Gene Chague: Hope springs eternal for the American Chestnut tree
While leaving downtown Stockbridge, heading south on Route 7, on the left there you will see a wooden sign the shape and color of an American Chestnut tree leaf. It was designed by Craig Moffatt of Stockbridge. If you pull into the nearby driveway, you will see a commemorative rock honoring the late Peter Berle of Great Barrington who had a lot to do with the acquisition of the land. Then you will come upon a kiosk made of chestnut wood and which contains samples of chestnut branches and bark. Eventually, there will be a bench there which will also be made out of chestnut.
While at the kiosk, pick up a flyer developed by The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) and read about how the chestnut was one of the most important trees in the forests of the Eastern United States. The trees grew up to 100 feet tall and were a major source of lumber and food for wildlife and families. In the 19th century, loaded wagons of chestnuts were sent to major cities to sell at Christmastime.
Then the blight struck in the early 1900s. The blight is a fungus to which our native chestnuts have very little resistance. By 1950, approximately 4 billion trees had been destroyed, encompassing 188 million acres of forestland (twice the size of Montana). It was known as the largest ecological disaster of the 20th century.
Moffatt feels that one reason we lost the turkey population in the early 20th century was because we lost the American chestnut trees which provided food for them. Once the chestnuts died out, there was a lot of dead space and a void remained until the oaks and cherries eventually moved in.
Amazingly, after all these years, American Chestnut saplings are still sprouting in our woods. They grow to about 50 feet, inevitably get the blight and die, only to have suckers shoot up from the stumps and seeds again. Its leaf looks like a beech leaf but different in the sense that it has a scalloped edge.
In 1983, TACF was founded with the mission to restore the American Chestnut to its historic range. State chapters developed a sophisticated set of more than 300 chestnut breeding orchards which incorporate blight resistance with a broad range of local genetic diversity from surviving chestnuts to develop trees adapted for reintroduction into local woodlands. You are parked in such an orchard and Craig Moffatt is in charge of it.
Back in the early 1970s the nine-acre parcel went on the market and the Laurel Hill Society and Stockbridge Land Trust bought it. The title is owned by Laurel Hill Society, and the Land Trust owns the conservation easement. It is public property. The land slopes down to Kampoosa Swamp where Moffatt has made a picnic table and plans to make another. Agawam Brook, which flows out of Agawam Pond, crosses the property near the table and it is a good canoe/kayak launch area. Paddlers can go downstream, portage over a beaver dam and head upstream on Konkapot Brook to almost behind Monument Mountain Regional High School, or go downstream to the Housatonic River.
Moffatt, with the help of local contractors and volunteers, has been clearing off some of the land with the intent of making it a park.
They have planted two hybrid Valley Forge Elms (American Elm) at each entrance. Moffatt has done a lot of work already but needs much more help and funding to complete the project.
Perhaps the most exciting part is the chestnut tree orchard which he has established. Some 480 nuts were planted, each with a computer number. There were 4 different types planted; a control group which was a pure American nut, a pure Chinese nut which is what they crossed with, and the first cross (American Chestnuts can cross with Chinese Chestnuts which don't get the blight). All the rest of the nuts were the hybrid of 15 16 American and 1 16 Chinese. (When the initial American-Chinese cross had grown, it was back crossed to the mother American Chestnut. That produced a nut which grew and was again back crossed to the mother American Chestnut. This process happened repeatedly until they had the 15 16 American-Chinese tree.)
When they get big enough, TACF will infect all of the trees in the nursery with the blight and wait a couple of years. The 2 or 3 trees that have the least amount of blight damage will be the ones they save and cross with two of the 15 16 hybrid trees to get a higher percentage of American Chestnut. The rest will be cut down and burned. After crossing them and they start producing nuts, the site will be turned into a seed orchard.
The Stockbridge Land Trust signed a germ plasm agreement with TACF who owns the trees. The land trust is just the care taker of the trees and cannot gain any monetary benefits from proceeds from them. Eventually there will be a whole other program to gradually get the trees into climax forests in our area.
Incidentally, according to Moffatt, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem about the spreading chestnut tree under which the Village Smithy stood was probably a Horse Chestnut which was planted as a town tree and does not look like the American. The American Chestnut was a woodland tree.
Someday, perhaps there will be another memorial rock there honoring Moffatt for all of the work that he has done on this project over the years.
This Saturday from 9:30-11 a.m., the Berkshire Hatchery Foundation will have a kid's fishing derby at the Lower Pond. Call (413) 528-9761 to reserve a spot.
Phone/fax: (413) 637-1818.
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