lost giants of the forest

While walking in the woods, I happened to notice an oddly shaped piece of wood, about four feet long with smaller, arm-like protrusions coming out from the side, lying on the ground. I took a closer look and realized that it was part of the root of an American chestnut tree, a species wiped out in the early 1900s by an exotic fungus.

The American chestnut once comprised 25 percent of all the trees in the Appalachian Mountains and provided much of the fall mast for species such as white-tailed deer, squirrel, wild turkey, and black bear. Its tannin-rich, decay-resistant wood was used by farmers for barns, rail fences, and fence posts. The old chestnut fence posts dividing our farm from our neighbor’s are still solid and still serving their purpose.

In 1904, a shipment of chestnut trees imported from Asia that contained a blight fungus arrived in New York. The exotic fungus killed most chestnut trees within a few decades, thereby altering the forests of Appalachia forever. Many of the old stumps continue to sprout to this day, sometimes reaching 20 feet and producing a few nuts before being attacked and killed by the blight.

It was amazing to think that the piece of wood I found could be upwards of 75 years old, yet, is still solid. My husband laughs at me because of the things I have lugged home in the past (tree fungi, rocks, bird feathers, nests), but incorrigible collector that I am, I transported my prize home.

My gnarled and weatherworn chestnut specimen now has a prominent place in my rock garden (a work in progress) where it will, in all probability, “outlive” me.