This Shandakenite will never look at trees the same way again

Robert Burke Warren (photo by Dion Ogust)

I try not to fool and flatter myself, but looking back over 2020, it does seem that Mother Nature was sending me signals that I would do well to better acquaint myself with my immediate outdoor environment, instead of the one in my head, where, regrettably, I spend most of my time. Or perhaps those signals were always there, and, by being grounded from much of what I do – i.e. traveling and performing – I only just got the message. Whatever the case, in January, this publication asked if I’d like to write about SUNY’s work creating a blight-resistant American chestnut to reforest the region with “the redwood of the East.”

Unbeknownst to my editor, I was already hip to a bit of the tragic American chestnut story. After being dominant from Georgia to Maine for thousands of years, this “keynote species” of the Catskills in particular had succumbed to Asian blight in the first decades of the twentieth century. (Asian chestnuts were imported because they produce fatter nuts. These brought blight to which the older, squatter Asian species was – and is – immune.)

I’d learned all of this from a local old-timer. At a party in my then-new home, he’d pointed out the doors, trim, and moldings – all American chestnut –- and told me about the blight, a twentieth-century ecological catastrophe few modern folk seem to know about. I wish I knew where that old-timer was today so I could tell him about the brilliant scientists in Syracuse who’ve figured out how to alter a gene in lab-raised American chestnuts, making the trees hardier against the ineradicable fungus that had brought the species down.

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The article got a lot of attention in those last pre-pandemic weeks. Several people directed me to the novel The Overstory, assuring me I would “never look at trees the same way again.” This would turn out to be true. The American chestnut figures into that multi-tiered narrative, as does a poetic critique of man’s bungling and/or hubris hastening environmental woe. We are a blight of sorts.

Although Shandaken has been my hometown for 18 years – the longest I’ve lived anywhere – I have only just begun to really know it. I’ve mostly come to this knowledge against my will. Since March, I’ve been beholden to a creeping virus, with its own schedule. This entity has forced me to truly appraise my immediate surroundings, the safest place I now know: Shandaken.

I did not come to Shandaken by choice those 18 years ago. A man asserted his rights of ownership over the place I then lived – a tenement at 113 St. Mark’s Place in the East Village and forced upon my family a drastic pivot. We came here licking our wounds in the particularly cold winter of 2002, nesting in a cabin in the Shandaken hamlet of Chichester. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to being a Shandakenite. We didn’t exactly get off on the right foot.

For the first time since the pandemic, I recently walked that old neighborhood from which we came: the East Village. I’d moved there from Georgia as a 19-year-old dreamer, met the woman who would be my wife, proposed to her beneath a still-standing scholar tree (Japanese pagoda tree) over KFC and French red in Tompkins Square Park. A few moons later, I walked beneath that scholar tree with our son in a backpack until he was just shy of four years old. Sometimes it really does seem like yesterday.

Except for the iPhones and the facemasks, I was much like the young parents I saw in that same locale on that recent quite lovely late summer day. My wife and I were once that couple locked in a full-body embrace near the aforementioned scholar tree, their entangled hair obscuring their faces and spreading in the grass beneath, oblivious to the surrounding swirl of activity, the sun beating down, a graying man, a ghost of sorts, with a cup of potent coffee from Porto Rico Coffee Importers, glancing over, making note of their clueless beauty.

Did I long to travel back to the Eighties and be like those young folks in Tompkins Square Park, with so much yet ahead? Not really. I mostly wanted to just tap into exuberant New York City life, seemingly undimmed by the pandemic, take a little nip, then go collect my 22-year-old son at his erstwhile college roommate’s house in Brooklyn, and head back to Shandaken, to the hamlet of Phoenicia. Our home.

If you’d asked me one year ago to define the word Shandaken, I would’ve needed to Google it. Today, however, I can hold forth. It’s a phrase of the indigenous Esopus people, meaning “land of rapid waters.” Or it could be “place of the hemlocks.” One imagines a white colonist of centuries ago asking the people they were displacing: “What do you call this land we’re evicting you from?” And an Esopus person thinking, “What can I say to get this man to leave me alone?”

Driven out by violence and smallpox, hallmarks of white conquest, the people for whom the trout stream across my street is named fled for their lives. Settlers’ eventual deforestation of the millennia-old hemlock forests would echo their treatment of the Esopus people.

For decades, the invaders’ reckless descendants used hemlock bark to tan leather. Stupidly, but typically, they did not replant. When the hemlocks were gone and the streams fouled, the tanneries closed, new Shandakenites replaced the flora with deciduous trees – invasive, non-indigenous Norway maples in particular – which, like the settlers themselves, grow fast and aggressively. Now, a century and a half later, those Norway maples account for much for the golden autumnal hue of our remade terrain. (Indigenous sugar maples are the fiery red ones.)

Some of these factoids I sort of knew prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but only in the recesses of my mind. Now, the knowledge resides in my body, sinking ever deeper into my bones. I feel the history of my town in my everyday actions, like pulling weeds, or using stones from ancient dry stone walls to shore something up, or collecting wood for the oncoming, more-unpredictable-than-usual winter. I sense threads in a tangled skein of time, the electricity of my touch connecting to a pulse leading in more than one temporal direction. I place my hand on a surviving hemlock, and I can almost see nearby Romer Mountain shrouded in dark, year-round green.

While battling an invasive weed, I climb a massive 150-year-old spruce in my backyard and see the lush, towering Norway maples as planted by the McGraths, who built our house – first on this street – in 1910. Our next door-neighbor’s home was their barn, and the entire, tree-thick acreage of all my neighbors’ property was grazing land for McGrath livestock.

If the McGraths desired, they could’ve boarded the Ulster-Delaware line at the street corner and disembarked in Kingston, then hopped a train to New York City. The steel tracks from the train that stopped in Phoenicia were only recently removed, as were the beautiful silver birches that had grown between the ties since the last ride of the Ulster-Delaware in 1974. Hurricane Irene had warped the rails like so much licorice in 2011, but they remained until a few years ago, when some humans made up their minds that the rails, and the birches, had to go. We can’t bear to burn the sawed-up remains of those trees. They lay in a wooded lot beside our house, surrounded by young growth brethren I can, as of this year, cite as elm, ash, and cedar.

Especially as lockdown commenced, and much of my world radically, and unpleasantly, changed, my desire to see an American chestnut intensified. In a state of fervent, almost desperate imagination, I envisioned when the redwood of the East dotted the surrounding hills and riversides, the scent from its white blossoms perfuming the spring air of Shandaken. A friend whose Shandakenite father was alive then told me his dad spoke of those fragrant blossoms wistfully, as did Thoreau in Walden. Locals called it “winter in the spring,” as the white flowers on the mountainsides looked like snow. By 1940, all those trees had fallen.

My longing to see an American chestnut was not actually pie-in-the-sky. Even though they are almost gone from the landscape, the species is technically not extinct. Very rare, inexplicable mutants exist, and original root systems live on, sending up saplings. In the latter, the blight attacks only the trunk in a tree’s first decade of life. The trunk dies, but the roots send another back up eventually. The process repeats, life in all its tenacity, perennially striking back. I needed to see that, even if it was only a sapling. Hope incarnate, bigger than me, beyond coronavirus, beyond politics, in the continuum of deep time.

I learned of a mutant 95-foot American chestnut six hours away in Hebron, Maine, and was making plans for a pilgrimage (yes, to see a tree), when, to my astonishment, near some black-eyed Susans and Michalmas daisies, I “chanced” upon two American chestnut saplings growing from an intact root system directly beside my house here in Shandaken. I’m still processing this.

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I was weeding yet another invasive, and, because I’d written about the American chestnut, I recognized the scalloped leaves. The entire time I’d been captivated by this tragic yet hopeful story of the American chestnut, that very species was growing where I walk every day. In the shade of a lilac bush. And I’m just going to say it: calling to me.

An expert confirmed the saplings as American chestnut, but broke it to me that, if I looked closer, I would see the beginnings of blight – an orangey film – at the spot where the saplings rise from a root entangled with the old lilac. The saplings will very likely ultimately rot, instead of eventually dwarfing my home (long after I’m gone), which is how it would otherwise be.

It’s okay, though. The three-foot-long saplings look fine now, even robust. And every time I see them, even if I’m just passing by, I am briefly transported, and not a moment too soon. Perhaps one of these saplings will survive, like the mutant in Hebron, and it’ll be on Wikipedia, and tree aficionados will travel to see the Shandaken American Chestnut. Probably not, though. The much greater likelihood is that blight will get them, yet spare the roots to try again, as they apparently have been doing for years.

Meanwhile, when various governmental agencies sign off, I hope to bring one of those blight-resistant specimens to my Shandaken home, and plant it. Due to the deep-time nature of trees – one hundred years growing, one hundred years living, one hundred years dying – I won’t live long enough to see the full glory of that tree, but future Shandakenites – perhaps my blood descendants – will.

The mix of humility, wonder, hope, and sadness I feel is hard to boil down into a single term or phrase. It rises when I touch those fragile scalloped leaves and run my fingertips down to the strong, thick root just beneath the soil, entangled with the lilac, which is entangled with the spruce, the Norway maple, the Michalmas daisies, etc., all doing the work of life in the dark Shandaken soil, come what may: blight, coronavirus, cultural upheaval. And according to recent science, these systems are aiding one another, messaging one another, and sharing resources.

When I reluctantly came here in 2002, I would not have believed that these would be the things I would learn, and that they would nurture me in a time of need. Yet the “land of rapid waters,” or “place of the hemlocks,” or whatever the people of the future will call this strange, beautiful, sentient land, has entangled me and my will. I am part of a root system sending life into the air. Some kind of blight may strike down my efforts, but it may not. If it does, I will access the lifeblood energy of the Shandaken soil, and try again.

There are 6 comments

  1. Irwin Rosenthal

    I wish the author had spoken of the The American Chestnut Assoc. and the on-going project at the Environmental Forestry school at Syracuse. Both need attention and help.

  2. Bobby Burke

    The Northeastern N.Y. area from the Hudson Valley, through the Catskills, and on up the Adirondacks, too New England, is one of the most diversified, and Beautiful ( … with a capitol “B”), of flora and fauna, in the entire world. Tree-life being maybe the single most diversified of all life. Our Autumns are some of the most profound and colorful; anywhere. ” I think that, I shall never see; a poem, as lovely as a tree.” – Joyce Kilmer

  3. Joanne Chack

    I do believe my neighbor has two American Chestnut trees and a sapling. They don’t seem to be affected by the blight since I have been here 30 years and they are still growing. (Oradell, NJ)
    Reach out if you are interested in learning more. (JJEEE@AOL.COM)
    Great article by the way.

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