The day after Earth Day at the New York Botanical Garden was one of those spring stunners when half the city had come out to get their nature fix after a long, gray winter. Couples lolled on the lawns and shot photos of babies beneath blossoming crab apples. Parents pushing strollers past Azalea Garden and up Daffodil Hill eyed me suspiciously as I sidled up to a scraggly bare tree beside the path.
Amid 250 acres of gorgeous organisms, this specimen was the homeliest of the bunch. Twelve feet tall, with spindly gray branches and raw cankers shredding its trunk, it was not likely to be featured in any baby photos that day. Yet I had come all the way from Vermont to see it. The draw for me wasn't looks; it was the fact that the tree was alive at all. Here was a 10-year-old American chestnut, one of the first in a century to make it that long.
The American chestnut has been called the redwood of the East. From Georgia to Maine, up and down the spine of Appalachia, no other tree could match its grandeur. Its trunks soared 100 feet high and could reach 10 feet in diameter. With crowns that spanned a fifth of an acre, its prodigious nut crops were essential food for everything from bears to passenger pigeons. It was known as the cradle-to-grave tree because people were born in rot-resistant chestnut houses, warmed by chestnut fires, entertained by chestnut fiddles, and laid to rest in chestnut coffins.