It’s hard for us now to imagine what our Eastern forests must have looked like 120 years ago. One in every four hardwood trees in 1900 was a chestnut. When you looked out on a vista of the forest, the canopy you gazed at was mostly chestnut. Today the American chestnut is almost extinct and the ecosystem completely different because of it. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that the forest around me bears almost no resemblance to the forest that my great grandfather grew up in, despite their identical location.
Chinese and Japanese chestnuts were imported for cultivation in the 1890s because of their small stature. Unfortunately, they also carried a blight that the Chinese and Japanese versions had developed resistance to. The American chestnut had no resistance and within 20 years, the native chestnuts were all dead.
In the 70s, my grandfather planted Chinese chestnuts on the farm where my wife and I live, and where we run the North American Bushcraft School. They are broad, shady, majestic things planted along the long lazy driveway that traces a creek through the center of the farm. Some people say that the Chinese chestnut doesn’t taste as good as the American. They’re pretty delicious. In the summer, they start to produce burrs that are unpickable without gloves, and the sweet dark reddish brown nut starts to grow inside. In September, it will begin to rain chestnuts. The burrs pop open and launch the sweet fruits out onto the driveway, into the poison ivy patch and onto the heads of unsuspecting picnickers.
The harvest has just begun here. I love harvesting chestnuts. The fruits are so glossy and deeply colored, and the trees are so generous! If we keep up with them, we will get hundreds of pounds of chestnuts from the three mature trees while leaving more than enough for the squirrels, deer and rabbits. The chestnuts themselves are delicious. I like to just peel off the outer layer and eat them right there, stooped beneath the tree with a basket full of nuts under one arm. They are sweet and dense, like a confection. I am still experimenting with other ways to prepare them, since very few usually make it past raw eating and roasting over early-season fires in the hearth of our old cabin.
Nothing, to me, feels quite like foraging for your own food. Not only do I get to taste and smell what my ancestors did, and cut my fingers on the burrs just like I’m sure they did, but when I bite into a chestnut that came from a tree I know and that I picked off of the ground, cleaned and prepared, I don’t take it for granted. I stop and enjoy the color, the smell and the indulgent taste of the nut. I am also extremely grateful. Instead of being resentful of the high price of nuts at the supermarket and how many memos I had to write to buy a big can of tasteless nuts, I get a chance to be grateful for the opulence of these beautiful trees and for the afternoons they let me spend in their shade, scooping up chestnuts.
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