It was a gray May day, and at the town forest in Fairlee, Vermont, a patchcut hummed with industrious students and volunteers.
At the base of the hill teenagers plucked trees off a car-trailer, the 5- to 8-inch rootballs wrapped in plastic. “I want you to cradle it like a baby,” said Markus Bradley, the forester who organized the event along with the Fairlee Town Forest Board, the Vermont/New Hampshire chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, and the Rivendell Academy.
Up on the hillside groups of students from Rivendell dug holes and nestled the trees into the raw earth.
“Cradle it like a baby,” a student repeated to a peer as they set the tree in the hole.
“This will be the only baby I’ll ever have,” replied her friend, solemnly patting the tree in that irreverent, ironic, teenage way before tamping it down into the reddish mineral soil and then topdressing it with some black topsoil and duff that her peers had collected in a 5-gallon pail.
The forester, the students and teachers, and the volunteers were planting hybrid American chestnut trees as part of a restoration effort/botanical experiment. The trees, which were donated by the Vermont/New Hampshire Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, are officially called “Restoration 1.0 Chestnuts;” scientists call them BC3F3 crosses. They’re 15/16ths American chestnut – that stately hardwood that dominated forests in southern New England and the Appalachian states before being wiped out by an imported fungal disease in the early twentieth century – and 1/16th Chinese chestnut, a smaller forest tree often used as an orchard species that is naturally resistant to the blight. It took 35 years of selection and backcross breeding to produce the trees, which have the potential to be large, handsome trees that are also blight resistant.
Yurih Bihyn, president of the Vermont/New Hampshire chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, said that the Fairlee site is at the extreme north end of the Chestnut’s traditional range. “We don’t know if Chestnuts grew this far north historically,” said Bihyn, but he’s intrigued by the possibility that they could become established here. “They’re a super-fast growing tree,” said Bihyn, “so they may be able to outcompete the beech.”
Because there’s no, or very little, history of chestnut in the area, it may also mean that there’s very little blight for them to contend with. The woods in the heart of the chestnut’s range still contain lots of little chestnut stump sprouts, and the soil is still full of Cryphonectria parasitica spores that emerge from time to time to kill the stump sprouts. There shouldn’t be this reservoir of fungus in the north, which may give the Vermont trees a leg up.
Bradley is optimistic that the 21 trees they got in the ground will have viable lives. While there’s no guarantee they won’t succumb to the blight, they represent a fighter’s chance, anyway, that there might be a chestnut component in our future forest.
“With all of the glum news about the global environment, the chestnut story and its re-establishment is to me the most exciting thing going on in the environmental field at the moment,” said Bradley.