A story of authenticity, in a nut shell

I think that what most kids know about where chicken comes from is that somehow it appears in the store wrapped in plastic. I wonder what kids know about where Chestnuts come from. Do they form naturally in cans, jars, or plastic sleeves? Do they simply arrive at the grocer’s to be nicely arranged alongside walnuts, pecans, and pistachios? The answer, of course, is that chestnuts grow on trees, they are nuts in both the culinary and botanical sense. Technically, a nut is a fruit composed of a hard shell and a seed. Botanists also require that a nut be indehiscent, meaning that the shell does not open to release the seed. But, you correctly point out, Chestnuts are released from the burr. I can only observe that this business of botanical labeling is a bit of a lawyer’s game. While reading up on the definition of nut I discovered that many culinary nuts are actually seeds (such that Brazil nuts are seeds of a capsule while Walnuts, Pecans, and Almonds are seeds of drupes). In any case, the photo below shows a burr of a Chinese Chestnut releasing its precious contents. You may know something of the history of the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata); it was all but eradicated from the eastern U.S. by chestnut blight (a fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica) which was accidentally introduced, from imported nursery stock, around 1900. By 1940 an estimated four billion trees had been lost. Resistant varieties of Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima) were introduced and are now quite common. For nearly a century, scientists have applied the tenets of transmission genetics and of artificial selection to breed fungal resistance into stocks of remaining American Chestnut. You may check on the progress of the American Chestnut Restoration Project. By all accounts it has met with some success.

The blight resistant American Chestnuts are currently two years old and have survived their first growing season after being moved into the forest. They are approximately four feet tall. Two of the blight resistant trees flowered in this first year, a significant measure of advanced maturity. They were examined in September 2009 and the survival rate is above 90 percent. The trees appear to be healthy.

I wonder if any of you are asking Why should anyone care about a single tree species? Surely there are lots more out there. There are many answers to this question, I will offer three. The first is that the American Chestnut was here first and as such is entitled to exercise its privilege of squatter’s rights. It was not driven to the edge of extirpation by a natural infection, it was nearly lost due to the human importation of another species which harbored a deadly fungus. [Some would argue that humans are just as natural as fungi. I agree except for the little bits about ships capable of global navigation, the internal combustion engine and all the rest required to transport a pathogen across more than 5000 mile of open ocean from Asia to North America.] Through no fault of its own the endemic was attacked as a direct result of human activity. The second reason I can think of relates to the dynamics of ecosystems. I believe that we humans like to think that we know quite a bit about how ecosystems work and how they respond to perturbation. Although the science of Ecology has been recognized for more than a century, I do not believe that scientists, even those with supercomputers and algorithms, have come close to knowing how ecosystems respond when disrupted. This must be so because the lifetime of an ecosystem must be measured in thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. What can we hope to learn about the response of an ecosystem over a span of even a century? Given the uncountable and unknowable number of organisms that were dependent upon the American Chestnut, its loss must have been, is still, and will continue to be significant in ways that we cannot know or measure. Rather than wait to learn of the consequences of its loss, I suggest we would be better advised to do what is required in support of its restoration. And, finally, I think it’s important to bring the American Chestnut back for the sake of authenticity. To simply supplant one species with another is not the answer because this does not restore the forest to its original state. S. J. Gould, when writing about the various guises of authenticity, wrote … The real and the replica are effectively alike in all but our abstract knowledge of authen­ticity, yet we feel awe in the presence of bone once truly clothed in dinosaur flesh and mere interest in fiberglass of identical appearance. So, yes, lots of us Tree Hugger Environmentalists worry about losing even a single species, for the loss lessens the authentic nature of our environment. A woodland landscape populated with a suitable replacement would be a lesser woodland indeed.


20 thoughts on “A story of authenticity, in a nut shell

  1. I’ve been following TACF’s efforts with interest for a number of years now. I’m happy to report that our very own batch of TACF blight-resistant American Chestnut seedlings (apparently bred from genetic stock specific to the mid-Atlantic) have been planted around the woods on our property this year. I often think about the critical role that chestnuts played, and am excited to be taking one small step toward restoration.

    • Hey there Kirsten, what a pleasant surprise to see you in my comments section! I see you found me through Facebook – wonderful – I wonder how though? You should think about becoming a member of WordPress and then you can sign on to receive email notifications of all my posts. I’m glad you’re participating in the regrowth program. J and I tried to get some stock several years ago and, if I remember correctly, we were denied! We could never say why? Anyway, thanks very much for dropping in … hope to see your name here again shortly! D

  2. Never knew the back story on chestnuts! How strange that the Chinese version has remained and the American is gone … at least for now. Nice to hear they are trying to revive it! I think everyone has a story about chestnuts! I remember picking them up near Williston Road and loved their smooth shell. I used to keep one in my pocketbook for good luck! This is a lovely image. Love all the texture and color.

    • The Chinese form manages to hang around in spite of the fungus because it carries genes for resistance to the fungus. And, by crossing American with Chinese varieties folks hope to transfer this resistance to the American plants. The program is meeting with some success so, who knows, perhaps sometime in the next few decades the American Chestnut will make a recovery.

  3. Messing with the balance of the earth’s systems is fraught with unintended consequences. Of course every species is of value with one exception. When a species disappears, it leaves a hole that may or may not be filled. Many plants and insects, for instance, have a mutually beneficial relationship and the loss of one or the other can spell doom for the one remaining unless a substitute can fill the void quickly enough which is why we are so concerned about the disappearing Apis population. I’ve long likened the human population to the earth’s appendix. We may think it would be a calamity for the human race to disappear, but it would be the one void that the earth could experience and carry on without missing a beat. Nice closeup, by the way.

    • How right you are. But, then again, making arguments like this is like spitting into the ocean … it doesn’t seem to make one bit of difference. Perhaps, in several decades, the world will wake up. We can only hope. I’ll have to give some thought to your equation of Homo sapiens with an appendix. That implies that we, as a species, actually served a useful purpose at some point in the distant past. Sure we developed the internal combustion engine, harnessed the atom, and put a person on the Moon … but at what environmental cost. Tell me one good thing we’ve done for the environment (and not for ourselves) that hasn’t been a reaction to some other negative thing we’ve done? I can’t think of one. Where does the phrase, ” … above all else, do no harm …” come from? I think many folks attribute it to part of the Hippocratic Oath … but, apparently, that is not the case
      (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocratic_Oath). Whatever its origin … it should be part of a statement of environmental ethic. D PS: Where my Gentian?

      • I never really considered the appendix as much of an asset. Oh sure, it collects poisons, supposedly, but basically it just collects stuff and then, if you are one of the lucky ones and win the lottery, bursts. I’ve not had the good fortune yet. :mrgreen: I don’t think it performs all that important a task as I’ve not heard of anyone dying as a result of their appendix not being around to cleanse the system. Of course, I don’t read JAMA so I may have missed it. The Gentian is coming. I went out this afternoon and made a few images. I just barely arrived in time. The sun was disappearing behind the tree line at 3:30pm and those suckers were snapping shut faster than a clam … I’m just saying that, I have no idea how quickly clams really do close. But I did find a couple still open. Tomorrow. 🙂

  4. Very well said – I could not agree more! We cannot know the details of the impacts of losing ‘just one species’ so we better not tinker with the system … which is true for all changes we make to the system that had evolved over millions of years. Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan fame) has recently weighed in on the discussion on GMOs – and rejects them based on principles of uncertainty. Commentators say he does not know enough about genetics as a statistician/risk expert/ philosopher – but his argument is that you have to know such details to make that point.

    The American Chestnut looks similar to the European variety that is edible – Castanea sativa (The image BTW make it look the mouth of an alien worm out of a sci-fi movie – like the sand worms in ‘Dune’, for example). But the common chestnut you find ‘in the wild’ and in parks here is the Horse Chestnut – and it also suffering from attacks by a rather new enemy that appeared suddendly: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse-chestnut_leaf_miner. I haven’t followed this in detail but there have been EU research projects dedicated to limiting the damage from this insect – it seems to be a big problem and nearly any tree you see shows the characteristic brown stains at the leaves.

    • I haven’t read anything by Taleb (although you’ve spoken about his writing often). The point he makes is the central one here … it is better NOT to mess around with a highly complex and interdependent system. Isn’t there some application of Chaos Theory here … when one attempts to predict the outcome of perturbations from several different start points? D

  5. Wow, that’s such an intimate and intense photo … stunning David. And the post is full of heartfelt wisdom. As a species we don’t have a great track record at preserving species … only regretting the losses once it’s almost too late! Do you get Horse chestnuts over in the States? Those are the ones which filled my childhood!

    • As far as I know, Aesculus hippocastanum (Horse Chestnut) isn’t a chestnut at all … but a distant relative of the true Chestnuts! The seeds are somewhat poisonous, though certain extracts are used for medicinal purposes. Is this the tree (Conker Tree) that you are remembering? Perhaps you climbed them, or pretended they were houses? The grow very large apparently. You didn’t eat the seeds of these things … did you?

  6. Great post. Man’s intervention can be foolish and desperately sad. It’s good to hear that the restoration project is having some success though. Beautiful photograph too.

  7. Reading the start of the post I was reminded of an exchange I had with the daughter of a good friend of mine around 20 years ago when she was around 3. She insisted that while chicken came from a farm, chicken nuggets were in no way related to the farm and, instead, were totally produced “at a factory.” If was, of course, no use to try and move her from that position at the time. I do believe she has since come around somewhat, though. Speaking of the kind of environmentalists who’d do anything for the environment – except, of course, try and learn about it at a level at least slightly beyond the obvious – I am always struck by how often their deeds are essentially an exercise in vanity. They just want to be seen as championing a cause that makes them look good, rather than taking on the harder problems that lack simple solutions. Each year, for example, my province is visited by rich, famous personalities along with significant paparazzi types. They say they are here to stop the slaughter of baby seals by clubbing. The fact is, though, that the practice has been banned since 1987; a fact that the protesters seem unaware of. Not that I’m in favour of or against anything to the point of getting emotional about it, mind you. To me it’s an issue of environmental stewardship best approached rationally with input all around – from harvesters, biologists, government officials and, of course informed environmentalists.

    • You got it in one. Most folks prefer to leave environmental stewardship at the door … unwilling to participate … which must include personal sacrifice. If the sacrifice means biking to work rather than driving, so be it. If it means purchasing locally, so be it. If it means lowering the thermostat, so be it. The difficulty has always been that folks like to proclaim the banner of environmentalism … as long as someone else is doing with less. Far be it from the majority of twenty-somethings to give up their 21st century conveniences, which are numerous. If everyone simply contributed a little bit … those many millions of very little bits would go a long, long, way to solving many of our environmental issues. This goes for governments, everywhere, as well. It’s all a matter of education, as you have pointed out elsewhere. Perhaps in another several decades the tides will turn, for the better. (Heavy sigh) D

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