Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The American Chestnut

I don't often see my father-in-law excited.

Of German stock from upstate NY, Dave is stoic and hard, with a handshake that hurts.  He is a retired forester, having spent most of his life crashing around the Adirondack Park marking trees and surveying land for the state.  He has watched paper companies take more than they should for decades, using guidelines for tree harvesting that only apply in the lowlands, where trees grow a lot faster than up in the High Peaks.  He has witnessed species decline, the better tree specimens harvested and the worse left to reproduce.  While the Adirondack Park is as large as Massachusetts and in some ways a model of private/public cooperation, the tree stock is not in good health.  This situation has only augmented his curmudgeonly character.

Which was why over dinner last night I was so happy to see him, well, elated about the American Chestnut tree.

The American Chestnut used to cover the Appalachian Mountain range from New York to Georgia in such a density that people complained they could not walk up hill over the expanse of nuts.  When de Soto explored this area in the late 16th century, he proclaimed that wherever there are mountains, there are chestnuts.  These trees used to grow up to 120' tall, with base widths on average 4-7" in diameter.  Stump circles left by these giants indicate much larger diameters, up to 13' across.  The Chestnut also coppices well, a perfect ring of trees multiplying from a single felled stump.  The wood is rot resistant (due to high levels of tannin), light weight, hard, and as I have heard, beautiful for furniture.  It provided food for bear, deer, squirrels, etc..., and all the attending wildlife that in turn depended on them.  In fact, part of the reason for the extinction of the passenger pigeon was its loss of habitat: the American Chestnut.  The Scotch-Irish settlers of this region relied on the Chestnut for nuts to trade, food for pigs and wood for homes.
The American Chestnut was a keystone species of the region.

Tragically, in the early 20th c. Asian Chestnuts were brought to the US, and with them a blight.  The blight ravaged the American Chestnut, girdling young trees in the first five years of life.  Within fifty years, approximately 4 billion trees were killed, 99.99% of the American Chestnut population.  Wildlife populations collapsed, and an already poor people fell into desperate poverty.  The Appalachian peoples lost two of their major income streams (nuts and the pigs that fed on them), all in the midst of the Great Depression and World War II.  Today, only a few hundred trees remain over the original 200,000,000 range.  Literally every tree in the US is accounted for, registered by the federal government and monitored closely by volunteers.  Some have gone so far as to proclaim the collapse of the American Chestnut as the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world's forests in history.

For years, scientists have tried to create a transgenic variety of the American Chestnut that could resist the blight.  The American Chestnut Society has had some success interbreeding seedlings, trying to breed out the blight-susceptible gene, breed in a blight-resistant gene, and include all the great characteristics of the American variety.  They appear about five years out from their goal.  Also exciting to note, researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY) discovered that a gene from wheat would do the trick.  This new variety of American Chestnut can resist the blight.  SUNY scientists are now going through a regulatory review process with the USDA, EPA, and FDA, but in the meantime they are trying to grow ten thousand seedlings so they will be ready to start planting if/when approval comes.

In my lifetime I might see the return of this keystone species.

And this has Dave uncharacteristically happy...

It also seems that the American Chestnut Foundation is having some success breeding a blight-resistant strain.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Half a world away, my friend Eugen from Transylvania ate breakfast with one of my spoons.

Through the Green Wood Spoon Swap Facebook group, Eugen and I were able to swap spoons and admire one another's technique.

He has dubbed it the "little ballerina," which I find wonderful.  While carving the spoon I was thinking hard about what my daughters would like, from the handle length to the bowl width to the kolrosing.  I find it marvelous that half a world away a man I have never met in person was able to pick up on that aesthetic.  Really goes to show that deep down, we all share a basic human connection.

Last week another on-line acquaintance experienced a tragedy.  Alex, a photographer, musician and woodworker, was away when his house burned to the ground.  He lost everything: his home, his shop and tools, his guitar collection, and (gasp) his photographic equipment and all his photos!  Such a loss for this guy.  Thankfully no one was hurt.

Well, the Facebook group stepped up and launched an auction this weekend, with all proceeds to go to Alex's Paypal account.  Objects and bids came in from around the world.  Would you believe they raised around $7000 in two days?  All for a guy few of us have ever met in person.

Some have said that the internet is the world's greatest experiment in anarchy.  Maybe.  In the individual sense, the internet is certainly anarchic at times--like the Wild West, everyone out for themselves.  But the internet is also anarchic in the social sense, where communities materialize around a common passion, are maintained with relatively little "government" (not to minimize all the hard work the admins did for the auction), and almost naturally serve the needs of the group.  Maybe these Facebook groups are an example of social anarchy?

Whatever you call it, it feels like community to me.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A few new turned bowls

Finally painted and oiled a few little turned bowls. Both only about 6" across.  I busted out a lot of blanks and started turning in succession (which for me is one a day), and it helped me with technique.  I still struggle to get a smooth inner surface, and the rim is always a tricky bit.  I am really digging the blue coming through the red on the bottom bowl.  Makes the read feel deep.  Like a "reinforced red."  Also, the surface of sanded milk paint is lovely to the touch.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why it took me years, I will never know...

Finally finished a carved bowl, a la Dave Fisher, several years after instruction from him.  It took me that long to build one of Dave's bowl horses and a carving bench to really secure the work.  Here is the bench:

Once the log was cleaned up and the form laid out with dividers and string, I set about excavating.  

And twenty minutes later, the basic bowl interior is done.  I should have taken more time to refine this shape while the bulk of the log was still on there, but I could not wait to get to axing (and I was worried that all that wood would start to check if I did not bring the bulk down a bit.)  Here is the rough form with some of the axing finished.

And after much refining, going back and forth from outside to inside, from the bench to the horse, from drawknife to gouge, I finally finished it.  I definitely need to streamline my order of operations.  Lots of inefficiency in this process.  Also, it is amazing how hard it was to make this without Dave looking over my shoulder.  Despite detailed notes on the process, I made many of the mistakes that he warned me about.  Sometimes it takes doing to really see how something is done.

And so, here it is--spalted bich, red over blue milk paint on the underside, flax and beeswax finish:

 Thanks for everything, Dave!