January 24, 2013

National Calamities

This January the Connecticut Horticultural Society had Eric Rutkow come to talk to us about two great tragedies that occurred in the last century -- the complete loss of the American chestnut tree and the near elimination of the American elm.
Illustration by The Heads of State
from an article in Bloomberg Businessweek

I think the audience was disappointed that he did not talk about horticultural restoration. The gardeners in the group wanted to hear about new resistant cultivars, replacement trees that look almost the same, where to buy them and how fast they grow.

The native advocates were disappointed that he did not belabor the outrage of the devastation and use it to rant about current introduced alien pests.

But his talk was not about cultivating chestnuts or elms, it was entirely about the development of two national catastrophes and how the American government reacted.

I thought it was a fascinating history tour.

Eric Rutkow is a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, and worked as an environmental lawyer.  He is pursuing a doctorate in American history at Yale. He is the author of American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation.

It's a history of the exploitation of our forests pitted against naive celebration and impassioned conservation as our nation grew, as this very good book review states. The reviewer points out that wood was our original energy addiction.

Eric focused his talk on the rise and fall of two trees that most defined us as a nation.

The breadth of the chestnut in American culture can not be comprehended today. Not only were the eastern forests completely dominated by this beautiful tree, but the expanding industrial economy of the 1800s was based on its wood in every facet as furniture, tools, vast miles of railroad ties, electric poles, timber, endless rows of fencing, daily implements. Cradles were made of chestnut. Coffins were too. Chestnuts were food for wildlife and for humans.

In the 1800s, they say, a squirrel could travel from Georgia to Maine leaping from chestnut tree to chestnut tree without ever hitting the ground, and humans touched or used or ate chestnut products every day of their lives.

But in the 1900s the trees were gone. All gone. Billions of them, harvested for a growing nation at first, then killed outright in only a few years by an introduced fungus that still kills re-sprouted chestnuts today.
An archival photo of a now-rare American chestnut, Castanea dentata
(American Chestnut Foundation)

Eric talked about the government commissions that tried to figure out what was happening and didn't know how to react, but tried, with quarantines and isolation and inoculation programs and targeted controls. They simply couldn't imagine anything like a total collapse of billions of trees.  Millions of dollars of public money were spent and none of the efforts worked.

Elm trees, Ulmus americana, were not used commercially, but became highly valued ornamental trees in cities all over the east in the 1800s. Huge monocultures of elm trees lined streets and came to symbolize what America looked like. Like chestnuts, they were a defining cultural icon.

Elm disease rampaged through planted landscapes in the mid 1900s just as the government was losing the battle with the forest chestnuts. The public debate was difficult, no one wanted to waste more money, but now, because of the chestnuts, the nation could imagine a total die off of all the elms. That simply could not be allowed.
Archival photo of Ulmus americana in 1914 (from Wikimedia)

One of the eye openers in Eric's talk was the program of DDT spraying that was used to eradicate the bark beetles that carried the elm fungus. They sprayed DDT in the 1950s -- from airplanes, from big hoses attached to tanker trucks cruising city streets. They drenched the air and the streets and neighborhoods with it. Can you believe it now? But it seemed so effective and so right to do at the time.

That stopped with the ban of DDT, and other methods are used now to inoculate the few elms that do remain.  Isolating them (there are no long arching avenues of shady elms in a row any more) has helped.

A history lesson aimed at a gardening audience may have been a bit of a miss. There were no recommendations for planting, no growing advice, no helpful sourcing tips, no pictures of fall color or spring buds.

But the history of a nation facing two resource calamities was fascinating (and timely), and the book is a great read. I thought it was a total hit.





(Kudos to the Connecticut Horticultural Society. The program of speakers in recent years has been excellent. We're lucky gardeners here.)

37 comments:

  1. Nice review, Laurrie, about important issues. On wood as the original energy addiction: It continues today, with wood-burning boilers and stoves and fireplaces that pollute air to the point of making it dangerous. Just one more reason to find sustainable forms of energy.

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    1. P.S. Putting our money where my mouth is, we converted two wood-burning fireplaces to gas.

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    2. Lee, can you imagine a time when every house burned wood all day? In New England in the early 1800s the forests were completely denuded all up and down the east coast, for building and for firewood!

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  2. Laurrie, interesting and timely lecture! The history of chestnut and elm in American forests is very revealing.
    Several years ago we lost bird cherry tree in the park because of the large number of insects and aphids.

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    1. Nadezda, it is awful to see such devastation of an entire species, especially when they are forest trees or the trees that shade the parks and landscapes.

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  3. Thank you for such a well thought out and comprehensive review of the lecture.

    I used to try and get to a few CHS meetings every year but have fallen out of the habit. Maybe I should check the schedule and put a few dates in my calendar. If I plan far enough in advance, I can usually squeeze in an early dinner at the Pond House Cafe.

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    1. Sue, I think the quality of the speakers has been great lately, and worth a mid-week night out. Especially with a Pond House dinner before hand. Maybe I'll see you at one of the talks coming up!

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  4. I knew about the chestnut tree die-off but I didn't know about the elm. I love history. I'm thinking I will check out that book, it sounds fascinating.

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    1. Alison, I'm glad to put you on to a good history read!

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  5. I'm definitely checking out this one. Thanks for the recap!

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  6. Amazing how our world has changed. It makes me wonder what will be left. I can't even watch the show about Loggers logging those huse never to be grown again trees out west. Makes me ill to think about it. This book sounds like a good read. Thanks for the heads up.

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    1. Lisa, the emerald ash borer and the pine bark beetle out west are our current tree calamities, and of course we still harvest so many trees. It does makes us wonder what will be here in the future.

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  7. It's silly, but I find it hard not to have a personal sense of loss when I think about the chestnuts and elms. And now the ash trees! In Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver talks about how the possibility of finding resistant strains of chestnuts was lost because landowners rushed out and cut down their trees while they were healthy and the wood was at peak price. I wonder if Rutkow mentions that.

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    1. Jason, that highlights how people viewed chestnuts in an economy so dependent on them --- they were assets worth cash, but only if living and healthy. We look at them so differently now. I'll have to get Prodigal Summer, I like Kingsolver but haven't read that one.

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  8. Well geneics to the resue all wwe have now is the hope they can make a resistant tree and hope for the bes

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    1. Sharon, They have been working on resistant chestnuts for years, but are still not there. There are some resistant elms, but they don't have the same graceful vase form as the original ones. A long way to go yet.

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  9. I wish I'd been there to hear it. I had a massive chestnut tree in my backyard at my house in upstate NY. The house was built in 1895 and the tree was massive. It had to have been around 100 yrs old or so. Maybe it wasn't a chestnut? But it sure looked like one. It dropped spikey green balls that my kids loved to throw at each other. My zelkova is the closest I'll ever come to an elm.

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    1. Tammy, how wonderful to have lived under the shade of a big chestnut at one point! When my kids were small we moved to a house that still had three towering elms shading it. All three were gone the year after we moved in, they all got Dutch elm disease at once. I still think how sad it was when they were gone.

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  10. Thanks for a very interesting post. We have lots of chestnuts coming up from roots around our cabin in western NC but, as you mentioned, they never come close to maturing. Now the hemlocks are all dying due to the wooly adelgid, another great loss.

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    1. Bill, the fungus spores are not spread to chestnuts by beetles, so there is no insect vector that could be eliminated --- the spores simply stay in the soil and blow about by the gazillion in the air, and chestnuts are constantly re-exposed to them. The sprouts come up but the spores are still there and each new sapling dies off. So sad.

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  11. Our 1st/2nd grade school kids go on a field trip to Wadsworth Falls State Park each year and one of the highlights for me was the outdoor ed teacher explaining the demise of the Chestnut tree and showing us several babies who continue to sprout, grow, die and resprout. Amazing the trees roots are ok and they still try to grow. The teacher explained to the kids how important this tree was and why it was such a loss. Maybe one day the sprouts will grow-it's amazing they are still trying.

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    1. Diane, I am glad to hear that this topic is so well demonstrated to grade schoolers. What a great lesson for them and I love that they are out of the classroom and in nature learning all about this.

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  12. Such an interesting post, I don't know a lot about the history of the trees of North America and they were and are so important to us. Thanks, I will definitely check out this book.

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    1. Rosemary, I'm glad this inspired you to go read more!

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  13. I find it rather sad that the gardeners at the talk seem to have missed the point. We need to look back at our mistakes, know them and learn from them. This isn't just about missing trees but why they are missing, the importance of native plants and insects. Gardeners need to educate themselves before running off to plant the latest trendy plant.

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    1. Marguerite, the Hort Society is doing a good job bringing education on all topics to this group. This history was a great foundation for more talks on actually bringing back resistant varieties of elm and chestnut. I do want to hear about those efforts too at some point.

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  14. Great post, Laurrie. We had beautiful, beautiful trees here in Stonington (forget the name of the street) and it was a joy to drive or run down that street in the summer with that canopy. Three or four years ago, too many of those trees were removed because they were dead. Such a shame.... and yes! The American Elm is what I think of when I think of my youth. Dick, Jane, Spot on Maple Street with American Elms in every diagram!

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    1. Wendy, the elms certainly were iconic all over the east. We had three beauties shading our house in West Hartford, but of course they succumbed before my kids could even form memories of them. Too sad.

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  15. It sounds fascinating. I could imagine other species of plants becoming endangered, with the government still unsure of what to do. Unfortunately, we gardeners must learn to adjust, although it would have been wonderful to have seen these trees in their prime.

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    1. HolleyGarden, that is the one thing I can't imagine-- how these trees looked in their prime and how they symbolized America so completely.

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  16. I can't even imagine all of the chestnut trees. They must have been such a sight all in bloom.

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    1. Sweetbahy, I think they were a sight in all seasons, but certainly in bloom. They dominated the eastern forests, a third of all trees were chestnuts, and they towered over everything else. Oh my.

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  17. Thanks for the report from the CHS meeting ... I'm sorry I could not attend.

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    1. Joene, it was pretty sparsely attended. I think the January date and the topic did not draw a lot of people.

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  18. As an arborist I must say this is an AWESOME post! Very informative. I am very interested in reading Eric's book. Thank you for letting us know about it.
    Sad to say, I think the next chapter in this unfolding story of tree decline will be the Ash trees ( perhaps all species). The Emerald Ash Borer is spreading fast and killing thousands of Ash trees in it's wake.

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    1. Forest Keeper, I knew a topic like this would interest a professional arborist! I did think Eric would go on to talk about impending current catastrophes like ash trees and the pines out west, but he kept his talk to history.

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