December 10, 2014

Chestnuts......

..... when I was a little boy I grew up listening to the tales of my Appalachian grandparents...... they'd talk of endless game in the forest, spending the summers out away from the farm roaming the mountains.... camping, fishing, and hunting..... taking with them only a sack of flour, a poke of salt, a bedroll, and a cloth sack full of coffee....... everything else that they needed could be provided by the mountains...... medicine, protein, fruits, and nuts....... they knew how to live off of the land a hundred years ago - and they did....... happily......

..... earlier this month I read an article that absolutely blew me away....... it struck at the core of the stories that I had grown up on...... and it made me appreciate the smaller things that surround us each day that we take for granted........

..... The Appalachian region stretches from western Pennsylvania all the way south to the edge of northern Alabama...... an enormous area comprising millions of square acres of hardwood forest..... for centuries the southern area had been the home of all branches of my family...... western North Carolina, western Virginia, northern Georgia, and southeastern Tennessee..... the earliest ancestor in the area was Joshua Whitaker in the early 1730s.... the latest was my namesake's line who was in Rutherford County, North Carolina in 1755.......

..... anyway, back to my point....... I was awestruck by a line in the scholarly article that I read....... it stated, "with the death of the chestnut, an entire world did die, eliminating subsistence practices that had been viable in the Appalachian Mountains for more than four centuries.".......... preceding this are these lines for your amazement...... "In many ways, the death of the American chestnut symbolized the end of a waning, albeit arguably vital, subsistence culture in the Appalachians. The loss of the tree no doubt gave additional advantage to the forces of industrialization that were gaining a stronger and stronger foothold on the regional and local economy. No longer to range hogs and cattle in the woodland commons, trap fish in the free-flowing streams, or gather chestnuts on the hillsides, the rural mountaineer increasingly looked to the Milltown and urban center for economic salvation. The environmental abuse of the mountains, along with their permanent removal from the rational land base, made it extremely difficulty for mountaineers to continue a semi-agrarian, and intimately forest-dependent, way of life."

....... let that sink in for a moment and remember your history......... see, the American chestnut tree made up just over 20 percent of all the forest in Appalachia for generations and generations........ Indians feasted on the nuts for millennia before whites arrived...... bear, deer, squirrel, and all manner of other wildlife gorged themselves on stocks of chestnuts that would literally cover the ground for hundreds of acres five inches deep..... once white settlers arrived they would turn their hogs out into the mountains and let them graze on the natural bounty before the cold-weather hog-killing season arrived........ and as early as 1860 the whole east coast knew of the superior quality of Virginia Ham and cured ham from Tennessee and Kentucky for that very reason....... hey, feed a hog all winger on wild chestnuts and how can it NOT taste fabulous?......

.... but in 1904 a fellow in New York imported a Chinese ornamental chestnut tree for his horticulture business....... and it was infected with a fungus that the Chinese chestnut is immune to but the American chestnut was not...... the result was that the disease began to spread...... south and south and south........ 4 million chestnut trees, many with a diameter of 12 feet or more, were slowly dying where they stood along the mountain ridges and valleys...... the destruction was total and complete....... and by 1940 there were no American chestnut trees east of the Mississippi river..... the blight had taken them all and left only grey, sun bleached skeletons of once great chestnut trees......... the logging industry was crippled....... but the mountaineers?....... they could no longer continue to live as their ancestors - my ancestors - had done for 350 years....... the life of the self-sufficient yeoman farmer who milked his own cows, grew his own vegetables, hunted his daily venison, harvested the mountain honey for sugar, and grist his own meager corn meal for bread were gone.......

.... with the removal of that tree from the environment, a way of life that had existed for 400 years was no longer feasible.... they could no longer count on the protein from the chestnuts as a boost to their mainly vegetarian diets..... their livestock could not graze on the natural bounty of the nuts...... they could no longer gather nuts from the mountainside and wander to town to trade them for money with which to buy "school shoes" once a year....

.... when that tree died, so did their hope of ever staying in the mountains....... and thusly, they moved down and into the cities....... I find the entire tiny aspect of American History absolutely fascinating.....

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