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Smoldering at the Roots
Fred Hebard was practically giddy in the rain. He had a gleam in his eye familiar to anyone who's seen a fourth-grader on a snow day or, for that matter, a farmer on holiday. He wasn't exactly getting away from his work, but he was playing hooky nonetheless.
The hamlet of Meadowview, where Hebard works and lives with his family, is an eyeblink along Interstate 81 in southwestern Virginia. If you were for some reason to exit there, as few people do, and wind up at the Little Diner for lunch on a sultry June day, you'd probably mistake Hebard for one of the cattle or tobacco farmers who have, over the course of more than two centuries of husbandry, made the fertile Holstun River valley a prosperous agricultural area. He'd probably be wearing a T-shirt and jeans and, atop stooped shoulders and graying hair, a baseball cap reading "Big M Farm Services." He might well be flashing a wry grin and joshing about cars or the weather with the other farmers and the tractor mechanics. Then, after a Little Burger—which isn't so small at all—and a smoke, he'd rush back, like the others, to the endless whirl of work that is a farm in June.
This is just some of what occupied Fred Hebard on that June morning before the rain: all day long he had to oversee the endless details of running three farms, totaling more than a hundred acres in size, as the thick air coalesced into hazy thunderheads. He had to ensure that three full-time employees, two seasonal workers, a summer intern, and a dozen Elderhostel volunteers who were staying at a nearby 4-H center and dedicating their week to his projects all had timely chores to do, the training to accomplish them properly, and the appropriate equipment, from a backhoe to a bucket truck to arrays of petri dishes inoculated with fungus. The bucket truck was of the variety used by professional tree trimmers, but it was an older model, and the farmhands were acutely aware that it smelled as though something had crawled into its hydraulics and died. He had to walk among rows of chestnut saplings, twice as tall as he was, and assess which ones deserved to continue growing, which ones should be pollinated by hand in coming weeks, and which ones would be ripped out that same day with the backhoe. Above all, he had to carry in his mind, as he has done every day, year in and year out, over a career of twenty years, a mental picture of the some 17,000 chestnut trees he has raised, of what needs to be done to stimulate their growth, and of which ones thrive and which do not.
It was easy to imagine where the stooped shoulders had come from, and so it was not hard to imagine why the gleam grew in his eyes as he watched the clouds form and the storm approach. He told the Elderhostelers to stop working because of the danger of lightning, and then half an hour later, as the rain began to fall in earnest, told Dave Lazor and me that he had something to show us.
Lazor is a retired General Motors engineer from Ohio who had spent his career figuring out how to get the manufacturer's machine tools to run more efficiently. He is also a forest enthusiast who'd recently bought a hundred-acre woodlot in western Pennsylvania. When he did he recalled how someone had given his father a gift of some beautiful chestnut boards in the 1950s, back in the day when it was thought that no more chestnut lumber would be forthcoming in the future, ever. He soon learned that American chestnut trees, in fact, grew right there on his woodlot, and since that discovery he had brought some of his engineer's attention to efficiency to forestry. His passion became figuring out how better to grow chestnuts.
For Lazor, this visit to Meadowview was like a Catholic's trip to Rome. Fred Hebard is the staff pathologist, head farmer, and chief petri dish washer for the American Chestnut Foundation, which has the goal of returning an almost-vanished species, once a hallmark of the eastern mountains, to its place in the landscape. If anyone can bring the tree back from the brink, Lazor believes, it is Fred Hebard.
* * *
THE WOODS, AS IT TURNED OUT, were on the high ridge to the south, part of the Jefferson National Forest. As we climbed slowly out of the valley a last couple of houses stood by themselves in a misty clearing, and then the woodlots and isolated groves turned into a solid wall of trees. Lazor pulled his pickup truck up to a locked gate. "Here's one hundred thousand acres of prime chestnut habitat, and I've got the key to it, ha, ha," chortled Hebard as he stepped out to open the gate. He's got a peculiar laugh, with an emphasis on the second ha, and he used it often on this outing.
The woods were dense and dripping. There were a few pines and hemlocks, but most of the trees were deciduous: oak, maple, tulip poplar, sourwood, sassafras, cherry. Lazor wound the pickup slowly around the sharp bends. The narrow, rain-slicked road was built for logging, not public use. "Just don't roll the truck," Hebard said. "I've tried that experiment and don't want to repeat it." When he had slid his truck over a forest embankment, he told us, it had done a full 360 and came to land back on its wheels. "If it had landed on the roof," he reflected, "I probably would have been in a bit rougher shape. Ha, ha."
We trailed a few miles up into the mountains until Hebard told Lazor to stop in a small, grassy clearing. This tract of land had been clear-cut eight years earlier to serve as the landing where the hardwood logs were loaded onto the trucks. Southwestern Virginia is a lush, moist place, and to my untrained eye the place scarcely looked like a former clear-cut: tall grasses glistened on the roadbed, but all around them trees reached thirty feet high. The rain was steady now, and soon we were soaked. We were five hundred feet higher than in Meadowview, and the air was noticeably cooler. Mist hung in the treetops just above us. Hebard gestured at the trees on the uphill side of the clearing. "There they are," he said.
We looked, and there among the crowns of the commonplace maples and tulip poplars was an extraordinary sight: sprays of creamy white flowers shooting up above the highest leaves. It looked as though, in the midst of this gloomy day, a few of the trees had captured filmy highlights of sunshine high in their foliage. The trees were American chestnuts, and for a species presumed extinct by many they were putting on a pretty good show.
Their performance was not entirely natural. Every summer since the logging Hebard had driven up here with his helpers to chop back the competing brush and give the chestnuts a better chance to grow. Every summer since the chestnuts began blooming he'd driven the bucket truck up here and parked it precariously on the steep road so that the blossoms could be laboriously pollinated by hand. Each autumn he had returned to collect the nuts before they were all eaten or carried off by squirrels, turkeys, and other animals.
Hebard had, in other words, come to know these trees as individuals. He pointed to an unruly clump of trunks to introduce us to a few.
The trunks were five and six inches in diameter, and they were all marred by long, vertical strips of scar tissue that rose like long Appalachian ridges through the otherwise smooth, reddish brown bark. They would cause most home gardeners to wince, but to Hebard they were signs of resilience, an indicator that these trees were resisting the fungus by building scar tissue to shield their vital sapwood. They were fighting. To Hebard, whose entire career has focused on conflict at the microscopic level, it is such cankers that represent the future of the American chestnut.
"Can you see the big ugly cankers here?" he asked. "That's the technical term, 'big ugly canker,' ha, ha. Sometimes when there's fair resistance you'll get trunks that are all big ugly cankers, fifteen feet high."
The trees may have represented the future, but even to a nonexpert like me it was pitifully clear that they didn't have much of one as living individuals. Their leaves were small and sparse, and the neighboring poplars and maples were growing higher and faster than they were. Hebard's ministrations had allowed them to grow and reproduce, but these chestnuts were dying as so many others of their kind have. Within a few years the canopy of other trees would close in and the chestnuts would be little more than stark wood skeletons that would soon fall unnoticed and through their decay enrich the soil—and Hebard would look elsewhere for chestnuts able to bloom and put their energy into future generations.
He is unsentimental about this, as anyone must be who is in the business of farming genes for the future. Only through the deaths of uncounted thousands of trees that don't have the best genes for survival against the blight can he find those that do. Hebard indeed seems an entirely unsentimental man, but as we walked back toward the truck he suggested we take a short stroll down a winding side road that opened off the clearing. The rain showed no sign of letting up. Water ran in rivulets through the grasses and sedges and mosses. My shoes were drenched. Somehow Hebard managed to keep a cigarette lit. We rounded a few turns in the road and came to an open grove where several tall tulip poplars two feet in diameter grew in front of a little pond. A few white pine saplings, as tall as a man, grew among the grasses and wildflowers.
"I don't know if it was worth getting this wet," Hebard said, "but I just really love this glade."
There wasn't a chestnut tree in sight, and I realized he'd brought us here for another reason, simply because he liked the place—and because it helped fuel his work. He looked at the tall poplars and the sapling pines, and reflected on why these particular trees were growing in this particular place.
"So many of these forest changes," he mused, "take place beyond the memory of any one person, so they can be hard to understand. Of course you can take a look at stands in different stages of succession and begin to interpolate, but it's so complex." There was that glint in his eyes. He flashed a boyish grin, and I was struck by the realization that he loved the complexity of ecology, even as it made his job harder. He was a farmer with sizable and clearly laid out responsibilities for breeding and growing trees down on the farms in the valley, but his heart was here, in the tangled woods where the chains of cause and effect are so very hard to tease out. His obligations did not end at the edge of the cultivated fields. Rather, they were to the forest itself.
Perhaps he is perfectly disguised as a farmer, but Hebard's goals are entirely unlike those of conventional farming, which aims to corral nature for human purposes. He, along with a number of people of similar dedication, are attempting something much more audacious, a sort of farming in reverse. They are using the methods of farmers—the tractors and herbicides and fertilizers and means of tracking genetics—to create a cultivar not so that it can be more effectively used by people, but rather so that it can be returned to the wild. It's as if a farmer were to develop a field of corn with the aim of having it take care of itself for hundreds of years, without any further human intervention. If Hebard and others succeed—and whether or not they will remains very much an open question—they will not only return a once-vital plant to its landscape, but also extend the frontiers of what people can do to set right the mistakes of the past.
* * *
WHEN THE CHESTNUTS DIED, the ghostly trunks of the dead trees cast such a pall on the landscape that some thought "the whole world was going to die," as an eastern Kentucky resident recalled much later. It was, as one elderly Tennessean told an oral history interviewer in 1965, "the worst thing that ever happened in this country." He was speaking of the country in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but he really could have meant a far larger area than that: chestnuts grew from the southernmost extensions of the Appalachian Mountains, in northern Alabama and Georgia, west across Tennessee and Kentucky and Ohio, and as far north as Maine and Ontario. Throughout much of that huge range the chestnut was the dominant forest tree. A member of Hernando de Soto's 1540 expedition through the Southeast put it in the simplest terms possible: "Where there are mountains, there are chestnuts." Two hundred million acres of chestnut forest were splashed across eastern North America. Chestnuts shared the slopes of Stone Mountain in Georgia with magnolias and laurels and hickories. They grew on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and towered alongside oaks and basswoods throughout the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. On the hilltops of New Hampshire they grew, prodigiously, next to beeches and maples and cherries. They were catholic, weedy, tolerant of elevations from sea level to five thousand feet. Across much of the landscape they made up a quarter of all the trees; on the Highlands Plateau of western North Carolina they were half of all the hardwoods. In some places nearly pure stands of chestnuts stretched for a hundred acres and more.
Imagine chestnut trees as you might imagine maples today in New England or spruces in Alaska: as simply ubiquitous. Imagine asking a child in Appalachia, a century ago, to draw you a tree: chances are a chestnut would have served as the model. The trunk would likely have been long and straight and thick and covered with pale, deep-fissured bark. Chestnuts sometimes grew more than a hundred feet tall. Henry David Thoreau, on his home ground in Concord, Massachusetts, measured a fresh chestnut stump twenty-three feet and nine inches in circumference. In the southern Appalachians, where the growing season is longer, a chestnut tree grew to seventeen feet in diameter in Francis Cove, North Carolina. In the woods the trunks of mature trees might shoot up fifty feet or more before any limbs branched off, but if it grew in a field, a chestnut could sprawl magnificently, its dense foliage casting a wide pool of shade over kith and kine.
A leaf in the drawing would have roughly the shape of an ash leaf, curving elegantly outward and then tapering to a point, its two sides like surfaces of a lake ruffled to a sawtooth chop by a fresh breeze. And if it were June or early July, chances are the artist would draw chestnut flowers too—six- to eight-inch-long spikes of tiny cream-colored blossoms, clustered together in starburst formations reminiscent of Independence Day fireworks and all jangling together in the breeze so that the pollen could be blown from bloom to bloom, which grew so dense sometimes on hillsides that it looked as though it had snowed. If it were October instead, no child would pass up the chance to draw the single most essential part of the tree: the nut, a smooth-skinned, velvety brown treasure tucked inside a ferociously prickly burr like a wrapped present, perfect for eating, but also for throwing or fondling restlessly in a pocket through the dull days of winter.
There were other trees, of course, especially in the diverse forests of southern Appalachia where chestnuts reached their greatest size and abundance. White pine grew taller, and oak made more durable furniture. Hickory made better ax handles and wagon wheels. Maple produced its unique syrup and burned longer and hotter in the woodstove. Cherry and walnut, or such imported rarities as mahogany, were the only woods really adequate for the furniture and paneling of a rich man's study, but only chestnut combined so many useful virtues in a single accessible package. It was everyman's tree. It was the singular natural resource that fueled the first surge of American manifest destiny through the Cumberland Gap and across the Appalachian chain. Like the Scots-Irish pioneers who settled the eastern mountains, it was tough, weedy, aggressive. It grew and thrived almost anywhere. It was sturdy and unpretentious and could be turned to a hundred uses. If any single organism in the United States could represent the ideals of Jeffersonian yeoman democracy, the chestnut was it.
No tree could have been designed to meet more efficiently the needs of animals and people. For starters, chestnuts grew fast. A chestnut could grow to the height of a tall man in a year. In twenty years it could grow halfway into the forest canopy and make an ideal telegraph pole, straight and free of knots. If it were cut, numerous sprouts sprang up from the roots, within a year forming, as Thoreau wrote, "perfect bowers in which a man might be concealed." A tree that wasn't cut could grow to more than four feet in diameter in the span of a single human lifetime and could survive for six hundred years.
Excerpted from Nature's Restoration by Peter Friederici. Copyright © 2006 Peter Friederici. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Prologue: One Man, 15 Acres, 40 Years
Introduction: Prospero's Work
Chapter 1. Smoldering at the Roots
Chapter 2. Entering the Woods
Chapter 3. The Entrepreneurs
Chapter 4 The Voyage of the Moon-Eyed Horse
Chapter 5. Under the Bridge of Clouds