On the recommendation of one of my co-workers, I’m reading the book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I was a little nervous to start it as the reviews on Goodreads have been less than stellar, but I thought what the hell, I’ll give it a try. A Walk in the Woods chronicles Bryson’s attempt to walk the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, a 2100 mile path through the Appalachian Mountains which starts in Georgia and ends in Maine. Another of my co-workers (not the one who loaned me the book) is planning to do just that next spring. He told me the other night, upon seeing that I was reading the book, that it basically is a primer in how NOT to walk the Appalachian Trail. Trust me, after reading this book, I decidedly will not be walking the Appalachian Trail. Camping in a fold down camper is about as primitive as I can get.
Mixed in with the story of the actual hike, Bryson tells the history of the trail. Last night I read about the destruction of the American Chestnut tree, which once accounted for 25% of the trees in the Appalachian range. They grew 75 to 100 feet tall and were sometimes referred to as “queen of the forest.” Bryson mentioned early photographs of people next to chestnut trees were almost comical, much like pictures next to the giant redwood trees in California look now. In the early 1900s, a chestnut blight was inadvertently introduced to the American Chestnut by importation of Japanese Chestnut trees. The blight was a fungus that the Japanese chestnut trees were resistant to, having had the luxury of evolving along with the fungus. The American Chestnut trees had no such resistance. The blight spread rapidly throughout the eastern US and by the time it was all said and done, 3 billion American Chestnut trees were dead. 3 billion. The number boggles my mind. The American chestnut tree is all but extinct in its original habitat. Several pockets of trees are still living in the western U.S. where the blight is still rare, but even today, new shoots of those original American chestnut trees die from fungal infection of the bark after only a few years of life.
I was completely unfamiliar with this story although I knew the story of Dutch Elm disease quite well. We lost one of the elm trees in the yard of my parents’ house to Dutch Elm disease when I was growing up. But I had no idea that the American Chestnut tree had been so completely devastated. So much for chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
And if the story of the American Chestnut tree was not already sad enough, there’s an (albiet undocumented) mention in the Wikipedia article that a fully mature American Chestnut tree was discovered in West Branch, Iowa several years ago, measuring 50 feet tall. It was, however, destroyed to make way for a Proctor & Gamble parking lot. We paved paradise indeed.
There is hope for the American Chestnut though. Through genetic engineering with Japanese Chestnuts, blight-resistant strains are being produced with a hope to, one day, reforest the Appalachian forest with at least nearly-American Chestnuts.