Trail Days 2008 – Meadowview Farms
How could Trail Days possibly top the outrageous fashion, the wet crossfire of the Hiker Parade, the inspiration of Gitty Up Clogger Evan Ritchie, the excitement of the new Virginia Appalachian Trail License Plate, and the hilarious entertainment of the Hiker Talent Show?!?
It’s easy! Offer a tour of Meadowview Farms, where the American Chestnut Foundation is working towards a blight resistant American Chestnut.
Once known as the redwoods of the east, today’s American Chestnuts don’t get a chance to reach the formidable size they were known for. As they grow, they get infected with a blight that immigrated from Asia in the early 1900s.
A species that evolved in closer contact with the blight, the Chinese Chestnut, had developed a resistance to the fungus. It reminds me of the ending of War of the Worlds. “By a toll of a billion deaths, [the Chinese Chestnut] had earned its immunity…” But the Chinese Chestnut is a different tree and doesn’t grow nearly as tall as the American. The Chinese Chestnut may thrive in our gardens and yards, but because it grows so short it struggles in the forests. It can’t compete with the taller trees like my sister‘s favorite, the Tulip Poplar.
There are a variety of approaches in progress to try to restore the American Chestnut to its former glory. Some organizations like the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry work to identify the genes responsible for blight resistance. Other research focuses on the hypovirus which attacks the blight fungus. At Meadowview Farms, their prime focus is a backcross breeding program.
They started with a generation of trees that were half Chinese and half American. Then they backcrossed those trees with fully American parents. That next generation was backcrossed with another pure American parent and so on. Through breeding, the researchers are slowly developing the trees that are blight resistant and increasingly American. At the farms, I saw trees that are currently 15/16 American.
Generation BC3F2 – which is 15/16 American. These trees are all the same age. The smaller trees are ones that take more after their Chinese ancestor.
For us humans, the online dating sites all have their own means for identifying successful matches. The backcross breeding program at Meadowview Farms may be more stringent than the reportedly fickle eHarmony.com. With each new generation, the trees are carefully evaluated. First, the researchers want to see trees with more American traits. A tree that exhibits the shorter stature or other Chinese characteristics is eliminated. Next, and more importantly, each tree is purposefully inoculated with the blight. Cankers are measured and only the trees that exhibit blight resistance will be bred. Meanwhile, to preserve a large level of genetic diversity, pollen is collected from all over the country to serve as the pure American parents.
And this whole breeding process isn’t as simple as putting two trees together and adding Cabernet Sauvignon to the mix. The flowers of the trees have to be bagged at just the right time. Then the flowers are manually pollinated with the proper parent. When you are talking about tens of thousands of trees, this time-sensitive task is nothing to scoff at.
After the tour of the farms was complete, I loitered around the American Chestnut Foundation booth at Trail Days. While I waited for my carpool buddy, I eavesdropped.
It seems oral history is strong when it comes to the American Chestnut. Every person who came into a booth had an anecdote or memory to share about the tree. How they used to eat the chestnuts, spotted some saplings recently, or heard the barrage of white flowers used to make our Appalachian Mountains look snow-capped in the summer.
I’ve seen the same phenomenon in my personal life. My Great Uncle recollects posing for a picture by a huge trunk as a boy. My father tells me about trees he thought were large survivors. Just last week, I ran into an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker near Rocky Gap. His trailname was “Freebird” and when the subject of American Chestnuts came up, he too had something to say:
“My grandfather told me that it used to be a squirrel could travel from Georgia to Maine, just on the branches of American Chestnut trees.”
Back at the American Chestnut Foundation booth, one of the volunteers opened up a brochure and showed a visitor an old black and white picture of a huge American Chestnut.
“I’ll never see one this big. You’ll never see one this big.” She said, “But maybe our grandchildren will.”
And that was my favorite moment of Trail Days.