I’ve never seen a chestnut tree
two times eternity
– Big Barn Burning
Even as a kid, there was something about the story of the American Chestnut tree that made me yearn for a past I never knew. The blight first appeared in Brooklyn in 1904, and within 50 years they were gone. Millions of trees stretching from New England to Georgia, along the spine of the Appalachians, spilling across the Great Lakes into Ontario, and along the Ohio Valley, gone. Mere ghost trees, whose trunks still exist, stumps ten foot in diameter, slowly succumbing to rot over generations.
There must be some melancholy deep within to make me sad for an event that had little to do with my life. The death of millions of trees could not have been the cause of such longing, just a symptom, like the rust colored rings around the trunks of the doomed chestnuts. No, I was born with this blight for nostalgia. This yearning for things that could never be known or experienced, because somewhere deep within I knew there was a better place, one that I would never know.
This strain is not confined to me alone. I was musing on it the other day reading the comments over at Front Porch Republic. A hang out for many such blighted souls that long for a past they never knew, and will never know. FPR is about more than mourning a past lost to us, if it indeed ever existed. Like the stumps of long dead chestnuts in the Appalachian woods, the remnants of our agrarian republic exist merely as ruins around us. Scraps of community, bits of human scaled economy, and the old regionalisms that make a Kentuckian long for the rolling limestone hills covered in blue grass, and a Vermonter to get misty like the fog hanging over the Green Mountains. Slowly, but with a quickening pace, these regional differences, these local identities, fade beneath the omnipresent monoculture.
And like the folks at the American Chestnut Foundation, the folks over at FPR refuse to give up on the past. They spend their time thinking, and writing, and arguing about the way to create a disease resistant seedling from the old republic, that can grow and flourish despite the blight around us.
Alas, the analogy does not stop there. The work that they are doing cannot yield fruit in their lifetimes.
So why do it? Why struggle to try to retrieve something we never knew except in books? Something that is so irretrievably lost, we still argue about whether it even existed. Why bother? Because they suffer the same melancholy that I do. They believe in an Eden that was lost through our own doing. One that surely can be restored if only we retrace our steps, and find the places where we took the wrong turns.
It is true stewardship work. Something that consumes the self with a guarantee to pay dividends to future generations only. It is work that by its nature will always be filled with self doubt, and self righteousness. It has to be worth it, because if it isn’t then how can we face that emptiness inside?
So keep on grafting the seedlings boys and girls. Keep grafting. We’ll go to our graves without seeing the ridge tops covered in the white flowering chestnuts, but that doesn’t mean they won’t someday stretch across this old republic of front porches again.