Most visible in the far distance is the time-smoothed monadnock of Pilot Mountain, so called in the languages of all who have inhabited this place because it can be seen from miles around in every direction. It is 30 miles or so distant from where I stand on the edge of the ancient remains of one of the world’s great mountain chains, rising up from the rolling hills of the former tobacco country, which, for a far briefer time, also contributed to the character of this place.
Pilot is the most prominent feature of the Sauratown range, an ‘orphaned’ group of high, rolling hills and exposed bands of sandstone rising over the piedmont, seemingly spun off from the much greater mass of the Appalachians. But the enormous resolution of these geologic timescales dwarfs the faculties of my all-too-human mind as it drowns in the depths of millennia that have shaped this landscape.
Something is missing here, though, and its absence is encoded into the landscape it used to dominate: the chestnut trees. Once they were so prolific in this place that, when seen from a distance, their white catkins blooming in spring could be mistaken for late snow on these mountain slopes. They are gone now – for all intents and purposes, extinct.
The American chestnut, once known as ‘the redwood of the east’, has almost entirely disappeared since the chestnut blight struck the United States in 1904. First identified in the New York Zoological Park in the Bronx, the blight moved quickly through the native range of this magnificent tree, which originally stretched up and down the eastern US, from Maine to Mississippi. The blight, a fungal pathogen otherwise known as Cryphonectria parasitica, likely arrived on imported Asian chestnut stock brought over from Japan. Native American chestnut trees had no previous exposure to this fungal pathogen, and hence no natural immune resistance.
Efforts were made to contain the blight – in some cases, cutting down vast stands of infected trees – but this only hastened the spread of the disease and lessened the chances for resistance to emerge. Owing to this and other factors the blight spread remarkably fast, covering up to 60 miles a year and destroying entire forests. According to Susan Freinkel, author of American Chestnut, ‘within 40 years it had swept across 220 million acres, and killed some four billion trees.’
Today, a few isolated American chestnuts live on. Freinkel mentions one still extant at an undisclosed location among its native range in Virginia. Many of the other remaining adult trees can be found in the upper Midwest states, transplanted by settlers during the westward expansion of the 19th century, like the grove in Iowa described in Richard Powers’ beautiful novel The Overstory. Here in North Carolina, amidst the stumps of these vanished giants, new shoots emerge, coppice-like, as the organism hangs on to life, but these will never reach maturity. All of these trees – ‘alive’ for the time being – will in time succumb to the blight.
Before the blight struck in the early 20th century, this species of tree accounted for over 25% of the forest in central Appalachia. A fixture of the landscape remarkable for its height and majesty, the American chestnut was also a key species in the biome, a primary source of food for animals as well as humans. The nuts of the tree served as a food source that could be eaten directly by people or used to feed pigs and turkeys. A favourite holiday treat, they were sold by the wagonload to vendors working the streets of Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York while providing the harvesters with a seasonal cash income. Pigs fed on the nuts during mast years and grew so fat they could easily be contained in the forest within low walls built for the purpose. For these communities, the American chestnut was literally a tree of life.
The wood of the American chestnut was as much prized for its natural rot resistance as its tendency to grow remarkably straight. It was an obvious first choice for railroad ties and telegraph and telephone poles as the US expanded both geographically and technologically. Today, second-hand wormy chestnut, once used to build tobacco sheds and barns, is a material much prized by carpenters and craftspeople. Many of the split-rail fences that line the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile Depression-era scenic motorway, are made of chestnut. The men who built this road that runs along the mountaintops of Virginia and North Carolina would have had an ample supply of lumber for the task, with stands of dead or dying chestnut lying everywhere in their path.
While there may be a few people alive today who remember what it was like before the chestnuts died off, many written accounts from throughout Appalachia describe communities and ways of life that vanished along with the trees. One anecdote comes to mind, reported by a woman who lived in a mountain community of the time whose husband went to work on a road crew building the Blue Ridge Parkway. For the first time, her family could afford to buy canned goods for food with the money he earned on that project rather than hunting, foraging, and otherwise living off the land that had previously sustained them. However, they soon developed nutritional deficiencies from the change in diet that ‘progress’ had afforded them.
Historian Steven Stoll, in a work titled Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, writes extensively on the cultural, political and economic history of the indigenous and early mountaineer communities that thrived in the isolated enclaves of these mountains. The story of Appalachia and the various peoples who have lived here is largely a chronicle of ongoing dispossession. In his book Stoll describes first the government-orchestrated removal of Native American tribes from this region, culminating with the brutal and infamous ‘Trail of Tears’ in the early 19th century, followed by the more gradual dispossession of Scots-Irish and other settlers by the moneyed Atlantic elites who went after the natural resources found on these lands – abundant quantities of timber and coal that became accessible with the advent of railroads, and in demand due to large and industrialising urban and international markets.
Perhaps most saliently however, Stoll writes of these communities: ‘But they were never poor until they lost the forest, their ecological base. This is a vast renewable fund of resources that provides spaces for fields, food for gathering, fodder for cattle and habitat for wild game. The base gives everything but costs nothing. It only needs to be taken care of within its own dynamics. Nothing else compares to the loss of this commons.’
The enclosure of the commons is a story that may have begun hundreds of years earlier in England, but it is one that is by now familiar the world over, especially to the peasants, subsistence farmers, and indigenous peoples who are so often the target of these dispossessions. Whatever the cause – whether dispossession from the land by powerful outsiders, or the catastrophic destruction of forests or biomes owing to invasive organisms – robbed of the commons that lies at the heart of the community, that ecological base that sustains us all, we are made poor. We are made refugees. We are made aliens to nature, to each other, and to ourselves.
I relocated here to the mountains of western North Carolina for many reasons, not least of which is the abundant and stunning natural beauty of the place. To an outsider such as myself – not having been born locally and too young anyway to have lived through the chestnut die-off – the forests, streams, and misty hollows are magical as ever. But my experience is just another example of what ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. Our sense of beauty and normality is conditioned and limited by the length of our human lifespan. Seen from the vantage point of a mature tree in an old-growth forest however, I would be looking out over a wasteland.
I had read about the plight of the American chestnut even before moving here. Walking in the scraggly woods around my new home, I’d often wondered whether the second- or third-growth forest surrounding me had once been home to these trees, before it was logged in the more recent past. I have never looked up in awe at the high canopy from the enormous base of one of these trees and felt in my bones the sheer weight of its presence, but just knowing of its recent absence fills me with an emotion that is difficult to articulate.
How do you describe missing something you’ve never known directly? There is a Welsh word, hiraeth, which, though very difficult to translate into English, may approximate to something like ‘grief for lost places of the past, or homesickness for a home which may have never been’, and that definition may come closest to what it is I’m feeling. Surely future generations will understand this sense of absence as they ponder the stumps, the charred remains, the holes left in their communities and cultures by the trees that sustained them – whether the African baobab, or the pinyons and pines of the American west, or any of the trees whose shade nurtured the human cultures that grew up around them. Maybe the offspring of these cultures will invent whole vocabularies to describe the vacant spaces left for them, entire languages dedicated to filling the scorching and empty air, at least, in a landscape of loss.
‘The Tree of Life’ is a universal archetype, present in some way in most world religions, myths, and wisdom traditions. Vitality, fertility, wisdom, connection, and prosperity are embodied in the common symbol of the tree. Yggdrasil, the great ash tree of Norse myth is one example, as is the banyan tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment. There are many other examples, but the one that comes most readily to my mind at the moment is the negative image of a stricken tree provided by T.S. Eliot in the first section of ‘The Waste Land’ (I. The Burial of the Dead, lines 19 – 24).
The imagery Eliot uses here – ‘roots that clutch’, ’stony rubbish’, ‘broken images’, ‘dead tree gives no shelter’ – is as much a description of his interior psychic landscape at the time as it is a depiction of the exterior physical and cultural landscape of post-World War I Europe. More broadly though, the barren and devastated scene described in the poem is in so many ways the landscape of modernity. Whether or not Eliot was aware of the literal devastation occurring in American forests as he wrote his famous poem, he was eerily prescient in foretelling the world that has since come into being.
If the Tree of Life is a symbol of the sacred and of our connection with the cosmos, what can it mean when the world’s forests are disappearing so rapidly?
And what term could be more fittingly descriptive for the world that modernity has created than wasteland? Industry, pollution, overpopulation, sprawl, consumerism, individual and corporate greed, dispossession and unchecked growth have all contributed to the geographic and environmental poverty of place that many of us now inhabit. The consequences of these human effects on the landscape are the defining conditions of the future world that is now coming into view, and they will complete the picture: drought, deforestation, extinction, infertility, famine, extreme weather, hellish heat, perpetual war.
‘What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?’
If the Tree of Life is a symbol of the sacred and of our connection with the cosmos, what can it mean when the world’s forests are disappearing so rapidly? The American chestnut, a tree that literally and figuratively sustained the communities that grew up around it, is virtually extinct. In keeping with the spirit of the Anthropocene, there are those who are working to genetically engineer a blight-resistant variant, but the damage has already been done. The communities and cultures of Appalachia, once the prime habitat of this tree, have become wastelands in so many ways – from the physical devastation of mountaintop removal mining, to the ongoing loss of native species and biological diversity, to the soul-crushing despair of drug addiction that is so prevalent here.
But ‘The Waste Land’, along with the world myths and religious archetypes upon which the poem is built, are ultimately stories of restoration and redemption. The peaches and plums in front of our house have come into bloom as I write this – early, of course, due to the changing climate – but the fragrance of their blossoms and the strong sunlight of the lengthening days is here now, even if the stunning display of chestnuts in bloom is a thing of the past. And some of the news of late makes me hopeful too: Extinction Rebellion, the youth climate strikes, talk of a Green New Deal. There is an urgency in the air that wasn’t here before – people and plants are waking up in a season of redemption and restoration. Perhaps there is still time to salvage some of the beauty that remains and to reclaim the global commons that is our sustenance and our birthright.