Appalachia’s Once and Future King

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Chestnut sprouting from the base of a dead trunk, Appalachian Trail

The story of the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) is a tale of tragedy and endurance.  Found in every state east of the Mississippi, the chestnut dominated the mountains and uplands of the Appalachians; some estimate one in four mountain hardwood trees were chestnuts.  It was a keystone species of its ecosystem. The prodigious supply of nuts provided food for wildlife and woodsmen alike, and an economic boon for mountain folk (sold nationwide, and especially popular at Christmas).  Chestnut wood was strong and rot resistant, an ideal material for rail fence, bridge and cabin. The fallen leaves decomposed into nutrient-rich humus to build up the thin mountain soils.  The mighty American chestnut was the king of the mountains.

But in 1904, a Japanese bark fungus turned up in New York City.  Called the “chestnut blight,” the pathogen infects the cambium, forming cankers and eventually girdling the tree.  The spores travel by wind, animal, or automobile, and by around 1950 the disease had swept the entire range, killing nearly every mature tree.  Only few survivors , outliers of the tree’s normal range,  still stand tall.  Yet the species  persists  in hill and hollow to this day. When stressed, the chestnut reacts by coppicing – sending up shoots from the roots or stump.  These new saplings from old roots rise up, but seldom grow more than a few inches in diameter before the blight strikes them down again. But the roots stir and twigs rise once more. So the cycle continues.

Last weekend, I drove a short ways along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic road which winds through the mountains in North Carolina and Virginia.  Along the way there are many overlooks where one can park and enjoy the vistas.  Nature being loathe to stand still, the vistas are eventually screened as saplings reach skyward.  At one of these I saw where, two or three years previously, the Park Service chainsawed a swath of trunks that threatened the view.   At the bottom of the steep limb-strewn clearing, among the bottles, cans and other human detritus, a few sprigs of a chestnut tree clung to life.  Construction of the Parkway coincided with the blight’s appearance in North Carolina, so it is possible this individual was cut by the road crew before the fungus got to work on it.  Of course, the blight felled it each time it resprouted since then.

There are many small, aged survivors scattered throughout the eastern highlands, remnants of the 3-4 billion trees that dominated the  hill-mantling forests prior to the 20th century.  I will not see their ascendance in my lifetime, but hope they will one day take back their place as kings of the forest.

For More Information:

Follow the links given in the wiki page for American chestnut.

Here is a presentation on efforts to restore the American chestnut.

The Saga of the American Chestnut

Chestnut below the Blue Ridge Parkway

A Different Shore

In my childhood – all my life, really – the shore was about sand.  Where land met sea, you would find the white of powdery quartz or the orange of crushed shells.   Some were good for dribbled  towers on the featureless shore, and others occasionally offered up sand-dollars or interesting bits of flotsam.

My recent trip to Maine showed me a coastline in rawer form. Schoodic shore

In July I spent a few days on the Schoodic (SKU-dik) Peninsula, where the crashing of the waves sounded like the sighing of wind through my open window at night.  I spent one late afternoon alone on the rocks, watching and listening. Behind me, stunted trees and herbs clung tenaciously to a mantle of dirt only a few inches thick.   Before me,  waves crashed  against the cracked, ancient granite.  It made me think of troops advancing in human waves, charging up the slope before faltering and falling back, only to regroup and charge forth again.

Closer to the huddled vegetation, I saw sharp demarcation in the stone, as a dike of basalt cut through the granite.  A young geologist could have a fine time following the lines of dark stone slashing the open ground of Schoodic, to be fractured and worn down, leaving wide trenches in the harder granite.schoodic basalt

The crashing waves were soothing, but some animal part of me also watched with dread.  This wasn’t the domesticated water of a swimming pool; if given a chance, those powerful, frigid waves would mindlessly sweep you away, break you against stone, rob  you of air, or drain your body of all warmth.   But that’s the way of Nature, isn’t it?  Tornados, volcanoes, cliffside vistas, grizzly bears – we can appreciate the majesty of Nature, but Nature isn’t obliged to return the favor.

I wonder how my thoughts would have turned had there been a horizon for the sun to sink into, and distant islands and coastline to observe.  But the world was confined to a grey dome encompassing spruces, stone, and sea.shiny-jasper-rocks.jpg

On a different day (but no less grey),  my guides drove me far up the coast to a cove south of Machiasport to visit Jasper Beach.  Again, this shoreline was all stone, but stone that had been broken  down and placed in a natural rock tumbler for  a geological moment.  The beach drops down in a series of tiers to the water’s edge, where stones –from  hand-sized cobbles to pebbles smaller than your pinky-nail – are rounded and polished against each other by wave action.   The waves gently rolled in, blunting their power by filling the spaces between billions of stones.  When the water withdraws, the air fills with a sizzling hiss, like a giant rain stick.   It was like a half-mile ASMR trap. I could have spent hours poring over the limitless variety of stones.  Chris Mackowski does more justice to the beach than I can.stone-and-water.jpg

The final stop of the tour was a beach that combined the previous two and added some extra elements.  Quoddy Head State Park is as far up the coast as you can get and still be in the US, and the easternmost point in the US.  The fog broke briefly, and I could just see a bit of Canada.  From the parking area,  I took stairs down the cliff face to the beach.  It sported some cobbles, some bedrock, and some sand – with lots of seaweed mixed in.  There were small columns of rocks here and there, cairns left by visitors.  I didn’t add to them, but understand the impulse.  I stood on a stone surrounded by the lapping low tide, so I could tell friends I was the furthest I could go in the US without swimming.quoddy-point.jpg

These beaches were new experiences for me.  I’m back in the late summer roast that is south Georgia.  But as I write this, the recording I made of  the incoming tide making war on Schoodic Point is playing in the background.


Autumn sassafras

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a small-to-medium tree found from east Texas to Maine.   Called by some the “only native spice of America,” the leaves are dried and ground to make a seasoning, first by the Choctaw and later in Louisiana Creole cuisine — where it is known as filé powder.

Various parts of the plant were long used for medicinal purposes by natives, settlers, and even in recent times.  In the 17th century, it was second only to tobacco as the top export from the Americas, and was used in Europe for scenting perfumes and soaps, and as a cure-all (which, as such things go, severely thinned the species on the landscape).   Sassafras tea, tonics and root beer are still imbibed.  These days there are many claims of health benefits as well as potential risks, and properties vary by season and part of the plant, so do your research before collecting and consuming (It is my understanding that sassafras oil contains carcinogens and its use is restricted by the FDA).

Humans aren’t the only ones to consume sassafras. Various wildlife browse sassafras in limited quantities, but many birds consume the drupes.

These trees rarely get above about 60 feet tall.  However, there is a specimen in Kentucky that measures over 100 feet, with a circumference of 21 feet.


The foliage is particularly interesting.  Each tree, and indeed each branch, will likely have three distinct leaf shapes: single lobed, mitten-shaped double lobed, and triple-lobed.  More striking to me is the bark.  I was shooting the bull with a forester who had an old grey-brown stick in the truck bed.  As we talked I idly picked it up and shaved on it with my pocketknife.  Underneath the nondescript weathered bark was an intense red color, patterned in layers and furrows.  Other specimens range from reddish-brown to orange, and can be somewhat spongy.  I’ve made some well-loved walking sticks from sassafras.

(As a complete aside, I don’t see very many staff-ready sassafras in my wanderings of the local woods.  Most are little more than sprigs before fire, woods clearing or other disturbance kills them.  When I do find them, I generally only cut one if there are already a number of stems in the vicinity.  It’s a way of protecting a species that I’d like to see more of. )   sassafras

The tree has an exotic fragrance.  I’m not good at describing smells, but I’ve heard it compared to fennel, anise or licorice.  A friend told me that he was digging into a dirt bank one hot afternoon, and he was flagging badly.  His mattock sliced into a sassafras root, and the scent – and the associations it sparked in his memory – revived him.

It’s Fawning Season

Now is the time of year when, as you wander through field or forest, you may be lucky enough to spy a reddish-brown lump peering up at you from the grass.  More likely, you’ll miss it and wander by.

In Georgia, late spring to late summer is fawning season for white-tailed deer.  A doe may give birth to one, two, or even three fawns, each weighing 4-8 pounds.  Fawns can stand soon after birth, but aren’t able to keep up with their mothers for a week or so.  Their best defense is in stealth.

For one thing, they have very little scent compared to an older whitetail. There is fawnredderenough for a doe to recognize her offspring, but not enough for her (or a coyote) to easily trail it.  Their second asset is their reddish-brown color.  That seems counterproductive until you realize that most predators don’t see well in the red range of the spectrum; like many color-blind humans, coyotes and bobcats cannot easily distinguish between red and green, so a reddish fawn in green grass is pretty unobtrusive.  Furthermore, they are dappled with white spots.  Perhaps it breaks up their visual pattern  further, or perhaps it mimics the dapples of sunlight filtering through the leaves.

But this camouflage only works if the fawn is absolutely still, even when danger is near.  A frightened fawn’s breathing becomes slow and shallow, and its heart rate plummets.  I’ve seen fawns so still I wasn’t sure they were alive; they wouldn’t move even when touched.

Does feed their fawns several times a day.  After each feeding, the fawn leaves the doe and curls up in grass, under bushes or in some other cover;  this way, the doe’s own scent won’t  draw a coyote or other predator to the fawn.  Until the mother calls for it, the fawn lays motionless and quiet, safely hidden in forest thicket, field, or even backyard — I once found a fawn hiding under my truck!

To come upon a fawn is a treat.  Unfortunately, many people who find one  assume the mother has abandoned it.  Too often, these well-meaning folks will carry the young deer home and either try to take care of it or call a zoo or nature center.  Either way, the doe has lost her fawn, and the fawn has lost any chance at a normal life.  “Rescuing” fawns that aren’t in trouble never ends well for the animal. It is very difficult to provide the right nutrition and attention for any infant, and even if the deer lives to adulthood it may lack the skills to survive in the wild.   In addition, requests for assistance with fawns overwhelm wildlife rehabilitators at this time of year, keeping them from helping animals in genuine trouble.  A couple of years ago I had to collect a fawn from someone who tried to be helpful but couldn’t support the animal.  With no rehabilitators to take it, I had to put it down.  I don’t want to have to do that again.

If you find a fawn, the best thing to do is walk away quietly.  If the animal is in a dangerous place – such as in a road or a field about to be plowed – it is okay to move it out of the way, preferably to a shady spot.  Touching a fawn briefly will not make the mother abandon it, but taking it home will!

Stepping Back to Spring

spring flowers

I drove through the Great Smoky Mountains around mid-May.  I started the uphill climb in Cherokee, North Carolina, which (at around 2000 feet above sea level) has been shed of icy mornings for about a month and a half.  I drove through a canopy of mature, deep green.    By the time I reached Newfound Gap, some 3.000 feet higher,  the days of frost weren’t nearly so distant.  Temperature drops with increase of elevation, on the order of 3-5 degrees F per 1000 feet.  So just as the greening of the land creeps northward, it also crawls up the mountains.  Here, on the ridge line that marks the divide between Tennessee and North Carolina, the new leaves were bright green.  In the Autumn, the progression will reverse, with leaves flaring and falling on the ridge before those in easterly Hendersonvile properly start to turn.  So the southern Appalachians have growing seasons as short as those of Ohio or Pennsylvania. Yet with abundant rainfall and moderate sunlight, the mountains are mantled in lush growth.creek-thumbnail.jpg

A Quick Visit to “The Wall”

I found an excuse to make it back to my old stomping grounds for a few days last week, and carved out time for an evening walk to “The Wall”, the ruins of an old stone bridge  on which are tied many memories.   We’ve called it The Wall all my life, and for me it is the focal point of the 200-acre woodland.  It is my church, it is my touchstone, and I think of it often.

On pavement, the walk from the road to the creek would have scarcely been a 3 minute stroll, not the 15 minute creeping meander it turned out to be.  Here, enfolded by forest, I feel compelled to tread quietly, to watch my steps, to look around and listen.  So much to note:  more sourwoods here than I remembered… a neighbor’s horse left its calling card on the trail… armadillos have been rooting through the leaf litter…another old shortleaf pine has fallen victim to time… a loud snort tells me a deer has spied me before I noticed it.  As the warm May air rustles the leaves far above,  I turn off the path, stopping to brush humus and leaf litter off a small fire ring laid down 30 year ago by a smooth-faced youth with a less seasoned view of the woods; then I continue downhill to the Wall.  Loose rubble fills  the space between two massive stone walls, each wide enough to walk on. I perch on the highest end stone and silently survey the land, from where the creek rounds the bend to where it fades away behind fans of leaves.   Birdsong pierces the chuckling of the water tumbling over rocks.  Last year’s tropical storm left several trees lying across the creek, but at the moment the woods are dry enough that the resurrection ferns are curled and brown.Wall snake

The photo of the rocks above isn’t from the normal angle I shoot the rocks because I wanted to include a bystander.  Look down near the base of the tree on the left.

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This fellow is a northern water snake.  He stayed put from the time I saw him as I climbed down the rocks until I left the area half an hour later.  They aren’t venomous, although they’ll bite if they feel cornered and can be aggressive in defending their territory.  I’ve never seen one of these on our land before, and when I came out the next afternoon, the snake was nowhere to be found. The woods are full of life, and you will miss most of it unless you keep quiet and alert.

When you are out and about, try stopping and see what you can see, hear what you can hear.  Be still, and Nature will come to you.

The Seven Sisters Oak

The southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) is a stately icon of the coastal South.  Exceptionally hard, heavy,  and difficult to work, the live oak was much used for ship in the days of tall ships;  Georgia oaks were used in the construction of the U.S.S Constitution, famously nicknamed “Old Ironsides.”  The live oak is so called because it retains its oval leaves throughout the winter.

Mighty tree

This spring I was fortunate enough to visit what is considered the largest southern live oak, named the Seven Sisters Oak.  This magnificent Louisiana tree bears seven sets of branches leading away from the center trunk and spreading to a mighty crown of 139 feet.  The limbs, each massive as the trunk a lesser oak, are decorated with Virginia creeper and resurrection ferns, and many bow gracefully to rest on the ground before rising skyward again.  The ancient trunk is just shy of 39 feet in circumference, and I expect the multiple trunks and the convoluted growth is part of the reason for the wide range in age estimates (from 300 to over 1,200 years).   I took a few photos, but the scale of such a tree really cannot be adequately captured except by standing under its canopy.

mighty tree 2The National Champion tree stands on private property near the shore of Lake Pontchartrain; the owners maintain and care for the majestic oak. I am grateful to them for their care and for allowing the public access to the tree.  I am also grateful to the generations who recognized the value of this legacy over the value of the timber or  cleared yard space.