Susan Freinkel, in her excellent book “American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree,” describes how, in the fall, when the nuts were sometimes inches deep on the ground, families used to gather them for their own use and to sell. Livestock was let loose to eat their fill. People who didn’t eat chestnuts often ate chestnut-fed venison or squirrel. Furniture, fence posts and utility poles were made of the long, straight, rot-resistant timber. In some places, one in four forest trees was a chestnut, and the tallest stood 12 stories high.
Then a fungus killed almost all of them. The chestnut blight was first spotted in 1904 and is believed to have arrived here in Asian chestnut trees, which have some resistance to it. American chestnuts have none, and all but a few hundred of the 3 to 4 billion trees were wiped out in just a couple of decades.
Three to 4 billion. It’s hard to get your arms around a number that big, so let’s convert it to something useful: food. A mature tree can produce several hundred pounds of nuts (the record is more than 1,000 pounds); about 70 percent of that weight is actual nutmeat. For the sake of being conservative and working with round numbers, let’s call it 100 pounds of nutmeat per tree, at about 1,000 calories per pound, or 100,000 calories per tree. So 10 trees would provide the million calories (give or take) one person eats in a year.
Here’s what that means: If we still had those 3 to 4 billion trees, they would meet 100 percent of the caloric needs of today’s entire American population of just over 300 million. They could feed every last one of us.
Of course, even without the blight, we’d have lost a good portion of the trees as development encroached on forests. And living exclusively on chestnuts would get old fast, anyhow, despite their versatility as a foodstuff: They can be roasted, fried, candied, steamed, grilled and even turned into flour. Those numbers are just a way to imagine how significant a food source American chestnut trees were, and could be again.
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