Roadside markers

What is there to say about an outing where the camera batteries failed after the first few shots, and most of the best sightings went unrecorded? Well, everything, of course. That’s the trouble.

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Chicory sprouts from an old leather shoe that stayed behind on the highwayside to gather moss. Where toes of some Sunday Christian used to fit, a splay of coffee-flavored roots. In place of the leg, the sex, and so on: pale blue suns.

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What is an osprey doing here in breeding season, far from a lake or river, circling in the heat and haze above the small city, between the dry hills the locals call mountains because they have never travelled anywhere else?

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We follow a front loader into the state forest, chafing at the slowness. Is it going our way? It is annihilating our way. They’re working on the bridge. The foreman says, People have been moving the Road Closed signs and driving through, but they’ve been doing so at their own risk. Is there any risk? I ask. No, he says. We’ll be out of here by late afternoon.

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We stop for red raspberries and find beside the road the uncommonest looking bee-fly we’ve ever seen performing sexual favors for common milkweed. It’s hunchbacked and lobster-tailed, and it hovers just like a hummingbird moth — a mimic of a mimic. Later, I look it up online: Lepidophora. It doesn’t stay at one flower for more than a few seconds, but keeps circling the globe-shaped flower cluster, and buzzing from globe to globe.

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Picking berries into a pail feels like work. Eating berries out of the pail feels illicit. Eating berries straight from the bush or the cane feels natural and liberating, but maybe a little wrong — like shitting in the woods.

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These forest roads seem to go on forever, and they almost do. Mostly unpaved, without lines, speed limit signs, or mile markers, they follow the contours of the land as closely as a hand carressing a body, up and down and around. But they are far from innocent, I realize. What the hell is all this crownvetch doing here in the middle of the forest, I shout. The ecological effects of a road can extend for up to a mile on either side of it, L. points out. The leaf duff will be thin, dried out, and full of weed seeds for a hundred yards in.

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The roadside forest gaps open and drops away: an official overlook, complete with graffiti, broken beer bottles, and shotgun shells. We are drawn not to the officially scenic view of shapely, green ridges air-brushed by haze, but to the freakish tree in the clearing, right below the precipice: a cluster of 15-foot stems, each topped with a yellow mop-head of fuzzy yellow pencils, aswarm with insects. What is that? Some new invasive species? asks my beetle-collecting brother. I look at the leaves and the bark. It’s an American chestnut! And there are two more blooming within fifty feet of it! Look at all the Cerambycidae, Steve says. I have NEVER seen beetles swarm like that, not even in the tropics. And he’s spent plenty of time in the tropics, too: in Taiwan, the Philippines, south India, Sri Lanka, and Central America. We’re now about 35 miles from home — and 80 years since the time when these ridgetop forests were thick with chestnut trees, before the blight came through. Such a loss, such a rent in the web of life here. My god.

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The road turns bad. Steve gets out and walks in front, helping to spot especially dangerous-looking rocks and potholes. I sit in the backseat, craning my neck while L. pilots a zig-zag course. We’re driving a Beetle. At least it’s narrow enough to fit between the rocks, L. says.

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Back on the good roads, we enter a stretch where the trees have been defoliated by gypsy moth caterpillars, and are just leafing out for the second time. It might seem like spring if it weren’t so hot and humid.

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Dead porcupines start appearing in the road, in various stages of decomposition. In the space of three miles we count seven of them. It’s eerie.

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When we reach our destination — a well-known spot for lowbush blueberries at a high point in the Seven Mountains — we find the patch already picked almost clean. Or perhaps pollination was inhibited at this elevation by all the cold weather in May; we can’t decide. We share this artificial bald with radio, cellphone, and microwave towers, and a generator humming loudly in a locked shed. The old firetower still stands, but the bottom 25 steps have been removed to keep people from climbing up it, which was always something to look forward to on state forest hikes when I was a kid. It turned out that wildfires in the eastern forest are naturally rare and easy to control — nothing like the out-of-control infernos of the late 19th century, when these forests were all clearcut at the same time. Now the old firetowers stand like lighthouses on a shore where the ocean has receded out of sight.

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On the way back, we stop at a lonely spot on top of a broad ridge. This gravel road was once a throughway of sorts, and someone named Keith built a small stone cistern here for watering horses. Water gushes out of a pipe and into the roadside ditch, and we fill up our water bottles with it, exclaiming over its taste and likely purity. I find myself reluctant to take too close a look in the rectangular cistern where the pipe originates. It’s dark with rotting leaves, and is just large enough to accommodate a body, stretched out in a position of repose.

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Peering between the front seats, I spot a bear-shaped stump beside the road. It moves; we stop. It’s a small bear, no more than two winters old, and probably only driven off by its mother a few weeks ago. A stone’s throw from the road it stops running and appears to forget all about us, which is always a useful and instructive experience for a modern human. Running in this kind of humid heat can’t be pleasant for a bear, even one so small. We watch as it ambles along, flipping rocks, digging into rotten logs and nosing about, heading back the way we came. We keep it in sight as long as we can, driving slowly backwards through the hills of central Pennsylvania.

New life from an old chestnut

American chestnut burr

One morning this past May, on the second of our two annual point counts for the Bald Eagle Ridge Important Bird Area, I was pleased to run across a couple of these brown, porcupiney things in the middle of our Laurel Ridge Trail. American chestnut husks! We looked around for the tree of origin, but we were in a hurry, and I had to return the next day and find it. It wasn’t more than fifteen feet off the trail — a forty-foot-tall tree, to all appearances still healthy, about five inches in diameter at breast height. The ground around it was littered with the tell-tale husks.

dying American chestnut with root sprouts

The day before yesterday I went for another look. Despite the absence of obvious lesions on its bark, it clearly had the blight; all the leaves had turned brown with the exception of those on the new sprouts that were already clustered around its base. (You can see the lowest branch in the above photo; none of my photos of the crown of the tree were worth sharing.) Like every other American chestnut on our mountain — and well over 99.9 percent of all native chestnuts in the eastern United States — this individual will never again be able to grow an above-ground stem for more than a couple of decades before succumbing to the introduced Asian fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica.

But unlike most of the other spindly chestnuts on our ridges, this stem lived long enough to produce one crop of nuts before it died. There’s a slight — very slight — chance that they were fertile, cross-pollinated with some other rare tree that happened to flower in the spring of 2006 somewhere in the vicinity. And there’s an even slighter chance that one of those fertile nuts was spared by the squirrels and managed to sprout in a favorable location. Do you believe in miracles? But it is upon just such miracles — and/or the intervention of geneticists — that the future of this totemic species depends, because it is only through sexual reproduction that the American chestnut will be able to evolve resistance to the blight.

I know: you thought the purpose of sex was reproduction, didn’t you? But many plants can reproduce vegetatively, too; Castanea dentata is a great example. “King of the coppice,” biologist Joe Schibig calls it. Who knows how the hell old some of these ridgetop rootstocks might be? It’s eerie to stand among the twisted chestnut oaks and the mountain laurel (now also dying en masse due to a blight of unknown origin) and realize that 100 years ago, the woods here would have been dominated by straight, soaring trunks, and that 200 years ago — before the first clear-cutting of Plummer’s Hollow around 1815 — the forest primeval would’ve been an almost unimaginably full cornucopia, with a deep carpet of chestnut burrs every fall. Even on years when the acorn and hickory crops failed, chestnuts, having bloomed well after the last frost, were still available to fill the bellies of squirrels, deer, raccoons, mice, chipmunks, and a host of other creatures. Evolution called the vast flocks of passenger pigeons into existence in part as a response to this superabundance of chestnut mast. One out of every four trees in the Appalachians was an American chestnut. Its wood was straight-grained, easy to split, rock-hard, and virtually impervious to rot.

It’s a bit of an irony, I guess, that trees so resistant to the common agents of decay would fall victim to a fungus. First spotted at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, the airborne disease spread at a rate of about fifty miles a year, wiping out in excess of three billion trees over the next half-century. A half-century after that, what’s the prognosis for the species? As Schibig notes,

Some chestnuts have repeatedly died and sprouted again from their root collars for the past 70 years, but the vigor and number of these sprouts have been declining. After all, they can’t be expected to forever battle the blight, other diseases such as root rot, ravenous insects, browsing by deer, competition from other trees, unfavorable weather conditions and habitat destruction by humans. It was hoped that in some parts of its natural range there would be pockets of chestnuts that would have resistance to the disease and would be reproducing successfully from their nuts, not just by sprouting. To my knowledge, such populations, sometimes called the “holy grail” by American chestnut fans, have never been found. It appears that human intervention will be necessary to restore the American chestnut to the forests of the eastern U. S.

The remainder of Schibig’s brief essay describes the effort to resurrect the American chestnut. I’m most familiar with the efforts of the American Chestnut Foundation, whose quarter-century-long experiment began by crossing American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts, then crossing the resulting hybrids with more American Chestnuts, and so on: crossing each new generation with pure C. dentata stock until they get a tree that has all the attributes of an American chestnut, but with the disease resistance of its scrubbier East Asian ancestor. The main site for this research in Pennsylvania is at the Penn State Experimental Forest in Stone Valley, less than 25 miles away from our mountain as the pigeon flies.

American chestnut sprouts

The passenger pigeon and the American chestnut were almost certainly both examples of what ecologists call keystone species: species without which basic ecosystem functions such as carbon cycling and nutrient storage are fundamentally altered. Without a steady supply of chestnut mast, many wildlife populations have probably become a great deal more unstable, with repercussions up and down the food chain. Without passenger pigeons — which were on the way out well before the introduction of the chestnut blight, due to market hunting and widespread clear-cutting — our forests have lost a major, periodic source of fertilizer and a disturbance regime as natural and necessary as the once-in-a-century wildfire.

It’ll be great if the American Chestnut Foundation’s back-crossing scheme works and we can restore at least one of these two species. But in order to do so, we will also have to be mindful of a third keystone species: the white-tailed deer. Here in Plummer’s Hollow, as I’ve noted before, a number of years of good hunting have brought the deer herd down to reasonable levels, allowing a few of the chestnut sprouts to survive. But we can never quite relax: one year of poor hunting combined with a mild winter could change all that. Eternal vigilance, it seems, is the price not only of liberty but of healthy forests as well.

I know I will never see a fully mature American chestnut tree in my own lifetime — just as I will never see a large, old-growth mixed-deciduous landscape in the East outside of the Porcupine Mountains, way over on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A recent article from the Christian Science Monitor on the American Chestnut Foundation’s research sounds a hopeful note, projecting enough nuts for a large-scale replanting effort to commence by 2015. Hope is good. But I do think a consciousness of just how much we’ve lost is also important if we really want to overcome public complacency and rally support for protecting and restoring what we have left.
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Don’t forget to submit links for the upcoming Festival of the Trees #15 by Thursday at the latest. See the details here.