Under the spreading chestnut tree

Just down the road from me, along Brattle Street on the way into Harvard Square, stands the Dexter Pratt House. Its minor claim to lasting fame is that old Dexter Pratt was the local blacksmith, and one fine day in 1840 as he labored under a nearby chestnut tree, who should walk by but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Inspiration smote the poet, and he set down these words.

Under the spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands…

The words remain, and so does the house. But the chestnut is gone. In fact, all the American chestnuts, almost without exception, are gone, having been wiped out by a devastating chestnut blight in the first have of the last century. My father, growing up in Crozet, Virginia, remembers watching the line of dying chestnuts march across the mountains. At the time of the blight, chestnuts made up as much as a third of the great forests of the east. Imagine seeing them all struck down in the span of a few years. By a freakin’ fungus.

The American chestnut isn’t quite extinct, but it’s on the doorstep. Other related chestnut species, notably the Chinese chestnut, don’t have the same blight susceptibility, and for years specialists have interbred the species trying to create an American chestnut with blight resistance. They have succeeded in making resistant hybrids, but none of these has anything like the majestic size of the old American breed.

Carl Zimmer, writing on the National Geographic website, has a good summary of more recent work done to save the tree: Resurrecting A Forest

Rather than using heavy-handed hybrid breeding, new genetic tools make it possible to move genes one at a time from species to species. This is allowing biologists to make a chestnut that is almost entirely native chestnut but with with just enough secret sauce to ward off the fungus. The odds are getting better and better that we (or our children) will see mighty chestnuts once again. But what story will we tell ourselves about it? Zimmer does a good job of capturing this puzzle.

If, a century from now, Powell’s chestnuts tower once again over the eastern United States, how will we think of those forests? Will we think of them as nature restored to its former glory, ecosystems thriving once more? Or will we think of them as unnatural, the product of human tinkering? Or both? Given the past century of struggle to save the chestnut, the choice here is not natural versus unnatural. It’s chestnuts versus no chestnuts. “It’s not going to fix itself,” says Powell.

As Longfellow might have written:

Under the genetically modified chestnut hybrid
The village cyborg stands…

The News from Watertown

I live in Watertown, Massachusetts. That’s where the finale played out in our recent unpleasantness here in the Boston area. My house is just across the Charles River from where the big shootout occurred. About a mile and a half, as the Google flies. It happened a little less than a mile from where my daughter goes to school. Bang! Bang! Bang!

Sounds like I was pretty close to all the excitement, eh? In fact I was more than 3000 miles away. We were on a family vacation to Ireland, so my first hint that something was wrong was when I happened to walk past a TV in the fitness center at the Camden Court Hotel in Dublin. Amid sounds of confusion, the text crawled across the bottom of the screen: Boston Marathon. I hurried back to the room. One of the things I quickly realized was that I had no desire to turn on the TV. At that moment, all I wanted was web access. There’s so little actual information in TV news, particularly when you’re arriving late to a breaking story. Mostly it serves up the same disturbing images over and over. I knew from experience that Twitter, boston.com, and Wikipedia would be my best sources. And so they proved to be.

My wife and I spent the next hour glued to our iPhones, calling out fresh details to each other, fielding emails and texts from concerned family and friends. Then we tried to settle back into vacation mode. It was, of course, strange to fly across the Atlantic only to find Boston at the top of the international news. We started to avoid the “Where are you from?” question because it was such a bummer as a conversation starter. “Sad, so sad. Shame, such a shame.” But even stranger news lay ahead.

Three days later, in the Earl’s Court House hotel in Killarney, I learned that my little home town was the scene of a showdown with the police. Because of the time zone difference, on Friday morning I was reading in real time the first Twitter reports of the ripping blast on Laurel Street, the pop-pop-popping gunfire, the acrid hanging smoke, the vanished bomber. An unhinged bomb-laden terrorist was last seen about a mile from my house, and … and oh look! It’s time for us to go on a carefree ride in a horse-drawn jaunting car by Muckross Lake.


Unbalanced people with deadly weapons and murderous intent are bad. We don’t like those people at all. But here is a very important question: those people, do they look like me? I sure hope they don’t, because that makes this whole hating process so much easier.

Much has been written about this lately, but the crimes of New Town and the crimes of Boston are so close in time and place that it’s hard to avoid. When faced with domestic terror we are able to say, “things like this will happen from time to time.” Shrug. What can you do about crazy people? No countermeasure is likely to make a difference. But terror at the hands of the Other is an abomination for which no countermeasure is too great.

Can’t we find some middle path between these responses? “Keep calm and carry on” is surely the best advice. Things like this will happen from time to time, and we can’t let the immune response be more damaging than the infection.

Being abroad during this storm gave me two gifts. The first was being safe with my family far away from a dangerous event. The second was the experience of being the Other as it unfolded. When you travel abroad, you are apart, the Other. How shall the Other be treated? Countries defined by ethnicity and cultural uniformity are charming, much more charming than the United States. All noise and chaos, America lacks this aligning charm. But this chaos is our saving grace. Shaped by ideas rather than ethnicity, we can embrace the Other as our own. If we are frightened into forsaking the Other, we will have the worst of both worlds. No embrace. No charm. Only a harvest of bitterness.