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On Chestnuts, Hemlocks, and Change

I am just a tiny bit of a control freak. I'm not just the kind of person who alphabetizes the books on my bookcase, but for years, while I was studying Wiccan history, I had the books in our Pagan bookshelf organized by date of first publication. (There were little white date stickers on all the spines, too.)

It bothered me a bit, deciding whether or not to list books like Carlo Ginzburg's The Night Battles by date of first publication or by date of first translation into English.

This probably tells you more than you wanted to know, but I'm going somewhere with this--hang on.

This past First Day was my day to "hold" meeting for worship at my Quaker meeting. All Quaker meetings do things slightly differently, but at most unprogrammed meetings like mine, the signal that the period of silent worship has ended is a handshake that passes around the room.

When I first began attending Mt. Toby, I thought that that handshake just happened at the right time; that the wise Quaker elders all got some sort of inward spiritual signal and initiated the handshake, spontaneously. Pagan readers who have done group trance workings will know that is not so far fetched: it really is the case that a group that has worked together for a while will develop a sense for when the deepening flow of a group working turns into the rising flow of return.

And there is a piece of that in the Quaker world, too. At Mt. Toby, the member of Ministry and Worship who has been assigned to hold meeting arrives early, centers, and enters worship. Others gather and enter worship as it is time, and the one holding meeting does try to stay especially aware of the flow of Spirit through the room and through the worship hour.

And when the allotted hour for worship is up, we will spend a few minutes trying to sense whether or not the worship needs to continue just a little longer--perhaps because someone is laboring under a message that is just taking shape, or because a message that was recently given needs to settle before we are done. It is not unusual to look up and catch the eye of another member of Ministry and Worship, to look for confirmation: this is a good moment to close worship? Yes. This is the moment.

So there is an element of intuition in the whole process. But, as a general rule, we also use a clock.

There are no clocks inside the room we use for worship. Instead, typically, whoever is holding meeting makes sure to wear a wrist-watch the week they are holding meeting.

I was halfway through worship yesterday when I realized: I had forgotten to bring a watch.

Now, normally, as the sort of very responsible control freak that I am, this sort of thing can work me into a real tizzy. Not only making a mistake, but a mistake in the course of an Important Duty! Normally, this kind of thing makes me crazy with self-judgement.

Instead, I found myself suppressing an urge to laugh out loud.

Isn't this just typical? It's the human condition, writ small; all the little things I'd done to make sure I was ready for holding meeting yesterday, and I forgot to bring a watch. Bloody typical.

I figured out that from where I sat, if I craned my head just so, I could make out the clock in the hallway through the door. There was no real crisis, except to my usual sense of control--a sense thankfully eased by being in worship.

The more I learn about life, the more I understand: chaos is not a bug; it's a feature. I think maybe God even likes it that way.

Just the day before I had learned something new about chestnut trees, and hemlocks, and change. Forgetting to bring a watch, and having it turn out to be no problem at all, brought the trees to mind.

I have a concern for chestnut trees. Few of us in the Northeast can imagine it, but the woods we know are nothing like the forests that were here once. For one thing, since the turn of the last century, there have almost no surviving chestnut trees. Since the chestnut blight arrived in 1904, we have lost almost all the members of a species that once made up one in four trees in the forest.

And not just any trees: chestnut trees were the keystone species to a range of other plants, animals, and microorganisms. They were beautiful, they were giants, they fed animals--and humans--in numbers we cannot even estimate now, and their wood built much of our country, quite literally. Even today, seasoned chestnut timbers are so valuable that people take pains to salvage them whenever they take down an old barn that has collapsed. American chestnut trees were the princes of the wood.

And they are all but gone now. They have no resistance to the blight. (Even European chestnuts have only limited resistance; only Asian trees, a very different species and the source of the blight, are resistant.)

The only reason they are not entirely gone is that chestnuts are one of those species of hardwood that put up stump sprouts. Most hardwoods will do so when a young tree is cut down or killed; chestnuts are unusual in that they will put up sprouts from stumps left by even very large and mature trees.

If you know what you are looking for, you can still find young sapling chestnuts growing in the New England woods.

They invariably die before they can mature enough to pollinate; to do that, they need to reach a certain size--something that depends on light reaching them from the canopy. The blight is still here, however, and certain to claim them in the end.

Not only that, but the density of chestnuts, once so great, is now so thin that no pollen can reach a flowering chestnut; there will be no other member of the species near enough to produce a fertile nut before the tree dies.

Happily, there is a group called the American Chestnut Foundation that seeks to have man do what nature no longer can, and save the American chestnut by creating hybrids with blight-resistant Asian chestnuts. (To do this, they must have as much genetic diversity in American chestnut lines as possible; if you own woodlands in the Northeast, please learn to identify your trees, because it is possible that you have a specimen of American chestnut on your land that could provide genetic diversity to those lines!)

Here's what I did not know before this week: chestnuts, in their heyday, employed a growth strategy that relied on chaos.

My friend Michael, who works with the ACF, explained it to me this way: chestnuts, unlike oaks which produce a heavy crop of acorns only every six or seven years, produce a heavy crop every year. They are also capable of very rapid growth, given an opening in the forest canopy: it is not unusual for a hundred year old chestnut tree to have a diameter as great as four or five feet--something almost unimaginable to us now--and a very great height as well.

They are also both very strong and have very, very strong taproots. The result of this would not sound like something in the trees' favor (though it is): they are easily damaged by truly severe winds. Chestnut trees tend to snap off and fall dramatically to earth after hurricanes... and since there is no place in the region of the country where they once grew that does not experience a powerful hurricane on the order of every hundred or so years--a long time to us puny humans, but quite regularly in the life of a forest--this means that chestnuts will come to dominate forests where they are found.

To dominate? Yes. Remember that habit of producing stump sprouts from even fully mature trees? A mature chestnut will fall, take down other trees in its path, and create an opening in the canopy which its own stump sprouts, as well as any other chestnut saplings in the vicinity, will be poised to take advantage of through its habit of rapid growth.

And this is a keystone species, one of great significance to the entire ecosystem around it, including animals and humans. A keystone species, that supports a diverse and flourishing ecosystem... which thrived on destruction, on chaos.

There is a contrast in the story of the hemlock--another species for which I have a deep love and concern.

Hemlocks are also threatened at the moment, by the emergence of a strong and powerful pest, the wooly adelgid, another Asian import. There has been some good news lately, in terms of research to control the pest, but the wooly adelgid has the potential to wipe out hemlocks throughout the forests I love. Their range is limited by cold--but we all know that winters are getting shorter and warmer.

Like the chestnut, the hemlock is an important species which many species rely on for food. Deer, for instance, a sacred animal in my iconography, browse its fresh growth in the spring when no other forage is available.

I will admit, a dark, scrubby hemlock woods lacks the visual punch of a towering chestnut tree. The trees do not grow quickly, but their shade is so deep and dark that little can grow beneath it. The prickly, sharp twigs and slippery needles make the ground under a hemlock less than pleasant as a place to spend time. I am told that the fully mature trees take on a very different appearance in time; the bark changes texture, and they become dramatic specimens in their own right.

I can't speak to this. My beloved New England woods were pastures a century ago, and it takes a long time to grow a mature hemlock. I have never seen one, though I've fought my way through enough scraggly tangles of their young trees in my time.

Expressing my concerns to Michael about the wooly adelgid, he reminded me of the climatic limits of that pest--something I knew--and also told me something new: that the hemlock has, according to the pollen record, been through several waves of die-back in the past. We don't know why, but more than once, pests of some sort seem to have arisen and beaten back the dominance of the hemlock tree.

And this is perhaps a good thing, Michael seemed to be saying. Which is not to say that efforts to contol the wooly adelgid are not--we have lost quite enough species, thank you! But it is true that hemlocks grow to so densely shade the floor beneath them that they can come to entirely dominate a forest--and it will be a forest, despite the usefulness of the hemlock to a diverse ecosystem, which is a rather barren place. Not much can grow in the shade of a hemlock tree... except another hemlock tree.

Michael did not say so, but I am already aware of the ways that monoculture of any crop can expose that plant eventually to diseases that can threaten its continuance. The very success of the hemlock may make it susceptible to die-backs, to disaster.

Hemlocks tend to dominate through controlling their environment.

Chestnuts tended to dominate through anticipating chaos and change.

Both are good and useful trees. I would not like to see a world without either of them. But I would like to remake myself, if I can, into something like a chestnut tree: supporting a diversity of life around me, and able to make room for wild change and chaos in my future.

I'd rather not be like the hemlock: dominant to some degree at the expense of diversity, and reaching a point of dominance in my world where only disaster can limit my influence on the world around me.

Or maybe it is better to say that I would choose to be like a whole forest, living in a dynamic tension of control and change, stability and chaos, old and new growth. I am quite certain that it is that tension between change and stability that marks the truly healthy ecosystem: constant change and constant rebalancing. Chestnuts and hemlocks, interdependant and competitors.

Like us, perhaps. Planning ahead. But knowing that chaos is coming. And its not a bug--it's a feature.

NOTE: If, like me, you find the story of the American Chestnut a compelling one, please consider becoming involved with the American Chestnut Foundation.

I also strongly recommend the essay, "New Life from an Old Chestnut", by Dave Bonta, who explains far more eloquently and clearly than I have the tragedy of the chestnut... and the hope that we may one day see these trees rise again.

You may also be interested to read the moving essay, "A Whole World Gone: The Loss of the American Chestnut Tree," documenting the impact of the loss of the chestnut on the human world.

And, whatever their aesthetic limitations, hemlocks are also a crucial species in American forests. You may want to consider learning more about identifying the wooly adelgid, and learning how to stop it from destroying trees; Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere has some useful information, as does the Forestry Service.


Keith said…
Meet another Quaker/Pagan! I was dragged up by my Quaker grandparents in Fenny Drayton, England. Y'know, the village where George Fox lived.

I still live within a few miles of it.

Sadly the local Council, together with a developer, have recently demolished the place where he lived and built some grotesque houses there! And they named it "Quaker Close"!

Bright Blessings.
Keith said…
Sorry, I meant to mention that our local coven meet at a very special tree near me. It's called "The Oak and the Ash". It is actually two different species of tree that have bonded together; I mean REALLY bonded! You can find my website all about it just here.
How amazing!

About the tree, I mean. Sadly, demolishing George Fox's home and replacing it with a development called "Quaker Close" strikes me as anything but amazing.

Thanks for the greeting--and the link to the story of a remarkable tree.

Blessed be.
Anonymous said…
This is an old post I stumbled upon, but very thought-provoking. I have an affinity for hemlocks. I grew up in Northeast PA and there was a small stand (10 acres or so) of old growth hemlock near my house. It was, and still is, a mystical place to me. I now live in Amherst, and have found two beautiful areas where the hemlocks exude the same energy as my childhood paradise. The trees are not as old, but they are not saplings either. Chapel Brook Falls in Ashfield and Buffam Falls in Pelham are worth visiting. The old-growth forest in PA was along a creek with waterfalls as well as these spots, so I guess the grandmother trees like the falls for some reason. Peace and blessings.

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