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Farewell to the Chestnut

As you walk along the forest trails you are reminded time and again of the incomparable disaster which, within the lifetime of many of us, has swept relentlessly through the ranks of the American chestnut. Years and decades have passed since this catastrophe took its terrible toll, yet, even now, there are numerous relics of this once-abundant, ill-fated tree. A surprising number still stand, bleached and dead—ghostlike, and in a severe kind of nakedness. Within the memory of man there has been no forest tragedy so calamitous nor so devastating.

The blight which has ravaged the elms and the blister rust which threatens the white pines—together, these have not been as deadly as the parasitic fungus that causes the disease to which the chestnut has succumbed.

The lamented chestnut is practically gone. Sprouts continue to grow from the old stumps, although in markedly diminishing numbers, and near the upper limits of its range in the mountains some of the trees may have a few branches where some leaves and even a few flowers and fruits appear. But the die is cast and a noble species is doomed, victim of one of the most destructive and rapidly spreading tree diseases known. By September 2, 1940, at which time President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Great Smoky Mountains National Park, approximately 85 percent of the American chestnut trees in this area had been either killed or affected by the blight; and 10 years later, more than 95 percent were affected.

At some time near the turn of the century, before the enactment of plant-quarantine laws, the parasitic fungus that causes the disease known as chestnut blight was brought from Asia into the United States. It was first discovered in this country in New York City in 1904; from there and, later, from other centers, it spread rapidly. In the southern Appalachian Mountains, most of the damage was done in the late 1920's and early 1930's. No remedy has been found.

The fast-growing American chestnut, along with the yellow-poplar, was the big tree of the Great Smokies forests. Some specimens attained trunk diameters of 9 to 10 feet. Unlike the yellow-poplar, however, the chestnut often developed a spreading crown, especially when growing in the open. Associated with various kinds of oaks, it formed one of the dominant types of forests in these mountains.

We have witnessed the demise of a species of tree which for all-around usefulness to man had few, if any, equals. Foresters regarded it, by all odds, as the best hardwood timber tree in America. Its lumber was straight grained, easily worked, exceptionally durable, and of the highest quality. It was easily split into fence rails and shingles and, since it resisted the attacks of wood-destroying fungi to a remarkable degree, it was used extensively for fence posts, railroad ties, telephone and telegraph poles, and mine timbers. Its other uses were too numerous to mention. Tannic acid, extracted from the bark, was used in tanning leather.

The spiny green burs of the American chestnut contain glossy brown fruits, which were the favored autumn fare of bears, squirrels, turkeys, and other forms of wildlife.

The nuts, sweet and palatable, were enveloped in spherical burs bristling with long spines. These were opened by the witchery of early frosts, much to the satisfaction of squirrels, bears, wild turkeys, and other forms of wildlife. Ordinarily the crop was a bountiful one, and it attracted boys from city and country who came with burlap bags to claim this delicious harvest. During the first quarter of this century, one of the common sights on the street corners of our eastern cities was that of the chestnut vendor, who roasted the native chestnuts and sold the aromatic fruit for a nickle a bag.

Now that misfortune has come to this splendid tree, the calamity of its extinction has laid a heavy hand on many species of wildlife, especially those who fed directly upon its fruits. Acorns are a substitute, of a sort, but there will come years when for some unknown reason the oak trees do not set fruit. Such was the year of 1946. Black bears, unable to find acorns, left the sanctuary of the National Park in quest of food, not knowing, of course, that the situation was identical elsewhere throughout the southern Appalachians. Many of the bruins never returned, the mortality being estimated at between one-third and one-half of the park's population. Gray squirrels fared even worse, a mortality of 90 percent being estimated for some of the watersheds. Fortunately, such reductions in animal populations are of infrequent occurrence. If the chestnut had not been destroyed, an exodus of such proportions would not have taken place. On the other hand, this is an example of how species are influenced to travel and invade new habitats.

A ghost forest of American chestnut. The bark drops off after the fungus blight kills the tree.

One day in December, several years ago, a work crew employed in a fire-hazard-reduction project near the eastern boundary of the park began cutting a large dead chestnut tree. Suddenly, from a cavity high up in the main trunk, a flying squirrel appeared, then another, and another, until finally 26 of these attractive animals had deserted their communal winter nest. Aroused from their daytime slumber, the squirrels planed off into the nearby trees.

Unlike woodchucks and jumping mice, flying squirrels remain active through the winter, during which time they will share a bed with others of their kind. The site usually chosen for a winter bed and, later, for a nest for the young, is in the cavity of a tree. Dead trees are often more suitable than living ones, and hence the chestnut, in death as in life, assumes an important role in the forest.

Sprouts growing around the stump of a dead chestnut tree.

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