Q&A: Donald Edward Davis Discusses the American Chestnut in Past, Present, and Future

The American Chestnut tells the story of the titular tree from Native American prehistory through the Civil War and the Great Depression. Some of the tree’s history dates to the very founding of our country, making the story of the American chestnut an integral part of American cultural and environmental history. The following is a Q&A with the author, Donald Edward Davis, about his thoughts on understanding the tree within the broader contexts of history, recent developments, and modern environmental perspectives.

1. The American Chestnut tells the story of a tree whose prominence spanned thousands of years. Its impact on America’s geographic, economic, and cultural development is hard to understate. Though some cultural references endure, collective memory of this once-great tree has fallen into obscurity. How can environmental histories like yours help us remember? 

Prior to 1910, the American chestnut was closely associated with street vendors, community gatherings, picnics, holiday feasts, small and big-game hunting, fence building, shingle splitting, livestock husbandry, and even moonshining. For residents of Appalachia, where the trees defined the pre-World War II landscape, the loss of the American chestnut also served as a metaphor for the passing of a self-sufficient and forest-dependent way of life.  True, with each passing year, there are fewer people who can recall seeing a live, nut-bearing American chestnut tree in the wild. In the Northeast, the trees largely vanished from the landscape before 1920, and in the Southeast, by 1950. As an environmental history of the American chestnut, this book surveys the ecological history of the tree over the past twenty-thousand years and provides an informed discussion about human-chestnut relationships for half that period. In telling the full story of the American chestnut, particularly the period spanning the last two centuries, I relied heavily on published oral histories. In doing so, I allow readers to hear from numerous eyewitnesses, including individuals who saw the trees in their native splendor. This gives us a much better appreciation for the trees, particularly their role in shaping American life and culture. 

2. Is there another natural resource to which the American chestnut can be compared to help people grasp its importance? Additionally, is there a comparison that can appropriately capture the devastating speed with which this tree that “[touched] almost every phase of our existence” (pg. 3) became functionally extinct?  

Regarding the first part of the question, I honestly cannot think of one. As I note at the conclusion to chapter seven, the tree had a truly indelible influence on American culture. It provided holiday treats to millions and gave the young and old alike an enjoyable autumn pastime. It inspired seasonal desserts, music, and poetry, and directly influenced the development of American material culture. It helped build America’s transportation and communication networks and was an economic engine providing gainful employment for tens of thousands of individuals. Perhaps no other tree species had influenced American life in this way. At the same time, wildlife also greatly depended on the tree; so much so, that numerous animal species suffered as a direct result of its disappearance. The trees also provided important ecosystem services, including the retention of moisture in forest soils and essential habitat for fungi, birds, and insects. For those reasons and more, the functional extinction of the American chestnut was not only a human loss, but an ecological one as well. 

In response to the second question: Although it would take a full half-century for the blight fungus to kill an estimated five billion chestnut trees in the eastern deciduous forest, Americans were shocked by the speed at which entire stands of trees often succumbed to the disease. In 1906, just two years after the fungus was discovered at the Bronx Zoo, tens of thousands of trees were already dead in New York City, and thousands more were showing signs of the illness. In fact, so many chestnut trees died in the metropolitan area that year that the New York Observer, a publication edited by Presbyterian minister John Bancroft Bevins, likened the fungus to the plagues of Egypt and suggested the disease was further evidence the world was cursed with sin. 

3. At many points, the book highlights the prevalence of the American chestnut in Native American diets, architecture, animal husbandry, and more. As we enter an age where environmentalism grows increasingly intersectional, how critical will it be that we include Indigenous people and other people of color in our discussions about environmental history, natural resources, and restoration efforts? 

For those practicing environmental history, it is critical that we record and honor the experiences of Native Americans. For millennia they maintained a close relationship with the natural world and thus possessed invaluable knowledge about North American flora and fauna. They certainly were aware of the American chestnut. Eight thousand years ago, chestnuts were commonly eaten by native groups as well as stored and processed into meal. During the Early Woodland period, they intentionally inhabited areas where the trees were abundant and cached large quantities of chestnuts in underground silos. By the Late Woodland Period, Native Americans routinely harvested chestnuts with the aid of fire, which better preserved them and extended their use. They also made unleavened bread using chestnut flour, a practice that continued well into the twentieth century. With each passing millennium, human-chestnut encounters became more frequent, nuanced, and intimate. Prior to European contact, groups like the Cherokees and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) had developed a unique and indelible relationship with the American chestnut, which I document at length in the book. I also discuss African American encounters with chestnuts, particularly during the nineteenth century. Collectively, these views help us understand the extent to which the American chestnut influenced human culture prior to the tree’s demise. And without those views, our knowledge of the tree is woefully incomplete. 

4. Disease, specifically Cryphonectria parasitica, is a central part of the history of the American chestnut. In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, do you believe that there are meaningful parallels that can be drawn to this arboreal narrative of blight, devastation, survival, and potential restoration? 

That is an interesting question. The American public debated the origins of chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) for nearly a decade after its arrival, as they could not come to a consensus about how it arrived in the U.S. Although some believed the disease originated in China, others thought it came from Japan, while still others argued that the fungus was native to North America (it originated in Japan). Although fungi and viruses are quite different organisms, both need living hosts to survive and replicate. In the case of chestnut blight, the fungus thrives best on chestnut trees, which means it was able to rapidly multiply and spread across the eastern the United States, where the trees were most plentiful.  Now, as American chestnut enthusiasts plan to reintroduce thousands of trees back into the forest—with various levels of blight resistance—they should be reminded that those trees not possessing full blight resistance will become new hosts and vectors for the blight fungus. The end result? More blight in the forest. This could become problematic for some surviving American chestnut trees, which to date, have not been exposed to large numbers of the blight spores. This would not only cause their premature death, but reduce the amount of American chestnut germplasm needed for future restoration efforts. 

5. You write that the American chestnut depended heavily on the demands of markets, often to the detriment of its well-being. Now that people are becoming more critical of anthropocentric approaches and embracing an ecocentric orientation in our handling of natural resources, what hope do you have for the future of the American chestnut or species in similar situations?  

For me, the ecocentric approach to chestnut restoration would involve not only a better  understanding of the tree’s evolutionary history, but also the various ecosystems that supported the trees in the past. Of course, we also need to know much more about the blight fungus and how such things as temperature and moisture influences its development and spread. Nature works on its own time-scales, which means we need to be far more patient with chestnut restoration efforts. On the island of Corsica, for example, nearly all of the trees were killed by ink-disease during the late 19th century, causing many residents to abandon, for more than a century, the growing of chestnuts. Today, residents of Corsica are now producing great quantities of nuts and have restored many of the ancient cultural practices associated with chestnut husbandry. Overtime, diseases impacting trees can vary in their intensity, which means there is still some hope for the American chestnut.   

6. The balance of responsibility between governments, corporations, and individuals in the mishandling of resources is often a central talking point in environmentalist discourse, and this is especially true for the American chestnut. How productive are these conversations? How can the story of the American chestnut show us how to fairly assess and assign responsibility? 

Such conversations are extremely important and obviously productive if properly executed. If not, they can be a recipe for disaster. A case in point is the nineteenth-century introduction of the San José scale, a tiny insect that arrived in the eastern United States on imported Japanese plum trees. The San José scale was considered one of the most destructive insects in North America, and was more commonly known as the “pernicious scale.” The outbreak happened only a few years before the introduction of chestnut blight and exposed an industry in abject denial about the role it could play in the introduction and spread of non-native pests. Despite numerous letters and public announcements from both entomologists and government officials regarding the dangers of the San José scale, few inspections were done in the field and reprimands or fines were almost never leveled on violators. In fact, most of those duties were delegated to state agricultural inspectors who let growers do their own monitoring and disposal of infected trees. This allowed, in effect, diseased plants to be shipped across state lines with little government oversight. As a result, orchards in a dozen states reported cases of the scale as early as 1896, infestations coming from just three nurseries in New Jersey and New York. Coincidently, all three establishments would later be implicated in the spread of chestnut blight, as they were also the very first importers of Japanese chestnuts. With the arrival of the chestnut blight, the pattern of infection was doomed to repeat itself. Had the warnings been properly heeded, the importation and spread of the blight fungus might have been prevented.

7. There are competing efforts to revive the American chestnut. Can you briefly explain these? Which do you find most promising and why? What should concern us?

At present, there are three different approaches to chestnut restoration. The first is the backcross breeding method, which the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) has championed for several decades. The backcross breeding method involves the creation of American/Chinese chestnut hybrids that closely resemble the native tree. To date, thousands of those trees have been planted in private orchards or on federal lands, and are demonstrating promising levels of vigor and blight-resistance. The American Chestnut Foundation has more recently endorsed the development and planting of transgenic or genetically engineered (GE) chestnuts, which were developed primarily by William Powell of SUNY-ESF and the New York Chapter of TACF. The GE chestnuts possess a wheat gene that triggers the production of oxalate oxidase which is harmful to the blight fungus. They will also need government approval before they can be released into the wild, which could happen as early as 2022. A third restoration effort involves locating surviving American chestnut trees that already appear to have some blight-resistance. Those trees are bred with other such trees, producing offspring that carry the blight-resistance trait. This approach is championed by the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation, who have orchards of trees in numerous states. Although I find none of the three approaches promising in the very short-term, the latter approach will no doubt best protect the germplasm of the American chestnut. The backcross breeding method will likely get more chestnut trees in the forest more quickly, but it is yet to be determined how closely they will resemble the native tree. The GE chestnut might eventually prove effective against the Cryphonectria parasitica fungus, but it is too early to tell what impact the trees will have on other organisms in the surrounding forest ecosystem. Because the story of the species is truly a cautionary tale, the public should be careful about endorsing, carte blanche, the transgenic approach to American chestnut restoration.

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