March 12, 2003

Chestnut Roasting on a Open Fire

I told here about a week ago about how I cutup an old barn timber for firewood. I lamented about how bad I felt using it for heat. The old oak beam had served its purpose, and it made a nice quick fire. But it wasn't oak after all, and now I feel even worse about using it for kindling...

It was Chestnut. American Chestnut.

I could tell from the density and weight of the 9 foot 12" round beams that it was not pine. Besides, it had been stacked on its end propped up against a tree at the edge of the pasture now for a couple years, and the ground end of a pine log would have started getting spongy and weak. And when I cut it in sections with the chain saw, the grain was more open like oak, and not yellow-green like poplar. It wasn't until I began to split some of the stove lengths for kindling with the hatchet that I noticed: the long, straight grain that splits so easily along the grain but is tough against it; the golden-yellow color unlike any other wood common around here; and the characteristic little holes that are typical of old "wormy chestnut".

Sorry, I lost where this image came from last week. FFChestnut, you probably know, was once a dominant tree (about 50% of many eastern forests) and provided nuts for food (pigs especially loved chestnuts), wood for rail fences and railroad ties, furniture and tools, and tannins for leather making. Chestnut was the 'supermarket of the backwoods'. The species... not just a large number of trees... the species of American Chestnut succumbed to a fungal pest first noted in the Bronx Zoological Gardens in the early years of the 20th century. By 1920, the trees (that commonly reached 100 feet tall and 5-6 feet in diameter) were all dying and thereafter, new growth would be killed by the same organism that would persist in the roots of the tree.

The wood has amazing tolerance to decay (which is why it made such great split rail fences) and there are still remnants of the fallen giants in the woods here in southwest Virginia. We have found split chestnut rails along our boundary here... 70 or more years old, and still solid enough that we will use them to fashion a crude stacked fence along the road some day. But I had never seen stout timbers of chestnut, so perhaps can be forgiven for not recognizing it at first.

When I discovered it was chestnut, I rescued four pieces from the woodpile. I'll do something creative with them some day... carve something, spin it on a lathe and make a candlestick... if I ever have the tools. The way things will go, I can pretty well predict: I'll put them over in the barn for later, and never get around to working with them. Twenty years from now, one of the kids will find a couple of old chunks of wood stored there for no known reason; but knowing they belonged to mom and dad, they'll leave them be. Twenty years later, the grandchildren will be cleaning out the barn, find four chunks of non-descript wood. And they will toss them into the wood stove.

Posted by fred1st at March 12, 2003 04:31 AM | TrackBack

What a wonderful story about the Chestnut, both past and present. Glad to hear you at least rescued some of the pieces, even if other bits went up in flames. It's a shame, however, that so much has been lost.

Posted by: Alexandra at March 12, 2003 11:11 AM

The giving tree.

How is that we can be a little sad about your use of the chestnut for the fire?

Today I will think about big trees, old trees, and how they serve us for generations. Thank you for the story.

Posted by: meg at March 12, 2003 01:06 PM

Great story. I understand there has been some success in attempts to bring back the American Chestnut. They have studied some of the rare trees that survived and are working to breed resistant strains.

Posted by: Jeff at March 14, 2003 03:46 PM

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