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.)