbed those trees and ate the nuts. The last time I visited, one of the trees was still alive, but was on its last leg. I later wrote about chestnuts in my award-winning book Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians, after learning how important the trees were to the southern mountain region. The trees not only provided nuts for food, but also the raw material for tanning leather and the wood for home construction, railroad ties, fencing, coffins, and roofing shingles. After the publication of Where There Are Mountains, I was asked to give public presentations about the American chestnut and very often did so. As a result, I knew there was lots of interest in the topic and so decided, sometime around 2010, to write an entire book about the American chestnut.
The research and writing to complete this book took about five years. Would you describe the processes you used to gather and make sense of the history, culture, and science information necessary to tell this incredible story?
In truth, the writing of the book took five years, but the research portion took a full decade. In order to find new and original material about the trees, I visited numerous libraries and archives, including the Library of Congress, the John Wesley Powell Library of Anthropology of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden, the Forest History Society archives at Duke University, and the USDA National Agriculture Library in Beltsville, Maryland. Much of the information gathered was written down in notebooks or notecards, or perhaps copied using library photocopiers. That information was then placed into file folders, along with hundreds of articles, book chapters, newspaper clippings, and unpublished manuscripts (generally organized by topic or book chapter). Presently, in a storage unit in Bowie, Maryland, there is a four-drawer file cabinet and several boxes that are full to the brim with all the sources I used to write the book. Of course, some of that information was later transcribed onto digital files or consulted directly during the writing of the book. In the end, the final manuscript--which went through more than a dozen permutations--contained some 1,200 endnotes and more than 2,200 reference citations.
Through the story of the American chestnut as an example, how do you describe the importance of environmental history for the pubic to better understand regional (Appalachian) and local cultural histories? What can environmental and ecological history teach us about the connections between people and nature?
Simply put, environmental history teaches us about the landscapes of the past as well as how those landscapes directly benefitted humans. If you lived in Appalachia a century ago, you would know that the American chestnut was extremely important to mountain residents, as many individuals and numerous communities were economically dependent upon the tree. The forests themselves also benefitted from the presence of chestnuts. As I noted in the book’s introduction, the successful reintroduction of a blight-resistant American chestnut would dramatically alter the composition of the eastern deciduous forest as well as increase populations of wild turkey, ruffed grouse, and black bear—game species that could in turn alter human consumption and recreation patterns. Local communities could also benefit from the restoration of the tree, as numerous businesses might be inspired by its return, including commercial nut growing and furniture manufacturing. With the increasing planting of blight-resistant chestnut trees on public and private lands, it is possible that residents of Appalachia will again be roasting chestnuts over open fires and purchasing chestnut timber at local lumberyards. To answer your last question, culture and nature are inexorably intertwined in the Appalachians, which means cultural and ecological preservation should not be mutually exclusive pursuits.
Through the story of the American chestnut tree, we are introduced to land use and lifestyle activities of peoples prior to the arrival of European explorers and colonists. How might greater understanding of these cultural histories and land use practices better inform our understanding of modern forest management and field ecologies?
This is an excellent question. In the early Woodland period, some three thousand years ago, Native Americans began burning leaves underneath chestnut trees in order to aid in nut gathering and to kill the weevils that penetrated and consumed the nutmeat. Over time, this practice restricted the growth of competing trees as well as the plants and shrubs in the surrounding understory. The fires also parched and dried the chestnuts, which better preserved them for future use. Over the next several millennia, both human-set fires and chestnuts steadily increased, peaking around 900 AD. By that time, the American chestnut comprised as much 35 percent of the forest in some areas, evidence the fires had encouraged their growth and spread. However, such findings do not justify the use of prescribed burns in twenty-first-century chestnut restoration efforts, although many modern-day foresters—who see fire as an important management tool—will undoubtedly use such evidence to promote their use in restoration efforts. Most of these fires were set in autumn during the driest time of the year, and burned the surrounding understory, and even the forest canopy, if unfavorable conditions prevailed. Historical evidence suggests that the frequent fires also killed small seedlings and young saplings. Chestnut leaves are highly flammable due to their shape and moisture content and would have promoted hotter and more intense burns. This also explains why late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century foresters were highly critical of such practices.
What might Appalachian forests look like if these efforts to return the American chestnut tree to the forests are one-day successful? What broader ecological implications for forest ecosystems might we consider regarding the restoration of the American chestnut tree (in either pure or hybrid form)? How might future utilization of the American chestnut tree compare with historic uses of the tree?
To be honest, no one knows for sure, although we can make some pretty good assumptions based on historical evidence. First of all, the trees would make the Appalachian forest more diverse, if not healthier, as chestnut leaves held more moisture in the soil, as well as promoted an abundance of nitrogen-loving organisms, including beneficial bacterium, fungi, and nematodes. Chestnut leaves were also important to aquatic insects, including caddisflies, stoneflies, and craneflies. Freshwater fish species thus benefitted from the chestnut leaf-litter, as caddisflies and stoneflies are among their most preferred foods. The American chestnut improved stream quality in yet another way. When large limbs or logs of the tree became submerged in water, they decayed very slowly—perhaps more so than all other tree species. As a result, more organic matter was captured in streams, which, overtime, created higher concentrations of nutrients beneficial to macroinvertebrates and vertebrates. The deeper pools and eddies caused by the woody debris also reduced soil erosion, minimized flooding, and lowered water temperatures, benefitting cold-water fish species like native trout. Remarkably, a study conducted in the southern Appalachians during the mid-1990s found that woody chestnut debris was still having a measurable positive impact on riparian ecosystems. In another study, also conducted in the Appalachians, researchers found that 24 percent of the woody debris in a single mountain stream was comprised of chestnut—more than sixty years after blight struck the area. If future American chestnuts trees (either in hybrid or genetically modified forms) are the same size and shape as the original native tree, then we can expect them to provide a substantial commercial nut crop as well as building timbers for home and furniture construction. They might also be planted to prevent soil erosion on abandoned strip mine lands or grown for carbon sequestration purposes.
Regarding the economic transformations that took place as a consequence of the functional extinction of the American chestnut tree, what lessons might this rapid transition offer to current debates as Appalachia engages the economic transition from coal and fossil fuel extraction?
In some Appalachian communities, chestnut blight destroyed entire forests, across many square miles, over the course of a single year. Although public officials and the general public knew the blight was moving toward them, they often had little time to plan for economic alternatives. Had they done so, they might have attempted to diversify their economies, anticipating the widespread loss of the trees and their many by-products. Not only did the American chestnut supply tannin for the leather-making industry, it was also used to make coffins, railroad ties, furniture, and dozens of other value-added wood products. In some communities, the loss of the trees was so rapid and pervasive that terms like “catastrophe,” “calamity” and “disaster” were used to describe the event. However, nearly all communities recovered from chestnut blight in a single generation or two, despite the fact that outmigration and unemployment levels rose in places where the trees were most prevalent. While transitioning from coal to wind or solar may look “catastrophic” in the short term, future generations of Appalachians will certainly benefit from a planned and judicious shift to renewable natural resources.
Rebecca Adkins Fletcher is an associate professor in the Department of Appalachian Studies at ETSU, and assistant director of the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services.