On a dirt road in a remote area of Western Massachusetts, forester Larry Bruffee recalls a memorable day from 2010 when he was working on installing a power line.
"So I came out to survey the clearing of the trees on this side of the road. And that’s when I found this one here," Bruffee says as he gestures towards a normal-looking tree.
To Bruffee, though, it was anything but normal. He had found a mature American chestnut tree, a species known to be practically extinct since the first half of the 20th century due to a catastrophic blight. These days, most trees of its kind die before they ever get half as big as the one Bruffee found.
This tree could be part of the key to unlocking the future of this species, so Bruffee is one of the few people who knows its specific location. He prefers to keep it secret for fear of potential visitors looking for a souvenir.
You wouldn't know it from looking up at the tree from the side of the road, but the American chestnut is at the center of one of the most nutty stories of near extinction and resurrection ever heard in the United States. It involves genetic engineering, warring factions of tree enthusiasts, and a mysterious, destructive force that was first discovered at the Bronx Zoo.
Up until the early 1900s, American chestnuts dominated the eastern forests of North America. They could grow up to 125 feet tall and 16 feet wide and were so big that loggers sometimes used actual dynamite to blow them up into smaller pieces. But it wasn’t just that the individual trees were large. The species as a whole had a massive footprint. They used to be so common along the East Coast of the United States that people would say a squirrel could travel from Maine to Georgia on chestnut tree branches alone without ever touching the ground.
Chestnut wood — naturally rot-resistant, lightweight and straight-grained — was also highly valued, used for everything from utility poles to railroad ties to houses. But the gem of the American chestnut was really the nuts themselves. And the nuts were particularly important to Southern Appalachia, says historian Ralph Lutts:
"It was not just a food that was a treat to them. It was a central part of their lives economically, particularly the very poor. And when you had the time of plenty in the autumn when the nuts were falling like manna from heaven, it was almost a community celebration."
Lutts says that chestnuts weren’t just a celebrated bounty in those areas. They were literally used as currency. "Come September, October, the only commodity they're trading in at the country store to get their groceries is chestnuts." The store owner then shipped those nuts to places like Philadelphia and New York City where chestnuts were a hot commodity. Vendors roasted and hawked the nuts on the streets and city people gobbled them up. "If the chestnuts were around [today], they'd probably be selling them on eBay or through Amazon," adds Lutts.
Clearly, chestnuts are not so popular nowadays. The tree Bruffee found is one of only a few hundred that still exist out of an original population of close to four billion. The reason for their disappearance dates back to 1904. The chief gardener for the Bronx Zoo was making his rounds and noticed that a couple of the trees had some orange speckles and signs that the branches were dying. He couldn't figure out what to do, so he called in a guy named William Murrill who had been recently appointed as the chief mycologist, or mushroom expert, at the botanical gardens across the way.
Murrill studied the orange stuff on the trees, and a few years later published his findings under the title "A New Chestnut Disease." He concluded that this thing, what was eventually known as the Chestnut Blight, is going to wipe out all the chestnut trees in the region. The problem? No one believed him. In fact, as the blight starts to do exactly what Murrill says it’s going to do, the government gets all the big tree minds and some clueless politicians together in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where someone actually accuses Murrill of not doing enough to stop the blight. To which he responded, according to Freinkel, "I was on this thing way before you were, and if you think you can do something here you're out of your mind!"
The thing is, saying that nothing can be done isn't often a popular approach. What is popular is claiming to have a solution, which plenty of folks did. "You sort of got all of these quacks basically out there offering up different remedies," says Freinkel.
These remedies included pouring poison on the trees' roots and filling holes with sulfur. (Not great ideas, for the record.) Some even described the blight as God’s punishment for sins and misbehavior and suggested prayer as a remedy. Regardless, people were making money off these ideas. Murrill was not pleased. "He knew that nothing anybody peddled was going to save a sick chestnut," Freinkel says.
Time proved Murrill's findings correct. By the time he died in 1957, nearly four billion American chestnut trees had died with him.
But there's hope. About a month ago, Redditor /u/thisisbillgates (yes, this is actually Bill Gates) posed a question to /r/AskReddit:
To which Redditor /u/ten-million responded:
It's true. Chestnut enthusiast Brian Clark, to whom Larry Bruffee reported his discovery in Western Massachusetts, says many consider this to be the "most ambitious species restoration project in the world." There are a few approaches people have taken here, but one is particularly controversial: genetic modification.
Dr. Will Powell is a professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and director of the American Chestnut Research and Restoration project. In the early 1990s, he set out to splice genes to try and make a pure American chestnut that can fully resist the blight. But nothing like this had ever been done. Powell says, "we basically had to build the boat before we went fishing."
Powell's biggest hurdle in building his boat? Finding the right gene to use. He was looking for a single gene that would provide full blight resistance. Eventually, he had his "eureka moment."
The gene is called Oxalate Oxidase. Powell had never heard of it before, but once he found it, "something clicked in my mind that wow, this gene, what it does is it breaks down Oxalic acid," which is the thing in the blight that actually kills chestnut trees.
Dr. Powell got this gene from a wheat plant, and it worked. His genetically engineered trees actually resist the blight really well. But, while he argues that this is basically just a sped-up version of the more conventional breeding process that defines most of the chestnut restoration effort, not all are convinced.
Michael Novack, one of the founders of the Massachusetts chapter of the Chestnut Foundation, says that conventional breeding has already been "quite successful," and that there's no environmental imperative to rush to do this using genetic modification. "I think we are on very shaky ground if we think we can engineer ecosystems," he adds.
Dr. Powell and his research team did an AMA, or Ask Me Anything, on Reddit last year. He says the response wasn't 100% positive, but that most folks were supportive, since this is genetic engineering "for a good cause."
Still, some folks have larger concerns about the GMO chestnut project, like its connection to Monsanto. Dr. Powell says Monsanto doesn't have "direct ties" to the project, though one of the organizations funding Powell’s work is the New York chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, and Monsanto does give money to them.
Lois Breault-Melican, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the Chestnut Foundation, says that "once you put GMO trees out there, you can't take them back. And pollen drifts, so you know, eventually all the chestnut trees could be genetically modified trees."
Breault-Melican's concern comes, in part, because the Chestnut Foundation's eventual plan, and one that’s already partly in motion, is to give people blight-resistant chestnuts to plant themselves. In her experience, this might be a tough sell if GMOs and Monsanto are involved. During a chestnut presentation for farmers in central Massachusetts, they asked if she ever uses the controversial Monsanto herbicide Roundup in her orchards.
"I said yes, sometimes we do. And immediately they were like, 'Oh my God.' And these people were just so turned off, I mean, the whole tenor of the evening was changed just by that one statement. And I thought man, if this is any indication of what it's going to be like trying to sell GMO chestnuts, it’s not going to be easy."
Another concern here is that Monsanto, and some of the other companies that are funding the project, might be playing a long game. If this GMO approach gets OK’d by the federal government, it would be the first-ever genetically modified plant used to help save a species and a great public relations success story for GMOs in general. Lois says, "It's almost like a Trojan horse kind of thing, you know, once this tree gets OK'd, then it'll be easier for other trees to get OK'd."
Janice Person, the online engagement director for Monsanto, says the company has supported the American Chestnut Foundation on both the state and national level through "in kind and monetary donations." She says Monsanto believes that "some of these scientific techniques have the possibility to improve the world."
One of the ways Monsanto has been helpful to Dr. Powell has been in preparing for a federal review process, to which Dr. Powell and his team will be submitting soon. It's a process that involves the EPA, FDA, and USDA, and could take a few years. So, there's not an answer yet as to whether the American chestnut’s future is in the lab or in the forest.
In the meantime, Breault-Melican and her husband, Denis, have big plans beyond restoring the trees to forests. They have a painting hanging in their dining room, a still life depicting apples and chestnuts in a basket. Denis says, "It's our inspiration, because we always said we want to restore the American chestnut back to the eastern forests of the United States, but really, we would like to see the chestnut restored to the dinner tables of America also, because it's such a versatile and unique food."
As Larry Bruffee shows off the chestnut tree he found on the side of the road, it's clear that, regardless of how the tree comes back, it's important that it eventually does: "I won’t be here to see it, but maybe my children or grandchildren will. And that would be the ideal outcome."
Thanks to Redditor u/EdensQuill for this week's artwork, titled "Happy Little Green Tree."