Monday, February 15, 2016

Hunting Giants: A Spring Pilgrimage Through Western North Carolina in Search of the American Chestnut

Lumberjacks stand beside old-growth chestnut trees in North Carolina around 1910. (Forest History Society, Durham, N.C.)

“Imported on plant material in the late 19th century and first discovered in 1904 in New York City, the blight—an Asiatic fungus to which our native chestnuts had very little resistance—spread quickly. In its wake it left only dead and dying stems. By 1950, except for the shrubby root sprouts the species continually produces (and which also quickly become infected), the keystone species that had covered 188 million acres of eastern forests had disappeared.” —The American Chestnut Foundation

In a region famous for its picturesque settings, Francis Cove is exceptional, a rather largish bowl with an encircling ridgeline in the mountains of Western North Carolina, about two miles from downtown Waynesville. The cove faces more or less northeast and opens into a little valley. In the nineteenth century, this area produced some of the largest American chestnut trees ever recorded.
Except for the high tannin content and the resulting rot resistance of the wood, chestnut appears not to have been much valued as a timber species. It splits too easily for framing uses, and it often grew with a twist, somewhat offset by the fact that it might grow 100 feet before branches disturbed the trunk. This made it possible to get very long, unblemished beams from chestnut.
Around Waynesville, its chief value was for tannin extraction, and the Champion Paper Company of my childhood was the Champion Chestnut Extract factory of my father’s. Times change. The hill folk used to harvest the chestnut mostly for the tannin, and they called it “acid wood.” It was the chief source of natural tannin in the U.S. before the blight, and there was so much chestnut that many of the extraction factories were able to continue operation into the 1960s using standing dead stumps.
    Somewhere I had heard that the largest American chestnut on record was about twelve feet in diameter. One day I repeated this bit of hearsay in a casual conversation with someone at the American Chestnut Foundation (the goal of the ACF is to develop a blight-resistant tree and restore the American chestnut to its native range in eastern woodlands); one thing led to another, and retired UNCA professor Dr. Garrett Smathers dug up an actual reference, a tiny mention in Charlotte Hilton Green’s 1939 book Trees of the South. There she states, “Perhaps the largest of our American chestnuts was one in Francis Cove, western North Carolina, which had a diameter of seventeen feet and a height of more than one hundred feet.” Another colleague found a similar reference in a 1915 issue of American Forestry, which stated that “a tree with a diameter of seventeen feet has been recorded from Francis Cove in North Carolina.” Well, Garrett Smathers actually knew where Francis Cove was, and recalled knowing someone who knew where the stump of that old giant was. That’s how these things come about: threads of memory, oral history, dim recollections, some persistence and curiosity sometimes lead to the real thing. Thus began a pilgrimage in search of evidence of the perimeter of that tree. Garrett dug up some names, including Gene Christopher, who was a relative of Garrett’s late friend Mr. “Pink” Francis.

A Visit to Francis Cove
Francis Cove has been populated with the Francis and Christopher families for quite some time. In 1887, William Francis chose the site for a water-powered gristmill, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Francis Cove is home to Christopher Farms, a small orchard that has been in family hands for generations.
Gene and Doug Christopher run not only the orchard but also a small retail produce enterprise, a slightly modernized version of the old mountain stores, which you can find today only in truly remote parts of Western North Carolina. The Christopher Farms store sells real sourwood honey (not clover with a sourwood label), a wide variety of apples, locally produced eggs, and 100 percent pure maple syrup. (A poster above the shelf of maple syrup informs you that Aunt Jemima syrup is 2 percent maple and the maple content of Log Cabin syrup is zero.) One of the store’s niceties is that you can call up and someone will take your order over the phone and box up the groceries so your granddaughter can pick them up—as one young woman was doing I arrived at the store.
With me was Dr. Paul Sisco, a geneticist for the American Chestnut Foundation and a world expert on this species. Our visit had a purpose other than getting us outside on a promising early spring day. We were trying to install a small demonstration chestnut planting at the Western North Carolina Nature Center in Asheville, forty minutes away, and we thought it might be nice to give folks a concrete idea of the actual size of these “redwoods of the East” by placing our kiosk in the center of a gravel pad of the same dimensions as a cross-section of this arboreal monster.
When we arrived, Gene (whom I had spoken to earlier on the phone) was off at jury duty and brother Doug was manning the store. Doug managed to break away from the busy phone long enough to walk us outside and point out where we should look. Neither he nor his brother had been up to the site for maybe fifteen or twenty years, and neither could promise that we would find anything. Doug volunteered a couple of interesting items: There were actually two big trees, the second nearly as large as the first; in the old days you could turn a cart around inside the larger tree. After giving us directions, Doug returned to the phone, and Paul and I were on our own.
Up through the woods we went. I was carrying an arsenal of camera hardware, including a digital camera and a camcorder, a vial for collection of chestnut debris for carbon-14 dating, orange flags to mark the perimeter for photographing, rope, a ruler, just the basics. Paul had about the same amount. Optimists. We stopped in the area where Doug had indicated we would find the first stump and began looking around.
As a woodcarver, I have found that chestnut has two distinct features. One is its slight baby-aspirin tint, coming from the tannins that preserve it. The other is its ease of carving, particularly when one is carving contours. As a rough field test, I use my pocketknife to shave through the exterior rot of a fallen limb, scrape down to solid wood, and then carve a curved cup. If it is “easy enough” and it is orange, it’s a safe bet it’s chestnut. Since these hills used to be covered with the stuff, it’s a pretty safe bet anyway.
Paul and I spent twenty minutes walking around the first site. The earth under our feet had that unmistakable feel of a springy mattress stuffed with centuries of humus, penetrated with the bones of dead trees and stumps—some of them chestnut but none of them large. Trickling invisible water . . . mushy, muddy places where seeps emerged out of sudden dips in the slope . . . wildflowers. Our exploration yielded some briar cuts, a warning from a neighborhood brace of watchdogs, and not much else. Halfway through the first site visit, I returned most of my data-collecting gear to the car.

The Second Site
The second site was at the top of the abandoned orchard. It had a lot of fallen timber. In the right places, chestnut has the look of driftwood, but here it looked more brown on the exterior. Doug had volunteered a few comments about the out-of-towner who had come up several years ago, planted the orchard between where the two trees once stood, then disappeared, leaving acres of untended trees right next to the impeccably maintained orchards of Christopher farms. The fellow had also overseen the obliteration of the entire mountainside of its timber. “Made his million and went back to Florida” was Doug’s comment on the subject.
Paul and I spent another half hour wandering in ever widening circles. The spring ground, even in late March, was beginning to sprout a lot of wildflowers. I felt guilty stepping on the bloodroot, trout lilies, wood anemones, and squirrel corn, and was truly surprised that they were out in such early abundance. I normally don’t even look until late April or early May.
Much of the fallen timber turned out to be chestnut, based on my little field test, but we were unable to locate the stump of the old giant. There was a lot of water and moisture on this side of the mountain, perhaps accounting for faster rot (and poorer fortunes for two amateur giant hunters) as well as for the size of these huge trees.
Nor were we able to find chestnut sprouts. The leaves were not out yet, but you can still usually identify them. Paul had heard that where you find chestnuts easily today is in places where they grew most poorly in the past. That’s because many trees have problems growing in those places. But where they formerly grew best, any tree can grow, and the niche of the chestnut was quickly filled with other species. In fact, some biologists say that the best thing ever to happen to biodiversity in our mountains was chestnut blight, since the more commercially valuable oaks, poplars, and hickory colonized the empty chestnut stands. (These biologists don’t get invited to my house for dinner much!)

Vanishing Traces
We went back down to report to Doug that we had found nothing and were fortunate to run into Gene, who had just gotten off jury duty. He took a few minutes to run us back up the hill and point out exactly where the tree had been. We had been looking about 100 yards too far to the left, and he pointed out the little rise and the flat upon which he recollected the stump had been. Gene said that the big tree had yielded twelve to fourteen chords of acid wood, or about 1,800 cubic feet. His grandfather and father had harvested it around the turn of the century.
He also said that the forest we were looking at had already been cut twice in his lifetime (he was about sixty years old) and that it was within twenty years of another harvest. That would mean one heck of a lot of productivity for this site, and might explain why the biggest chestnuts were found here.
Gene drove back down the hill to the busy store, and Paul and I trudged through the woods to the designated place, but we were unable to find even a hint of the big tree—which is pretty much what one would expect when a tree has been gone for 100 years. It’s a miracle that there was any crumb left fifteen years ago when Gene recalled last seeing it.
We just don’t find big chestnuts stumps any more. Even the biggest stumps can’t last forever. But at least we did get to the site. The earth that supported these big trees remains intact, no matter how many “foreigners” mow it down from time to time. It can support the chestnut again. All that’s missing in the equation is the chestnut, and we’re working on that. I’m planning a visit back there in 700 years to see the replacement trees. Paul, unfortunately, will be too old by then to go with me. But I’ll take some pictures for him.
And the site did yield something for me: a rusted lucky horseshoe, complete with a nail or two. Maybe off a horse and cart that used to turn around in the old stump? I’d like to think that, anyway.
Forrest MacGregor is an engineer, inventor, and artist who hails originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina. He currently lives in Randolph, Vermont. Much of his art and writing explores modern man’s relationship to technology.

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