Chapter from The Perfect Tree: The American Chestnut Tree in American Culture, Economics, and Science in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
The tale of the American chestnut tree offers incredible insight on Americans’ changing relationship with their environment and the complications added by economic motivations and scientific advancements. The American chestnut tree was known for its favorable timber and delectable nuts, which allowed the tree to assume a level of economic and cultural significance in twentieth century America. The timber was versatile and durable, and picking chestnuts and roasting them during the holidays were common seasonal traditions. However, the arrival of an invasive species of fungus decimated the population of American chestnut trees along its native range, tragically spreading like wildfire and radically altering the landscape. Few scholars have examined the role of the American chestnut tree in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states, choosing to focus primarily on Appalachia, where the tree thrived and the effects of the blight were most notable. However, economic, scientific, and cultural responses in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states to the fungal blight indicate the tree bore significance in the northern states. Exploring the scientific reactions to the blight, the cultural losses, and the economic damage that ensued are key to understanding how the tree’s identities as a regional icon, a source of profit, and an object of science competed with each other.