This is a chestnut tree. It is a loner, a survivor, a hybrid that is resistant to the fungus that killed four billion of its kin in the first decades of the 20th century. The American chestnut, Castanea dentata, once comprised one of every four trees in the eastern United States. The trees were massive and beautiful – a mature chestnut crown contained an acre of leaves.
The wood was renowned for its beauty, rot-resistance, and strength, and most barns and homes east of the Mississippi River utilized it. The fruit of the tree, an indigenous staple for millennia, became a favorite American food – we even still sing about roasting them over an open fire at Christmastime. But a blight introduced from imported Asian ornamentals in 1904 wiped out almost all of them. And while a handful of naturally resistant mature trees have been found, efforts to repopulate the tree through hybridization with Asian chestnuts will not restore what was. Those forests are gone for good.
This is an ash tree – specifically, a brown ash (as we call it in Maine), Fraxinus nigra. Traditional basket makers have long sought this particular species as the source of an ideal weaving material, because perfect splints can be peeled off a log after pounding it with a mallet or the back of an axe. The wood steam-bends beautifully, and has been used to make snowshoes, toboggans, and axe handles for many centuries. Even the sound of the wood has become ingrained into American consciousness – the crack of the bat is the quintessential sound of summertime to many.
But if the experts are correct, this tree will likely be dead within decades. The emerald ash borer, a beautiful but immensely destructive beetle that came into this country in a load of imported Asian lumber in the early 2000s, has become the most devastating invasive insect ever observed in North America. An infestation is almost 100% fatal. Tens of millions of ash trees have already been wiped out by this bug, with billions more in danger in the coming years.
We as woodworkers have a deep appreciation of the beauty and value of the materials we use, of the almost miraculous nature of wood. We feel these losses more acutely than most. And as the world moves at an ever-increasing pace towards interconnectivity and a global economy, these kinds of devastating events will continue. We recently began stocking a book, Small is Beautiful, that suggests other ways forward for us as individuals and communities. It offers some excellent food for thought. Because while things like one-click ordering, cheap mass-produced goods, and a seamless supply chain are modern marvels, we should probably be asking ourselves the question: What are we losing?