There’s been a lot of talk about reviving the American chestnut tree over the past few years. An article about it came across my Twitter feed a few days ago and got me thinking about the following entry in Roy Clifton Parris’s memoir.
In the old days, there were a great many American chestnut trees growing in the mountains of North Carolina. They often grew quite large; they might be as far or further through the trunk than the distance between the front doors of a modern automobile.
The wood of this tree made good fence posts as it lasted well in the ground, but boy, it sure did pop, crackle, and throw sparks when it was burned.
One of my mother’s brothers, who was sort of sassy and not very religious, used to say that when he died, he wanted to be buried in a chestnut wood coffin so he could go through hell popping, cracking, and throwing sparks.
Chestnut wood was used to make paper, and its extracts were used to tan leather.
The best thing about the American chestnut was not the wood – it was the nuts, CHESTNUTS. And boy, were they good to eat.
These nuts grew up to three in a thorny burr. After cool weather came in the fall of the year, the burrs opened up, allowing the nuts to fall to the ground so the ground might be almost covered by nuts. The nuts had a sweet flavor and were good eaten fresh, boiled, or roasted.
A man could rake up and pick about two to four bushels of the American chestnuts in a single day. The nuts kept well and lasted a long time, either raw, boiled, or roasted.
My grandma made a sort of bread dressing from the boiled nuts for use with ham, chicken, turkey, or other such foods. I think that dressing was by far the best I have ever tasted.
Back then, people allowed their hogs and cattle to run loose in the mountains. Each owner identified his animals by the brand in their hides or the cut made in their ears. These brands and marks were registered at the courthouse.
Hogs got fat eating chestnuts and were in great shape come hog-killing time when the weather got cold enough so the meat wouldn’t spoil. Ham from one of those chestnut fattened hogs was sweeter and better than any I have ever eaten.
The woods were full of squirrels, wild turkeys, and bears. They liked to eat chestnuts and made good eating themselves. My grandpa always kept guns to hunt these animals for food.
These were good times to live, but they were not to last. About 1930, a shipment of nursery plants from one of the Far East countries came into this country through Boston Harbor. Those plants carried the fungus that was to become known as the chestnut blight.
This wind carried the fungus from place to place, and whenever it came to a chestnut tree, it killed it. The fungus spread southward and finally reached the North Carolina mountains.
Today in 1978, it is hard to find even a green sprout from the roots of one of the American chestnut trees. The great chestnut trees are all gone now, and man lost much with their passing.– Roy Clifton Parris, 1978
I grew up on tales of the majestic American chestnut tree. Many of my Western North Carolina ancestors and relatives made a living in the logging industry.
John, pictured above with his wife, was Mamaw Cochran‘s first cousin. In the photo, they grasp hands over a small felled chestnut. The pic was probably taken sometime in the 19-teens.
Mamaw and Papaw were born in the 1920s. Both of them remembered the giants lording over Appalachian forests.
Sometimes, they talked about foraging for chestnuts as kids. And they both remembered their mamas making chestnut dressing for dinner.
I never had the pleasure of experiencing those things for myself. The chestnut blight wiped out the remaining trees by the 1950s.
Mamaw and Papaw would’ve given anything to carry on those traditions with me and my cousins.
They would be in love with the possibility that science could bring their beloved giants back. They’d be all for it.
So am I.
Even if I can’t experience it for myself. I’d love for my grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be able to breathe new life into an old tradition.