After an absence of nearly sixty years, chestnut trees are once again appearing in New York City. In 2008, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) planted five American chestnut trees on Governors Island as part of the UN’s Seven Billion Tree Campaign. The project is working in conjunction with the Department of the Interior‘s Office of Surface Mining (OSM), to repopulate the planet’s native but lost woody perennials. Corporate, municipal and private donors from around the world have contributed their time and money in an effort to plant 38 million various trees in select regions.
Chestnut trees once flourished in eastern forests from Maine to Georgia. Their strength of root and beauty of leaf were legendary. Dutch settlers in the New World found the tree’s wood exceptionally strong and durable, using its timber to build the first structures in Manhattan. In fact, chestnut trees were so numerous in Manhattan that Native Americans called the island “Nut” island (an appropriate name even today, but for different reasons).
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow introduced the Everyman/ hero of his immortal poem The Village Blacksmith with the lines, “Under a spreading chestnut-tree/ The village smithy stands.” Then again, many people took such things seriously, and with a straight face, in those days.
Alas, despite the high esteem of the Dutch, American Indians and Longfellow, the American chestnut tree was doomed to slowly diminish and ultimately vanish from its native soil. In 1904, blight was observed on several chestnut trees outside the Bronx Zoo. The blight was of an airborne variety and quickly spread fifty miles a year, killing up to three billion American Chestnut trees in less than 30 years.
The American Chestnut Foundation is chiefly responsible for the chestnut trees that were planted by the ARRI. The partnership between ACF, the ARRI and UNEP are serving as a model for other groups across the globe eager to restore disrupted landscapes.