I trust you have enjoyed the month of December and did not STRESS about trying to get the perfect photographs to get the cards out on time, and find the perfect gift for each person and getting the lights and schedules "just right," and wondering how exactly your finances - or budget - would hold up through the end of the year.
I hope, instead, you found yourself celebrating the season with gatherings of friends and family, music that evoked good memories and reminded you of the reason for the season, and had the time to contemplate why we focus on joy and light and peace and hope this time of year.
So in this pause before 2024, when we aren't sure what day it is or what the future holds, I want to remind you of the analogy of autumn and the lessons of falling leaves and introduce you to another story of hope and redemption. Let's talk about the American Chestnut.
Have you ever wondered about "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"? Or "While the chestnuts pop, pop - pop - pop"? How did chestnuts enter the American holiday lexicon...and why did they disappear...and what analogies can be drawn about hope for the future of freedom in the United States?
The American Chestnut
The American chestnut once dominated large portions of the eastern United States. From as far North as Maine (and Southern Ontario) – to as far South as Northern Georgia, then West to the Ohio River Valley, and then from there, north to Indiana.
The trees numbered in the BILLIONS. Some sources say four billion. Others say EIGHT BILLION trees! How many chestnuts could BILLIONS of trees produce? It looks like the live oaks we walk under each day produce MILLIONS of acorns each season. Can we even fathom the number of chestnuts a dense forest of giant trees would produce in any given season? I'm not going to pretend to know the answer to that question, but I do believe we would be approaching quantities our human minds cannot even visualize.
Because it was the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing tree in the eastern United States, Chestnut wood was found everywhere. It was rot-resistant and straight-grained, so it was used for fence posts, railroad ties, and telephone poles as well as flooring and foundations, building houses - and fashioning furniture and even caskets. And one might think the American chestnut disappeared because human beings cut them all down for such uses. But that would not be true. Human consumption of the wood did not even make a visible dent in the vast number of trees on the eastern American landscape.
But aside from the plentiful and widely available rot-resistant wood, the chestnuts themselves were also nutritious, dense with calories and rich in vitamin C and antioxidants. Agricultural livestock would often be pastured in the American chestnut forest to fatten them up for sale, but the chestnut was also a plentiful source of good nutrition for human beings - and so abundant, they could almost be considered a "free good" - for those living near the forests
And It was not uncommon to see stories in late 19th Century newspapers about railroad cars just OVERFLOWING with chestnuts to be sold fresh or roasted in major American cities.
So because chestnut ripening coincided nicely with the holiday season – we find them quickly becoming a holiday treat – and that is how they found their way into all these Christmas songs.
But we can travel from New York to Georgia and not see a single chestnut tree today. Chestnuts for sale this time of year are quite costly. And we aren't including them as treats for children. We aren't roasting them at parties anymore. The abundant source of nutrition disappeared. How did this happen?
In the late 1800s, a deadly blight found its way to the American shores. The American Chestnut trees started dying in 1904 after a fungus was introduced by imported chestnuts from Asia.
The American Liberty Analogy
Many analogies could be made here. But let's start with freedom. The United States was once synonymous with liberty. It was suitable for everything, and no matter how much was embraced, it didn't even seem to make a dent in the supply. The fruit of liberty was also so abundant that it appeared to be a free good, just available there on the ground for the taking. Feeding other products of the American experience, sustaining even the poorest of us with the innate nutrition, and always available to the point that it appeared there would always be a supply. There was so much freedom in America, it overflowed on its way to more populated places and left its imprint simply by chance along the railroad of progress.
Liberty was so plentiful and produced so much good for so many people and the benefits and progress seemed to have no bounds, that the American people took it for granted.
Then, a fungus was introduced. A blight that slowly killed off ONLY the American brand of chestnut/liberty. A slow moving, yet unstoppable destruction until the last native tree succumbed. Foreign ideas antithetical to the foundations of the Great American Experiment slowly crept into the forests of American liberty and destroyed not just the native concept of freedom, but all the fruit and by-products that once depended upon the foundational idea.
But although the story of the American chestnut is one of bounty - and then tragedy - it is also one of hope. And so is the story of American liberty.
The blight that was introduced cannot kill the underground root system, so new shoots come up all the time. The natural law of liberty cannot be killed or changed by bad ideas and entitlement attitudes.
The American chestnut tree APPEARS to be extinct, but new saplings are constantly growing from the unkillable root system. Even though I believe the American Experiment has failed, there are ALWAYS bright spots, cases where liberty wins, young people who escape the ubiquitous programming and narrative, and people simply living free because they are free.
Just like there is hope for a tree that appears to be extinct, there is yet hope for American liberty.
However, each new sapling always succumbs to the blight.
So if the new trees still die, where is the hope?
12 trees were planted in 1900 in Wisconsin – OUTSIDE the native range of the American Chestnut in order to try to save the species. There are pockets of freedom and several people who want to save the American brand of liberty. Interestingly, many of these bright spots are transplants from another place and time, immigrants from Venezuela, Columbia, Russia (the Soviet Union), Africa, or China.
There are almost 1300 American Chestnut trees in Wisconsin today, but even though their ancestors escaped the initial onslaught, in 1987 even this – the largest stand of American Chestnuts left - were found to be infected. Even those who managed to hold onto the liberty promised them cannot avoid being infected by the media, by the political experience, by the entertainment industry, by time itself - and the unending exposure to counter-cultural ideals.
So where is the hope?
For the American Chestnut tree, the hope is found in studying and experimenting with the remaining trees, whether infected or not, with the goal of being able to someday reintroduce the AMAZING tree as blight-resistant.
For the lover of liberty, the hope is found in connecting the stories of those who escaped tyranny and are trying to point out the direction this country is headed with those (new saplings) who have somehow managed to grow out of the indestructible root system. What appears to be extinct could actually come back stronger and indestructible.
However, even if the American Chestnut could be reintroduced stronger than ever, I don't see the forests growing to BILLIONS of trees in my lifetime. Likewise, even if foundational American liberty (and its by-products) makes a resurgence as an indestructible force, it is unlikely to dominate the landscape again in my lifetime. And this saddens me, but also gives me hope for generations to come.
And the other analogy I wish I had time to make is that of life itself - a lesson of redemption, of God's ability to bring life out of death, and hope for a better future despite the utter destruction we have made of our lives and our society. But I will end with this.
Let's keep the lesson and story of the American Chestnut alive. Let's keep the foundational root system of liberty in the forefront of American minds. Let's not take what little liberty we have left for granted because it USED TO BE so plentiful. But let us dine on the by-products of liberty, soaking in the nutrition, and planting the seeds in the minds of others with gratitude and appreciation for the blessing of knowing that foundational liberty for ourselves and tasting of the once-plentiful fruit even though it costs so much to do so today.