There’s a pandemic you’ve probably never heard of, one that started in the Bronx and claimed some 4 billion lives over 35 years and 300,000 square miles. It was a blight—a fungus—that ravaged the American chestnut tree, a keystone species in the ecosystems of the eastern United States and a linchpin in the economy of Appalachia. “By almost any metric,” Kate Morgan details in “Once Upon a Tree,” her new feature in Sierra Magazine, “the American chestnut was a perfect tree.” Men came for the coal in the ground where the chestnuts had once stood, stripping black rock from soil already laid bare by sickness—an insult to environmental injury. A century later, it’s possible that Darling 58, an iteration of the chestnut birthed in a petri dish, could save the species if its seeds are sown in abandoned mines. That’s the hope of people like William Powell, a professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York, who has been on the frontlines of chestnut restoration since the 1990s:
Healthy chestnuts produce a large amount of seeds, but they don’t readily germinate on their own because they are often eaten. That’ll be true of the Darling 58 offspring too. “After 100 years, it might travel a mile,” Powell says. “It will spread, but it’s not a weed.”
Turn the coalfields into thriving, mature chestnut forests and the trees could do the rest, seeding themselves into adjacent forestlands. Slowly, from these debased landscapes, a new forest would expand outward. Imagine autumn in a sloping grove, broad, craggy trunks climbing the hillside, their long golden leaves wafting down to catch in the branches of rhododendrons and the needles of evergreens below. Black bears, fat on sweet chestnuts, drag their feet on the loamy ground and salamanders skitter through vernal pools in the forest that was and the forest that could be.
“We call this a century project,” Powell says. “To get it to look even somewhat like it did before the blight is going to take centuries. It’s for the next generation—it’s planting a tree you’ll never enjoy the shade of.”