Thursday, March 13, 2014

Chestnut Observations

For more than two decades, the organization responsible for protecting Durham, North Carolina’s image and sense of place  has surveyed both internal (residents) and external (neighbors, commuters and visitors) stakeholders.

Following its lead, eight years ago the City of Durham began surveying its residents every other year on perceptions of that local government’s performance across many areas of responsibility.

Citizens generally give City agencies good marks for community appearance.  It is a testament to some improvements cobbled from a shrinking budget.  A better question to ask residents might be, “How Durham’s appearance stack up with appearance of other communities?”

A more revealing way to drill down into data such as this is to measure the positive/negative ratio of those who feel very strongly either way.  These tend to be the residents paying most attention.

As Cornell’s urbanist historian and author Dr. Thomas J. Campanella famously noted, to his astonishment, how many “intelligent people don’t even notice there is a tree,” even when it is in front of their own house.

The technique of looking at “strongly positive-strongly negative ratios” was pioneered to show the electability of candidates for office, so it seems to make sense to use it to determine City standing with citizens. Through this lens on the results of the survey just released:

-The ratio rating overall appearance and the appearance of gateways is negative.

-The ratio rating mowing along city streets is 2.6 to 1 negative.

-The appearance of roadsides is rated 3 to 1 negative.

-The cleanliness of creeks is 3.6 to 1 negative.

-The enforcement of junk and debris removal on private property is 4.1 to 1 negative.

These findings should be cause for concern about the ripple effects of community appearance.

On a related topic, a new documentary, The Science of Character, will premiere online and at hundreds of events around the world on March 20th as an 8 minute short film by award-winning filmmaker Tiffany Shlain.

The film may include the “periodic table of character strengths,” which scientists have organized into six areas, three that are learned.  One area is what scientists call “transcendence.”  This includes an appreciation of beauty including a spiritual union with nature.

It can be exercised to be more muscular.

Dr. Michael Zimmerman, a researcher at the University of Colorado – Boulder, brings philosophy and other disciplines to the study of nature and the environment.

He co-authored a book first published just as I retired entitled, Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World. The book and the related Integral Ecology Center is an outgrowth of a field that emerged in the 1990s.  It is useful for those of us often caught up in a partisan either/or view of ecology from extremes.

Unfortunately, all of this may be lost on those who are unobservant of nature, including many of those responsible for policy-making and upkeep such as those who allowed North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains to be made into an environmental disaster during just the first two decades of the 1900s.

During the 1930s, Americans became ardent conservationists due to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps.  But eventually, the CCC became less environmentally calloused and that solidarity was fractured by a proposed skyline road along the Great Smokies’ 36-mile ridgeline.

It was intended to be a Blue Ridge Parkway bookend to one above Virginia’s Shenandoah, but many Americans then saw the advantages of a “flankline” approach as detailed in the book, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement.

Long before the 1960s and 1970s, this schism divided Americans into utilitarian conservationists, holistic ecologists and preservationists, and of course, those who remained blissfully unobservant, whose ranks today miss the point about the important distinctions between native plant species and those that are alien or invasive.

It was probably hard to be unobservant of a native American tree that averaged a hundred feet in height and 10 feet around such as the American chestnut.

The largest recorded was 17 feet around in Haywood County, North Carolina in 1915 or so, a Great Smoky county made famous by the book and movie entitled Cold Mountain.

A fungus that choked the water supply to native American chestnut trees was imported on some non-native seeds by a nurseryman in 1876.  During the fifty year period between discovery in 1904 until just after I was born, 4 billion of the trees, which made up 27% of the “tree stand in North Carolina” and 25% of the hardwoods in the east, was extinguished.

A few remain here and there including a wild American chestnut at 5,300’ near Wayah Bald, an overlook in North Carolina built the by the Civilian Conservation Corps in Great Smoky National Park.

The largest of survivors were taken west along the Oregon-Mormon trail trail blazed by my ancestors 167 years ago.  The largest is believed to be on Hawks View vineyard one of several which a friend and I visited in Oregon a few years ago on our way to a wonderful Inn for dinner.

Alien diseases introduced in just the last decade are laying waste to the 8 billion ash trees in the United States, the greatest diversity of which is in the South, including several among the 100-tree grove in which I live.

But the American chestnut, known as the Redwood of the east, was a keystone species, meaning one whose activities scientists have found anchored an entire ecology disproportionate even to its once prolific numbers.

The American chestnut was not only preferred for utilitarian purposes but it had a powerful, outsized influence on wildlife of all sizes, carbon sequestration, the ecology of other trees, soil nutrients and the microclimate of our forests.

So Scientists have been taking two parallel and viable routes to re-establish it.

One, a breeding program, has hybridized it with a smaller but resistant Chinese version, a small orchard tree.  But I am far more intrigued by the route taken by forest biotechnologists at State University of New York.

Results from this approach are growing in Appalachian State University’s Durham Park, where I will guest lecture one day later this month.  But to use a comparison, the genome of the hybridized American chestnut, if they were made of words, would fill a 180 page book, with 11 pages or 3,000 words in Chinese.

I am more heartened by an approach based on mapping of the American chestnut genome and then inserting two to four genes found to give wheat resistance.

The test trees grown this way, now numbering 1,000, are proving to be even more resistant to the fungus,  With transgenic trees, only a couple of words in that 180-page book example would be different than the original, wild American chestnut.

The progress is reviewed in the March issue of Scientific American by one of the lead scientists, Dr. William Powell, who co-chairs the Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at S.U.N.Y – Syracuse.

The results are awaiting regulator approval before introduction into forests, but Powell and his team are diversifying the resistance in case the pathogen mutates, all part of 15 years of forest biotechnology including the innovation of new lab techniques.

North Carolina-based Duke Energy is providing funding in hopes of using American chestnut trees to reforest former surface-mine sites in coaling mining sites in the Appalachian Mountains, such as those in West Virginia,  and to offset its overall environmental footprint.

Researchers at the Duke University School for the Environment based in Durham, where I live, have modeled the anticipated range of American chestnut tree restoration by 2050 and 2070.

Not sure I will make it to be 102 years old but I will definitely observe American chestnuts flourish again in my lifetime, with an tree or two in my grove.

1 comment:

CitizenJohn said...

Very interesting, trash on the roadside seems to draw trash, hey, it must be OK, throw it out and provide jobs! That is of course convoluted logic but it seems to hold true, start a dump and everyone comes.
As to the Chestnut, I live in WNC and early pioneers depended on the Chestnut for their animals and their own food. I don't believe that the settlers (my ancestors) could have survived and moved West as fast as they did without the Chestnut. Chestnuts bloom late unlike the Oaks thereby avoiding frosts resulting in a harvest of nuts (mast) every year. Foresters say that at one time 46% of the trees in Buncombe Co. were Chestnut. I'm glad to hear that gene splicing might solve the problem of resistance to Chestnut Blight. The American Chestnut Foundation has been back/crossing our native Chestnut to Chinese Chestnut trying to get these resistant genes into a 99% American Chestnut tree for years. There are a couple of these trees growing at the I-26 Welcome Center in Madison Co. Maybe gene splicing will be faster. The native American Chestnut is a magnificent tree providing shade for the "village smithy" in Longfellow's poem, chestnuts for the eating, and straight grained wood rot resistant wood that is perfect for building.
More power to the scientists working on this project!