A recent read for me was “American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree,” by Susan Freinkel. The American chestnut was once almost an indispensable tree to man and nature alike. Its extirpation in the early 20th century almost upended the Appalachian natural community. Freinkel wrote an very readable overview of the chestnut’s world and what is being done to restore them.

Chestnuts ranged throughout the southern Appalachians until a fungus removed them as a meaningful part of the natural community. Chestnuts grew to be the titans of the forested hills. Their burrs blanketed the ground in fall and yielded rich and nutritious nuts. The nuts made up much of the “hard mast” consumed by wildlife such as deer, bear, and turkeys. Humans tapped into the chestnut-powered food web in at least three points. Native Americans and Europeans alike gathered the nuts for themselves and ate the wildlife that fatted on them. Farmers then learned that hogs had much sweeter meat if they were released to forage on chestnuts in autumn. Finally, people brought chestnuts into the subsistence economic web. Mountain people, many of whom were hard-pressed for cash, gathered the nuts in “tow sacks” and sold them to local merchants or brokers for the purchase of store goods. The chestnut buyers consolidated the nuts for shipment by wagon or rail for resale to city dwellers. The Christmas song lyrics “chestnuts roasting over an open fire” described how city folks would often roast the nuts as a snack. 

Take the time to pick up “American Chestnut” for a solid review of the tree that was once a king of the mountain forest.

It’s hard to grasp the wholesale changes in the natural community of the southern Appalachians without understanding the erasure of the American chestnut from it.