One Big Tree

 the largest surviving American chestnuts left in the entire world

A Blast from the Past.

Back before my wife and I got married in the late 80’s. I found myself involved in an “event” that made the local news.

  I was surprised after all these years to find evidence of it on the internet. So I asked the American Forests magazine for permission to reprint this article on my blog.

But first, here is a little background information;

After graduating in 1983 I was often found hanging out at a friends house a few miles to the north in Lynden Wa. At that time, many of us hung out at his home. He just got married and his parents who lived for decades in another location allowed him and his new family to use the old family homestead that had been in the family for generations.

In the back yard of the place, like many old farms was a collection of buildings in various states of decay as well as several mature trees. At the time I had a growing interest in trees, an interest that I still have to this day.

One tree that was right out the back door did not look like the rest. I tried looking it up and I could never find it when I was looking at local species. So one day I cut a small branch off the tree with my pocket knife and brought it home. My dad who was born in the south got a funny look on his face when I handed it to him.

So in an effort, to not make this an incredibly long article out of this. Here is what I quickly learned.

  • I could not find because it was not a native species
  • It looked just like the young sprouts that came up out of the ground and died in the south my father saw.
  • We needed to send off a sample to confirm it really was what dad remembered.

Long story short, my friends family decided at the same time to accept the city of Lynden’s offer to sell them the land for a new school. And the people in charge had no desire to do anything about the tree other than bull doze it.

Next thing I knew there was town council meetings, people sitting around the tree with children refusing to move and then some lady from the local TV station shoved a TV camera in my face. So that she could interview the person who discovered it.

Looking at that big glass lens of the TV camera, I suddenly forgot the question she asked as I felt the blood drain out of my face. In the end, my blank look and silence caused her to turn the camera to my more photogenic older brother Larry.

Robert A. Foster

***************

SAVING SOMETHING OF VALUE

By McLean, Herbert E.

For every specimen listed in this 50th Anniversary Edition of the National Register of Big Trees, there are many other nominees that don’t make the grade and thus recede into obscurity. But for one distinctive tree, its moment of public notoriety may well have meant its very survival. Here’s how it happened:

The American chestnut (Castanea dentata), rendered virtually extinct in the U.S. by a killer fungus that may have originated in the Orient, once represented half of the total tree population in the East. The story of its decimation reveals the worst of what can go wrong in the American forest.

But not long ago in Lynden, Washington (population 5,000), a dairy community in the state’s far northwest corner, a resident from nearby Bellingham spotted what he thought might be an American chestnut. Standing 40 feet tall and with a 10 1/2-foot circumference, it was capable of quickening the pulse of any lover of chestnuts – an extraordinary survivor in an unlikely place.

Robert Foster, the discoverer, sent a leaf-and-twig sample to the American Chestnut Foundation in Minneapolis, and back came surprising news: “At 40 inches in trunk diameter, that tree is one of the largest surviving American chestnuts left in the entire world,” reported Donald C. Willeke, the Foundation’s secretary (and an AFA director).

The tree appeared perfectly healthy, but its future was not. The owner, Lynden School District 504, was planning to cut it down to make room for a big new school on the 11-acre parcel on which it grew.

Foster’s brother and sister-in-law, Lynden residents Larry Foster and Rebecca Wiswell, were initially unimpressed. After all, they had four three-year-old American chestnut seedlings growing in their yard.

But then they started thinking: “This world is the only place we have, and people are destroying it without finding what’s here…”

The school board communicated its position succinctly: “The tree must go.” The young couple, sensing the need for reinforcements, took to phone and pen. He put a notice in the Fairhaven College bulletin – and got his dander up in the process. She collared friends, relatives, and anyone else who’d listen.

On the night of the next school-board meeting, 20 supporters showed up, including representatives of every garden club in the county, plus the American Chestnut Foundation. Ane Soriano, representing the Everson Garden Club, explained the rarity, size, and healthy condition of the threatened tree.

The school board stood firm but held out a rather costly carrot: if the group could pony up $40,000 for a sewage pump station, maybe the new school could be moved away from the chestnut. The little coalition asked for three weeks; the Board gave them three days. So, with a reporter from the Lynden Tribune in tow, they trooped over to the City Council that same evening – only to be told that the Council couldn’t stop the school board from removing the tree.

For the next few days, Larry, Rebecca, and Ane attacked the problem with single-mindedness. Larry closed down his gardening business and skipped classes. He called state departments of Ecology and Natural Resources, the Board of Education, the Governor’s office, Audubon Society, local politicians, and radio, TV, and newspapers. Others also got on the phone.

On the deadline day, it was obvious that all the calling had accomplished its goal. The board said it would look into changing its plans if the coalition would investigate moving the tree. While the group was getting the sad news that it would cost $5,000 to move the tree (with only a zero to 30 percent chance of its surviving), petitions went out, and within just six days, 1,000 locals had signed in support of saving the chestnut. Not bad for a town of 5,000.

Shortly thereafter, Seattle’s KOMO-TV, Bellingham’s KVOS-TV, and the Lynden Tribune arrived around the tree – along with some 50 supporters – for a media workover. And the Lynden chestnut suddenly became a visible symbol of community resolve to preserve something of newly perceived value in the little town.

On the same day the KOMO-TV feature aired in Seattle, the Lynden School Board announced that it would build the new school elsewhere on the property, and leave ample room for the tree.

Today the American chestnut in Lynden is decidedly a part of life in that little town. Who knows how many school children will gather around it on warm spring days to study the American chestnut’s fresh green outlines against the coastal sky, and perhaps to plant other chestnuts?

Meanwhile, Larry Foster and wife Rebecca nominated the tree for AFA’s National Register of Big Trees. It fell somewhat short – an even larger American chestnut was submitted by Washington State’s big-tree coordinator, Robert Van Pelt. But no matter …the Lynden chestnut’s place in history is secure.

COPYRIGHT 1990 American Forests magazine, (Vol 96, No 1-2) Jan 1990

No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.

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