The Pure Chestnut: The Grammar of the Gone

This isn’t a story about the American Chestnut.

In the world over but very broadly in the Northern hemisphere there is a persistent mythical understanding of a World Tree. An Axis Mundi. A Tree of Life. The Spine of The Great Mother. The Source of All Wands. This tree might be holding up the heavens, it feeds the world, it might even act as a plug in the neck of the bottle of the underworld or a gateway to it.

Whatever the function, its axial quality is clear. The mythopoetic understanding of the world of those people rotate from something around that tree. Yggdrasil in the Norse tradition, the Oak tree in the Greek tradition and the Ceiba tree, the blue green one of abundance and time, of the Maya.

Forty million years is how long the American Chestnut defined forests in the eastern half of what is now called the United States. These trees regularly grew to over one hundred feet high and ten feet around. Their annual avalanche of food dropped from their boughs nourishing every manner of animal. Every sphere of soil at the root ball of each tree was a richly knit and mushroomed web of underland mess hall. All the rot, all the growth, all the pathways made way for a hundred feet of growth. Each one a world. Each one a world tree. And it was said that a squirrel could travel from Georgia to Maine without ever touching the ground but traveling by way of chestnut – branch to branch.

In the early 20th century there were estimated to be maybe five billion American Chestnut trees. More than enough for the deer and the squirrel and the bear and the chipmunk and the porcupine and all the others to feast on the nuts. And that brought in the fox and the catamount to hunt those animals that were nut gorged. And the uncountable birds that roosted in the apses of the sylvan cathedrals and sated their feathered bellies too in the overstory. And there was plenty for humans to eat from and to feed pigs and cattle. And make fence posts that didn’t rot and fine furniture and flooring and beams for homes. In rural areas chestnuts were not only free food for poor people but they were actual currency where general stores would take chestnuts for groceries and then the chestnuts would be sold to vendors in the big cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Buffalo where they would be roasted all fall and winter on street corners and sold in bags and in sacks for holiday gatherings. There was enough.

And then in the Bronx Zoo in 1904 the first Chestnut Blight case was found. Accidentally imported with a Chinese Chestnut tree. The blight, an orange fungal growth, in 40 years killed 90% of American Chestnut trees. By the middle of the century these trees were considered functionally extinct. The world tree withered. To be sure, there are rare survivors that cropped up from time to time. Their locations are guarded and rarely reported to protect them from the axe and the saw. Those ones that were in a lonely stand and were far enough away from the density of the continent wide forest somehow made it.

So this is the syntax of sorrow and a kind of grammar of the gone. And yet there are those that know about this huge loss and the tremendous ecological hole that was made by this and are working on restoring the American Chestnut and the way scientists, researchers, and activists are doing that is through gene splicing. Taking Chinese Chestnut DNA that is immune to the blight and merging it into American Chestnuts. 15/16th American Chestnut. 1/16th Chinese Chestnut. This is the chosen path to muscle this tree back into the ecosystem. This is a grand and noble undertaking and success is uncertain and mysterious. If success means a significant but partial restoration of the tree to its natural habitat. There is tutelage here to be sure. Grief in spades. And how does climate change fit in? Can these trees survive the new climate? Most tree planting programs fail in the short and medium term. Does the increased urbanization of suburban spaces in the last fifty or sixty years allow for a re-chestnutting? No idea. But if you can plant one…there are people who want to use your lawn or field or back forty as soon as possible.

But this isn’t a story about the American Chestnut. But that story matters for the next part.

The Ozark chinquapin, just as important to its historical habitat (more west and south), is much less well known than the famous and prodigious American Chestnut but it is actually older and actually seems to be an evolutionary ancestor to them. Was the Ozark chinquapin proud of how well its progeny did? No? Maybe? Probably? Does the chinquapin express its pride through the mycelial web shared with the neighbors? I don’t know. This is all speculation. But no matter, the Ozark chinquapin were also devastated by the same blight. And like the American Chestnut there were somehow some trees that were out of the breeze line on that day and dodged the scourge. These hangers-on were only discovered in the last twenty years.

Now the Ozark chinquapin has a smaller band of conservators on their side. The main guy is a man named Steve Bost who is devoted to the restoration of this tree. While the American Chestnut restoration project is using the genetic modification process, Bost with the chinquapin has a different approach. Bost says that a tree’s role in the ecosystem is more subtle and nuanced and complex than humans could conceive of. When a species is reengineered Bost thinks that there could be unintended consequences. Bost has individual trees tested for their strength against the blight by testing their leaves in a lab and the ones that have a stronger resistance get planted. Bost chooses to hand collect pollen from healthy trees, dry the pollen, jar it and then drive hours and hours to another healthy and strong chinquapin to hand-pollinate it to continue the strong line.

But this isn’t a story about the Ozark chinquapin.

The success of neither project is assured but both are necessary struggles. Fingering the edges of the wound to be faithful to the loss but also praying for a repair of some measure. But the chinquapin approach sounds so good, doesn’t it? The appeal to the natural. Do it the old way. The irreducible complexity of biospheres and ecologies. Bost isn’t wrong. But neither are the tree geneticists making hybrids of the American Chestnut. Both are speaking to realities in the world and have methodologies that are full of fidelity to the time while trying to remember another time and have it show up in and as a better day.

So if this isn’t a story about the American Chestnut or the Ozark chinquapin, what might it be? It might be about purity or more specifically purity culture and the damage done by it in these times. The litany that could be read about the wake of this would pierce your heart. The tendrils of it run from the treatment of children to permissible thoughts to orthorexia, the manic attention to eating “right” or “clean.” And that somehow this purity is redemptive but that wished for redemption always seems to be out of reach. There is always a push for purer. Detox more. You hear this in people who are pushing against vaccinations currently – natural immunity only…as if this purity of the immune system is a twin for the goodness of the untouched mortal soul ,somehow, in the face of the wretched evils of Big Pharma. But it is always more nuanced than that. Because this isn’t a story about vaccines either.

I’d make the case that there is no singular pure to get back to and yet having the Steve Bost’s in the world is really important. His approach reminds of a kind of perspective that gathers us in towards a big and long view. But it is not the only one nor can it be. The ecosystem that Bost is looking to revive and draw on the intelligence of doesn’t even exist or at least it doesn’t exist in anything that looks like intactness. Is he trying to resurrect a ghost? Bless him, the living might just need that. The American Chestnut approach does the same via a different road. And this doesn’t mean just succumbing to a bleak technofuture that only seeks to make spectral versions of the past but encased in smooth cast aluminum and glass in a CRISPR lab. One approach of Primal Derma, if I was smitten by purity culture, would be to only scent it with local scents. Or only make it once a year when the traditional slaughters would be. And that isn’t the world that you and I inhabit. But maybe someone somewhere is doing just that and I’d be glad for that if it was so.

Is this just a case for the proverbial middle path? No. This might be a case for proceeding with some grace in an often graceless time. The elegant grace. The praising grace. The fearless and yet knowing and careful kindness that comes with having seen a few things kind of grace. Seeing the holes that are there. Those that have been made and those that are far and forgot. And that those holes are worth approaching and not dodged the best as one can manage.

Not easy days to keep going. None of this is easy. I’ve been working on this very newsletter for more than a month and while not seeking perfection nor purity it has hammered me. Its not a secret that I find writing all these newsletter incredibly hard bordering on the unpleasant but each comes from a deep well in me of trying to love the living world well even when such a thing seems hardly possibl.

As Catherine Bush has written “Care isn’t just sentiment; the labor of embodied actions becomes a way to unknit despair.”

And maybe that is just it. My work on this newsletter, my tending to Primal Derma and all the questions and wonderings it summons and maybe the remembering these missives might spur for you are part of the unknitting of a kind of heartbreak so that the yarn can be cast back on again but with the stitches counted fairer on the next go. That casting on of yarn requires the fibers to stretch. The Latin for “to stretch” is the verb ‘tendere’ which is the root of the words tender and attention. And maybe that is what is being asked for now too. More of that.


  1. Elizabeth on November 30, 2022 at 4:58 pm

    Gaia is not so frail as that. People are mere insects (“gnats”) on the surface of her form. Trees are closer to gods than we (gnats) could ever be, except for within our egos/ minds.
    I have watched a certain tree rot away in my yard for years…waiting, wondering…is it fully dead, now?? Just to have that very same tree spring back to life without any foreseeable reason or cause. My Magnolia tree has lived with a fungal infection for over a decade…it still blooms and fruits. I’ve had arborists come to take a look and they’ve never been overly concerned. They’ve told me stories of having seen trees actually envelope things in their surroundings (like discarded, rusty old bicycles); literally merged into the tree itself.
    An oak that was removed in my yard over 20 years ago- the soil contains roots of the tree that actively still communicate with my other plants and trees (I do small scale organic farming).
    I have seen these exact Chestnut trees “popping” up along my walks here in the south (where historically I’ve only seen them in the north).
    To quote a movie, not unlike the nuanced “what you see is not what you get” references you (and the movie Deadpool) have made; however my reference will be straightforward : “Nature finds a way”.

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