COVID-19

Sheltering in Place in Manhattan—With 18 American Chestnut Saplings

Disease and logging nearly wiped out the towering trees in the early 20th century. Now the pandemic endangers a one-man operation trying to help the species endure.

The survivors were crammed into the back of a gray Subaru that pulled up to an illegal parking spot a block down from my home just east of Ground Zero. Their savior, a Lorax-resembling retiree named Bart Chezar, had spirited them across the East River from Park Slope, Brooklyn. As he handed them over, he slipped me a bag of bagels as payment for the service I was to render. Then, looking tenderly at the fragile bunch, he whispered some parting advice: “The best way to kill them is to water them too much. The second-best way to kill them is to not water them enough.”

The clutch of saplings entrusted to my care were Castanea dentata, more commonly known as the American chestnut. Once the dominant tree in the primeval eastern forest, they were laid low in the early 20th century when a bark fungus, brought over on the trunks of imported Asian chestnut trees, infected the American species. First discovered in New York in 1904, the fungus spread rapidly, hopping tree by tree, sometimes stowing away on native oaks before shuttling on to the next chestnut. Eventually the blight spread up and down the coast and inland toward the Mississippi. In all more than three billion chestnut trees perished, roughly a quarter of all the trees that made up the greater Appalachian forest ecosystem. And these weren’t just some spindly little numbers you might ignore in a walk in the woods. They were towering, broadleaf giants, “the redwoods of the East” as Richard Powers calls them in his recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory. In addition to feeding farmers and farm animals alike, their plentiful nuts provided key sustenance for native fauna, helping bears bulk up for winter months, while their canopies gave lush grounds to insects, which in turn fed all manner of birds.

A blight-killed American chestnut in Tennessee, 1920. Photo: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Some trees with a natural genetic resistance to the blight likely existed. Chestnuts grow fast for hardwoods, and it’s not inconceivable that a subpopulation of asymptomatic survivors could have reclaimed their lost territory had we left them alone. But the chestnut had the misfortune of being subjected to a second, American-born plague: the woodsman’s axe. During the same period that the blight raged, the United States’ appetite for lumber devoured nearly 300 million acres of forest. The Great Chopping took with it chestnut and hickory, spruce and pine, and everything in between. It’s said that before European settlers arrived, it would have been possible for a squirrel to get from Maine to Missouri solely by treetop. Today that same squirrel would have to cross miles of farmer’s fields and backyards, and would probably end up dead on one of the nearly four million miles of paved roadway we’ve laid down in the past century. In the wake of all that destruction, and with arrival of more foreign pests and disease, our weakened forests are now subject to wave upon wave of other pandemics. Dutch elm, oak wilt, beech leaf disease—these different arboreal pestilences have swept across the nation and taken their toll of millions.

Existing American chestnut stumps, the sad remainders of a species that is now termed “functionally extinct,” will occasionally put out a tender shoot from their still-living root system and the resulting tree will seem as if it might survive. But after a decade or so, the blight eventually finds them and beats them back into the ground. And yet the American chestnut might just get a shot at a second act. Thanks to the work of the American Chestnut Foundation, a hybrid is emerging from a few survivors that seems to resist the blight. “Clapper,” the first “backcrossed” hybrid tree planted in the 1970s, survived 25 years before succumbing, and subsequent generations are living even longer. SUNY Syracuse has bred a promising hybrid using a gene from wheat that seems to neutralize the wasting acid generated by the blight.

For now, though, Bart Chezar is just trying to keep what endures alive. For he is truly a lover of lost creatures. Over the course of a particularly industrious retirement, he has helped start New York’s oyster restoration program, built osprey platforms along the City’s industrialized coasts, and waded into challenging urban water to replant eel grass and sargassum. 

Chestnuts, though, really seem to get him going, and he executes his Lorax-like job of speaking for the trees with diligence: 70 of the 90 Bart-sprouted trees, which he plants in partnership with the nonprofit Prospect Park Alliance, now persist in Prospect Park. He starts the process by collecting wild chestnut burs in the fall in Brooklyn mostly from a blight resistor he calls Gumby. On his roof deck, he cuts open the hard shells and collects the fertile seeds inside, finally storing them in a container in the vegetable bin of his refrigerator to winterize them. In February, he pots the seeds and puts them under a skylight on the landing of the fourth floor of his building. The seedlings emerge in a few weeks and grow up to 14 inches tall in a few more. Two months later he transfers them somewhere outside to acclimate them to local temperatures and sun for several weeks, until they're ready to go in the ground. That’s where my terrace came in.

In the past, Bart has tried to harden off the young-of-the-year on his roof, but that environment has proven too harsh. Chestnuts are a little like awkward teenagers in their early life, with broad six inch leaves too big for their spindly bodies. They are especially prone to stripping by harsh spring winds. This past year he housed one at a greenhouse at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, but the pandemic shutdown has put a hold on that option altogether. 

Gumby, the father of so many of the chestnut trees Chezar has raised and planted over the years, covered with burs. Photo: Bart Chezar

So his 18 trees that made it to early adolescence came to shelter-in-place in my Ground Zero garden—a relatively protected spot guarded by skyscrapers on all sides. As I tend them, I think of Bart’s mission. “It’s not just for ecological reasons that I do this,” he wrote me from Brooklyn. “It’s to provide a positive message to reinforce we can change things for the better. If we only did this in forests in rural areas we wouldn’t be sending this message as effectively.” In the future, Bart is hoping to get some hybrid blight-resistant seedlings from the American Chestnut Foundation (Gumby, the father of so many of his trees, at last succumbed to the blight this year). But until then, he has to work with Gumby’s children.

I’ve put the 18 seedlings between a row of arugula and a row of broccoli and will keep them until Bart can get them in the ground in Brooklyn or maybe upstate. In the meantime, Bart keeps on me, asking for height measurements and health assessments. Some of them are looking a little peaked, and Bart wants pictures and descriptions. I worry about them. I check on them as often as I can. What else is there to do during these dreary, friendless days? I hope they make it until summer when maybe we’ll all finally be able to venture out.

Until then, I’ll let Dr. Suess’s words guide me as I tend to these American truffula:

Treat it with care.
Give it clean water.
And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest.
Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.

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