Bread, not gold: the wealth of chestnut trees

‘A dozen chestnut trees and as many goats are enough for a Corsican family not to starve. Secure in this regard, nothing can then persuade the Corsican father to work, except to buy a rifle.’ – Journal d’agriculture pratique, de jardinage et d’économie domestique, Volume 1, p.161 (link)

‘Voulez-vous réduire les Corses? Coupez les châtaigniers!’ – Maréchal Horace Sébastiani, born and raised in Corsica (link)

Gnarled old givers, inhabitants, holders of space, land, stories of people and place, twisted ancient ropes tensioning soil to sky, mooring each to the other’s port, preventing Disembarkation of both until the decay finally frays and rips through you, the release and crumbling to death and dust, to be replaced by… what?

I hear the stories people tell about you, read the histories, anecdotes, adverts, but ultimately feel these as so many self-centered idiocies. The real story can be read here & now, written in bark, sapwood, heartwood, root, branch, twig, leaf and the living (lived in) landscape in which it was established and continues to grow.

I’ve been working your orchards for about a month now, here in the uplands of the Ardèche region in southern France. Cutting the leafy suckers at your base, piling them for hungry sheep, struggling on the drought-browned grasses (‘faire de la feuille’ in the old terminology) or for the tractor to chop through in the yearly effort to clear the ground for the next stage: Putting nets down – bottom of the slope upwards so the overlaps facilitate harvest collections, a rock or large branch in corners holding the tension against the wind, rolled against the steeper slopes to catch runaway burrs, wrapped around trunks like sticky cobwebs patchworking an efficiency on the dusty ground…

I look down towards the task at hand and inwardly to the energy-conserving logics I’m internalising, managing the stresses and strains of my labour as I’ve been taught. How often have I taken the time to look up, to stop and appreciate you? Not often. And of course my over-educated middle class brain then wants to examine the ethics of the activity. This was the recently read passage going around my mind:

So close was the relationship of trees to human society that their treatment, like that of horses or children, fluctuated according to changing educational fashion. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries infants were swaddled; and it was widely held that most children would need to be beaten and repressed. Timber trees, correspondingly, were to be pollarded (i.e. beheaded), lopped or shredded (by cutting off the side branches). […] There were utilitarian reasons for many of these practices, but they were also seen as a kind of moral discipline: ‘The luxuriancy and vigour of most healthful trees,’ declared John Laurence in 1726, ‘is like the extravagant sallies of youth, who are apt to live too fast, if not kept within due bounds and restrained by seasonable corrections.’ Regular pruning kept ‘all in order, which would otherwise be perfect anarchy and confusion’.

In the eighteenth century, when educational theories became less repressive, the cultivation of trees moved from regimentation to spontaneity. There was a reaction against ‘mutilating’ trees or carving them into ‘unnatural’ shapes. […] This was the spirit which would, in due course, lead to the abandonment of swaddling clothes for infants, wigs for men and, for a time, corsets for women, on the grounds that they were unnatural and unspontaneous. (Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World p.220-1)

The vexing, faintly ridiculous question that emerged: “So how do I justify this intervention and suppression of the tree’s spontaneous, wild nature, constantly trying to re-assert itself from below the graft point? Isn’t it a bit hypocritical for one who rails against the heavy-handed forms of ‘cultivation’ imposed upon himself to be doing this kind of thing?” I come up with no satisfactory answers…

B said she loved you, thought you beautiful and felt it a tragedy that you were dying off at such a frightening rate (drought, disease, neglect). The emotions came to me as an almost foreign invitation, so long have I been immersed in the Manly headspace of economics and utility (Necessary because otherwise Things won’t get Done) but I know that other part of me is still down there somewhere and I’m grateful for the opportunity to feed and drip water down to it again. Some day another shoot will spring forth and I will have to decide what to do with it: mercilessly cut it back to the ground, leave it to grow as it pleases, or culture it, prune, train, graft, encourage, urge the best form for Production.

*****

That’s how you came to be here, occupying these spaces for centuries, maybe millennia. The pollen record goes way back to ice age refugia and nuts show up in Mesolithic middens stretching back 10,000 years or more, but your species is much older (I heard fossilised leaves and fruits of a close ancestor were dated back to 85 million years ago) and ours too – surely the relationship predates the earliest records. In any case researchers have found you and walnut over-represented in pollen cores by a lake in the Euganean Hills of northeast Italy in the early stages of the Neolithic some 6,300 years ago, associated with the arrival of wheat, flax, hemp, plantain, buttercup and others along with levels of charcoal indicating a ‘huge increase in regional fire activity’ suggesting that ‘the two trees were advantaged or perhaps even introduced for agricultural purposes’ (Kaltenrieder, p.690).

More recently Native Americans were known to regularly burn the understory of chestnut groves, even of wild forests between villages or encampments:

[E]vidence suggests that Native Americans purposely promoted mast and fruit trees through planting and cultivation. 21 mast and fruit trees and 16 berry-producing shrub species were potentially cultivated by Native Americans in the eastern USA. Indians actively manipulated oak-hickory-chestnut forests with fire to provide more abundant food resources. This included (1) increased browse quality and quantity for deer and for concentrating the herd in managed areas, (2) increased mast quality and quantity for winter-spring subsistence, and (3) a reduction of forest-floor litter to facilitate mobility and mast collection. Native Americans favoured nut trees and other food plants and were probably responsible for increasing them in the pre-European forest. This included the planting of chestnut, Canada plum (Prunus nigra) and Kentucky coffee tree near Indian villages. Thinning forests, clearing underbrush, removing competing tree species and periodic understory burning by Native Americans resulted in more-open forests, with presumably less competition, trees with larger crowns, more rapid recycling of nutrients and higher soil nutrient levels. This would in turn have favoured light-demanding trees and stimulated mast and fruit production in a wide variety of species. – (Abrams, p.1132)

Just look at the size they got to before the estimated 4 billion trees were nearly completely wiped out by a chestnut blight introduced in 1904, possibly ‘the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forests in all of history’:

‘In January 1910, the American Lumberman published this photo of giant chestnut trees in western North Carolina, to show how their size compares to that of the average man.’ – source

Back in Europe it was the ancient Greeks and Romans who mastered grafting and spread plantations (perhaps just for timber and coppice) although literary sources viewed the nuts with suspicion, Diphilus complaining that while ‘that they are nourishing and well-flavoured’, they are ‘hard to assimilate because they remain for a long time in the stomach’, his recommendation being to boil them so that they ‘inflate less’ and ‘nourish more’ (Conedera, p.167). The culprits are the complex di- and tri-saccharide sugars which, as with many vegetables, break down in the intestines producing gas with only one escape route. I can testify that the effects can be lasting and potent (!) though my digestive system did seem to adapt after a while of regularly including chestnuts in my diet.

In any case the trees provided a reliable enough source of carbohydrates to encourage the emergence of the ‘Chestnut Civilisations’ from around the 11th and 12th centuries in upland regions of southern Europe that were unsuitable for grains or other field crops – the Cévennes, Ardèche, Limousin (Massif Central), Northern Appenines in Italy, Corsica – people taking the nut for their staple, building hundreds of miles of terrace walls to hold the soil on the slopes and manage water flow, entire buildings (‘clède‘ or ‘sécadou’) dedicated to drying the nuts over a slow-burning fire on the ground floor, women and children joining the men out harvesting by hand, gathering round the hearths in the long winter evenings to peel the nuts ready to go into next morning’s potage or to be stored in underground pits (a solution no longer possible because of the appearance of new moulds decaying the nuts earlier than previously). And to the animals went the leaves, burrs (‘they had a daily course of acupuncture!’ according to G) and leftover nuts, especially good for fattening pigs. The culture, ‘civilised’ or not, supported large populations, probably because, apart from the largest ‘marrons’ – a luxury food, with the regular ‘châtaignes’ being considered a lower class of food, perhaps only suitable for animals, despite being exactly the same substance – the foodstuff failed to be appropriated as a mass market commodity, mainly due to a short shelf-life and unsuitability for long distance transport (there was a close call when Napoleon had to decide where France was going to get its sugar from during the continental blockade of the early 19th century, but he chose beets instead). Most of the written records from the time bitterly denounce this lack of ‘innovation’, ‘development’, the ‘poverty’ and ‘repli sur soi’ (approximately: ‘folding in on oneself’), and extreme prejudices arise about ‘laziness’, ‘backwardness’, even ‘rebelliousness’ among dull-minded peasants apparently too stupid or stubbornly conservative to see the benefits of agricultural ‘improvements’ or full engagement in the market economy.

Of course the prejudice is there to serve a purpose, prescribing a move towards wheat, potatoes, mulberries (for silk) – anything to increase tax revenues and dependence on monetary income:

‘But if the chestnut tree is of great importance to the inhabitants of the mountains, where cereals & most other crops cannot grow, if it ensures their subsistence for at least six to eight months of the year, & by its sale gives them just enough money to buy the other items they need, it has a harmful influence on their morale, by not stimulating the development of their industry since it requires no other care of cultivation, after planting & pruning, than harvesting its fruits, & even making their bodies heavy, as any man who eats only chestnuts for one day can believe. In addition, cooking, peeling & eating them uses a lot of time every day that is lost for productive work. To my knowledge, inhabitants of chestnut countries are nowhere friendly with work. At least all those of the countries where I have stayed have shown me only laziness, ignorance & poverty. Friends of public prosperity must therefore desire that these inhabitants mix the cultivation of potatoes with that of chestnut trees, & that they engage in some kind of industry to provide them with the means to buy wheat, wine & other products, instead of emigrating, as they usually do, or going to earn something elsewhere.‘ – Bosc & Baudrillart, (p.272)

Even as late as 1966 the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, having a dig at the communism he had renounced ten years earlier, referred to ‘une terre sans pain, carencée, membre de cette Internationale de la misère et du châtaigner’ (‘land without bread, deficient, a member of this Internationale of poverty and chestnut trees’ – Ladurie p.213) which prevailed in the Cévennes between the renaissance and the reformation. Martin Nadaud, peasant boy from the Creuse region of the Massif Central and later member of parliament in the Second Republic after the 1848 revolution, remembered how the stonemasons spoke to him when he arrived with his father to work with them in Paris, aged 14: ‘Eh petit Mufle, tu avais donc plus de châtaignes te mettre sous la dent que tu viens manger notre pain?’ (‘Hey little oaf, you had no more chestnuts to eat so you come and eat our bread?’ – Bruneton-Governatori, p.1176)

And the prejudice succeeded, up to a point, combining with other material factors. The decline was well in motion as early as the mid-late 18th century. Depopulation, development, incorporation of men into transient labour economies (although, as the above quotes suggest this had also gone hand in hand with the former subsistence practices – the long off-seasons leaving time for travel and wage labour in the lowlands). ‘L’arbre à pain’ gave way to ‘l’arbre d’or’ – the name given to the mulberry tree for the money that could be made from the silk worms that fed on its leaves (Parado, p.1) – and then the incredible wrecking ball of the leather-tanning industry which encouraged the cutting down of centuries-old orchards after it was discovered that the tannins in the bark and wood of the tree could provide a black dye for silk. Five factories for tannin extraction were opened in the Ardèche region from 1890 and it became seven times more profitable to fell the trees than to take the nuts to market. Around a million trees were cut down over the course of fifty years, with 20,000 hectares or about 1/3 of total area lost from the high of 60,000 hectares under cultivation in 1870.

Imagine the mind-set required to go along with that, cutting down trees that had fed your family for generations, even keeping you alive while others starved to death in the famines after the wheat harvests failed. Do we put it down to greed, opportunism, short-sightedness or just to a lack of sentimentality and simple cost/benefit analysis during a tough time when it looked like the best option? One way or another, it seems, commerce penetrates, transport facilitates, nationalism and duty to ‘la patrie’ dull and harden outlooks, turn inhabitants into coldhearted quislings, enabling the exploitation of the land that was their home on behalf of the abstract, alienated interests of city, industry, capital…

Ink disease, blight (not as damaging as in the US due to ‘hypovirulent’ resistance) and war provided the last heavy blows in the 20th century. There wasn’t the energy or manpower anymore for replanting or even maintenance: I’ve seen the memorial stones, so many men and boys taken and killed, especially in the first world war, and the low employment rates meant that soldiers were drawn in higher proportions from the highland regions. After that the inevitable drift towards the towns and cities. Final, complete dependence on jobs, money, and the commodification which we all know well. Or destitution, homelessness, addictions… The familiar pattern repeated around the world when village economies are destroyed and the people forced to move away from their homelands.

*****

But the trees are still here. Even ‘exploitations’ continue to succeed, albeit using modern methods – machines and petrol instead of unpaid human labour to supply a product for modern marketplaces. An ‘AOP’ designation, premium status sought for organic produce, some protection for producers and recognition of the historic landscape. The culture isn’t the same – isolated farmers and their small family groups (my time with G and B was quite lonely, the bus service being inadequate and the work schedule of feeding and watering the animals demanding a 7 day / week presence), the occasional festival, markets, people brought together in the roles of traders and consumers. But the trees are still here. The varieties too, 65 of them named in the Ardèche region alone: Aguyane, Précoce des Vans, Pourette, Sardonne, Bouche Rouge, Comballe, Garinche, Bouche de Clos, Merle, with many more names known only to local people or forgotten entirely. Newer disease-resistant hybrids in the South-West, requiring irrigation and pest control; older varieties to the East favoured for their resilience and superior flavour even if they don’t produce every year. The die-off, neglect, rural flight and other factors continue to result in an overall decline, and few new trees are planted because of the long time it takes for any return on the investment and the uncertainty that any trees will survive that long. But … the trees are still here.

And so are the possibilities if we look for them. Romanticising the ‘castanéiculture’ and other old peasant ways of life is a pitfall and visions of an easy life fade when you think about picking, sorting and peeling nuts by the thousand (their skins could be thrashed off in bulk with sticks after drying at least), or sawing off dead branches with hand tools swaying in the wind 4m off the ground to provide your firewood. But if you’re looking for future-proof food production with no need for artificial fertilisers, pesticides, GMOs or all the energy that has to go into ploughing, sowing, weeding, harvesting & processing field monocrops, then arboriculture of this kind has a lot to recommend it. It also generates many opportunities for ‘closing the loop’ in permaculture parlance, as in the above example where sheep are drawn to the base of the trees for shade and to eat the suckers, preparing the ground for harvesting while fertilising the soil with their manure. The wood of course has multiple uses too, from use of the suckers in basketry to larger pieces of timber in furniture building, tool handles, construction, charcoal manufacture etc. Even the leaves found a use as a stuffing for pillows and blankets. Further in the future, dare I suggest, the trees might provide the support for a truly indigenous way of life beyond the coming failures of the oil economy and the growth-addicted globalised capitalism and chemical-dependent agriculture it has made possible. Because there’s nothing wrong with living hand to mouth like every other species on this planet, providing for your own needs mainly from the fruits of the land around you, at whatever level of cultivation is appropriate.

I walked through a few orchards which hadn’t been touched for maybe 40 years, judging by the size of the suckers and self-sown pine, ash, sycamore, hazel and others beginning to overstand the chestnuts (which can’t reach up as well as the others and suffer from reduced light). It was quite eerie seeing the thickness of the old trunks emerging behind the bristly riot of new growth; the occasional terrace wall showing through mosses and lichens. B assured me it would still be possible to bring them back into cultivation, as she and G have devoted huge amounts of time and effort to doing over the decades they’ve been here, but it’s a daunting task, getting harder with every year that passes. ‘Olive tree of your forefather, chestnut tree of your father, only the mulberry tree is yours’ as the saying goes (or went) in the Cévennes, with slight variations in the other chestnut regions. Any calculations of return on investment have to look way into the future and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see a reward. Trees stand up to drought better than annual grains, but two or three hot, dry summers in a row and even 150 years of root growth isn’t enough to keep them alive, so climate change will add to the uncertainty just as with everything else.

Wildfires too will grow in frequency and intensity in untended orchards and forests, just as they have done in the drier regions of the US in large part due to the discontinuation of regular burning and other cultivation practices by the native peoples there (although see this brilliant article that shows burning regimes being reinstated). I saw the ‘Canadairs’ go overhead a number of times during the drought in the summer, a situation which might be avoided by greater cultivation of orchards and possibly small scale burns of leaf litter as the peasants used to do. I think these land use traditions point to a potential middle way through the polarised debate between ecological rewilding (with humans excluded) at one extreme and the ‘working landscape’ which farmers have traditionally demanded (with wildlife excluded) at the other. Trees can be grown in an irrigated, chemically treated monocrop but there’s nothing to say there has to be the same outright hostility to wildlife expressed in their cultivation as in, say, livestock rearing. Wolves don’t eat chestnuts! And if you’re getting annoyed at the wild boar munching all the best nuts maybe it’s time to have a word with the local hunters and see if they want to take advantage of the lure your orchards provide – again reinventing the wheel of indigenous land management, as shown in the Abrams quote above.

North American forests were noted for their exceptional abundance and diversity of plant and animal species upon first contact by Europeans, and while their populations may have been in a boom phase after waves of diseases had wiped out their human predators it seems clear that native management practices actively fostered this diversity over the course of tens of thousands of years, whereas the introduced European farming practices decimated them in a handful of generations. Probably something similar was true of pre-agricultural forests in Europe and the hunter-gatherer or horticulturalist peoples who inhabited them. Do we see an echo of their subsistence methods in the chestnut-based cultures? Either way the act of working with the process of ecological succession towards the closed-canopy forest cover that these temperate lands spontaneously generate is bound to provide better habitat for a multitude of wild species than pastured or arable land could ever do. Incidentally I think this is the basis for accusations of ‘laziness’ and the sneer behind the word ‘cueillette’ (gathering) – the hard work necessary to fight succession in farming (especially for the annual grain species) has been elevated into a virtue and people born into this way of thinking would rather extirpate less toilsome lifeways than consider their own practices as a giant waste of energy. How about instead of a ‘working landscape’ (that appears to be working itself to death for no good reason) we try to move towards a ‘living landscape’, with human beings as just another species in the web of self-perpetuating diversity?

Old gnarly ones, I came to you mind full of sour thoughts about modern living. I too was cultivated in my early days with a purpose (to be a good citizen, employee, consumer etc), then abandoned to fend for myself, it no longer being considered worth the effort. It was a relief at first to grow as I pleased but then there was the absence, uncertainty and lack of purpose that has lingered for years. What was I planted for? To feed only a few wild creatures (as honourable as that might be) until I wither away and die, to be replaced by rougher, less demanding types (as honourable as they might be) or overtaken by my own wilder growths? Now I’m thinking that the answer to Bad cultivation isn’t No cultivation; the answer to a crappy, exploitive relationship isn’t No relationship – it’s Better cultivation and a Better relationship with different, mutual purposes and goals. I looked to you and heard my own preoccupation: “How am I going to justify my continued existence?” But the question generates different answers depending on who you’re asking. If you ask the disembodied collective urge of the civilised economy (as people did on your behalf, with never a secure assurance no matter how much you gave) then you’ll get the familiar list of Hardnesses – “Find a way to make it Pay”, with no criticism or challenge to the one handing out the currency and the cannibalistic values it embodies. But if you ask the living world, and that is surely the essential underlying question we all need to be asking, then you’ll get very different answers, perhaps summed up by the exhortation: “Stay alive, and keep those around you living too, until this madness ends.”

A new question: How can I be of Service?

Translations tweaked from www.DeepL.com/Translator

The author invited various trees to comment on the subject matter for this post but did not receive any clear reply as of the time of writing, although this may be due to lack of receptivity on his part.

*****

Bibliography (papers behind paywalls can be accessed by typing the DOI number into http://sci-hub.tw/ )

Abrams et al: ‘Native Americans as active and passive promoters of mast and fruit trees in the eastern USA’ (link)
Bosc & Baudrillard: ‘Dictionnaire de la culture des arbres et de l’amenagements des forets’ (link)
Ariane Bruneton-Governatori: ‘Alimentation et idéologie: le cas de la châtaigne’ (link)
Conedera et al: ‘The cultivation of Castanea sativa (Mill.) in Europe, from its origin to its diffusion on a continental scale’ (link)
Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux: ‘Chestnuts’ in the ‘Cambridge World History of Food, Vol.1’ (link)
Kaltenrider et al: ‘Vegetation and fire history of the Euganean Hills (Colli Euganei) as recorded by Lateglacial and Holocene sedimentary series from Lago della Costa (northeastern Italy)’ (link)
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie: ‘Les paysans de Languedoc, Volume 1’ (link)
Claude Parado: ‘Le châtaignier: l’arbre à pain, providence de nos ancêtres’ (link)

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2 Responses to “Bread, not gold: the wealth of chestnut trees”

  1. Liz Gill Yoga Says:

    I love your writing, can I get a password please?

    >

  2. Ian M Says:

    Flattery will get you nowhere 😉 Or alternatively you can drop me an email at frequently_growing at gmx dot com and I’ll send it over.
    I

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