a 7-generations project: restoring the American Chestnut

As the Spirit would have it, it just so happened that on Earth Day we broke ground on a unique tree planting project.

Moontree Studios Executive Director Matthew Celmer gets his hands dirty.

We are partnering with local retired forester Bruce Wakeland. If you are familiar with the Marshall-Starke region, you know of Bruce’s enormous contributions to conservation and culture in the area.

One of his biggest contributions to Marshall County was helping steward the timber management program at Mill Pond for Marshall County, prior to it’s conversion to a county park. Through carefully collected data over the decades, he showed that productive soils in our area can provide timber income in excess of typical cash rental rates for row crops (in addition to all the other things a forest provides to us and the ecosystem).

Bruce is currently working with the American Chestnut Foundation to help restore this vital native species.

Bruce adding one more tree to his count of millions planted in his lifetime.

You can visit the ACF’s website to read all about the history of the American Chestnut, a species which accounted for maybe 1 in every 5 trees in Appalachia before it was completely devastated by an imported blight (fungus). It’s a tragic tale, but one that is not yet over.

The ACF has a “3BUR” strategy to return the species to it’s role in Eastern North American ecosystems: “Breeding, Biotechnology, and Biocontrol United for Restoration Using Science to Save the American Chestnut Tree.”

Bruce took a careful look at the existing properties currently under stewardship of Ancilla Domini Sisters, Inc. and found a particular soil type that was ideal for the species. We are starting with just 6 trees to see if the location is receptive. If all goes well, we may be able to expand the trials.

Matthew working again! Affixing wire cages to a metal stake. Hopefully this is enough to keep curious cattle away.

These 6 individuals are 15/16ths American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) and 1/16th Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima), another species who evolved with the blight and has genetic defenses against it. It is hoped that through careful breeding, the resistance can be preserved while also producing a tree that is as close to the original American Chestnut genome as possible.

This conventional breeding program is supplemented with use of biotechnology to introduce a gene from wheat into the American Chestnut tree that will allow it to fend off the blight. Purdue University is involved in this effort, and it is pending approval by regulators.

I wrote last year about the idea of “seven generation stewardship” – said to be based on the Great Law of the Iroquois – is to make decisions based on the benefit of those living seven generations into the future (yes, there’s even a consumer products company named after the idea).

Someone has to supervise the work, right?

Restoring an entire tree species would certain qualify as a seven generations project! (Heck, even planting a single oak tree would). If a couple of these individual trees persist 200 years from now, I’ll be long gone. There is typically several turnovers in land ownership during that time, as well as a cycling of municipal leaders, businesses, cultural trends, etc.

When one thinks about the challenges or threats (to a species, or to a particular tree) on such a timescale, there is a shift in focus. Annual drought or deer herbivory is a very short-term concern, but over the course of 200 years, we start thinking about the very stability of our political system and culture, the composition of the atmosphere and climatic patterns, and the presence and patterns of human habitation on the landscape.

As I accumulate years on my career (and a few pesky gray hairs on my beard, which my daughters found last month), I have come to see these later challenges increasingly salient. I have seen leaders come and go, plans begin and end, strategic initiatives rolled out, ribbons cut, plantings established (and destroyed), initiatives come and go, politicians promise, deliver (or not), then disappear. I have come across past projects from previous companies or institutions, old foundations from buildings long gone, a soil layer disturbed and inverted from some clever human from decades past. Often one finds in the past a startlingly similar perspective, initiative, or project as one is currently in the midst of. Nothing new under the sun, ya know.

Not likely to still be standing in 2221, but we might as well try, while we have breath still in our lungs!

One way of expressing this challenge is the Shifting Baseline, which is “is a type of change to how a system is measured, usually against previous reference points (baselines), which themselves may represent significant changes from an even earlier state of the system”. This could lead an ecologist to rank a particular ecological community as “healthy” because it was much better than anything they remembered as a youth, even though it may still be a far cry from its state before industrial disruption.

Unless we break out of our limited, narrow perspective (one growing season, one political cycle, one decade, or even one human generation), we may unfortunately (and even unintentionally) oversee subtle but inexorable degradations. You can imagine how this might also apply to our cultural, political, and religious institutions, in addition to obvious ecological examples.

Whew… where was I? Oh… just planting trees! Such a simple act, but connected in so many ways to our past, our future, and the entire planet.

(I’ve been running into an annoying problem of the attached photos not orienting properly. If they are upside-down or sideways, you can see the originals properly by clicking here).

5 Replies to “a 7-generations project: restoring the American Chestnut”

  1. Mary

    Every photo was “green side up” for me in this blog. Well done, Adam. I can really relate, at my age, to having viewed all these changing landscapes. The long view is definitely the most important.

  2. Sr. Shirley

    Wow. That was quite an in-depth musing for planting trees. I learned some things along the way and it certainly got me thinking beyond this generation. Sometimes I think our whole society, politically, socially and environmentally, has short term memory loss!

    • Adam Thada Post author

      Yes, we certainly do!

      Another phrase I like to recall is “a death by one thousand cuts”. That is how Indiana’s original tallgrass prairie was destroyed… 99.9% of it… of the original 1 million acres, only 1,000 remain unplowed and undrained.

      As I was walking through the Michigan north woods recently, on foot, I could see how a European settler could view it as endless. What’s one more valley cut clean? And yet, essentially the entire state of Michigan was completely clear-cut. Much of this has now re-forested, in a sense, but it has not ecologically recovered, and our success at cultivating a culture & sense of stewardship is markedly mixed.


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