Saturday, May 07, 2005

Helping the Tree -- Not Hugging it,

Part Two in a series. Part one is here.

In some of the stories about Earth Day I have heard commentators describing the whole week as Earth Week, apparently feeling that Earth Day isn't enough. As I implied in a previous posting I think one day is plenty. Interestingly, right after Earth Day I had an opportunity to see environmental action first hand -- action of a sort of which I altogether approve. Over the weekend I attended the Spring 2005 meeting of Carolinas Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), an organization dedicated to restoring the blighted American Chestnut to the forests of the eastern United States.

Together with my siblings I own some property in the mountains of North Carolina and I became curious about American Chestnuts when my forester pointed out some Chestnut sprouts to me. He said they make excellent walking sticks because they grow to about the right size and then die of the blight. I did a bit of research and found that there is an effort underway to restore the Chestnut and, more to the point, it is a largely private effort where individuals can participate and actually help. The more I learned, the more I realized that I want to restore these trees to my property in the mountains (and, if I can talk them into it, to my neighbor's properties) because Chestnuts grew there once and they ought to be there again.

I don't live on the mountain property [yet -- I may build a house there when I retire ] and it will be somewhat difficult to offer any direct help with the breeding effort. [And there is my black thumb to consider, too.] But I do hope to be able to provide a small amount of financial support and to spread the word -- as I am doing now.

The meeting I attended two weeks ago was held on the campus of Clemson University. Presentations were made by researchers -- a geneticist employed by TACF, a professor at the University and graduate students -- and by volunteers helping with the breeding effort. It was a wonderfully non-political event. One of the graduate students stumbled a bit over one of his PowerPoint slides; he was discussing drought resistance and he didn't want to touch on climate change -- a politically charged side-issue that he didn't want to get into.

I don't want to give the impression that this was some sort of right-libertarian lovefest. The professors from Clemson were state government employees and TACF is not averse to a bit of taxpayer money from time to time if they can wrangle it. But the meeting was all about action and not at all about activism. It was a collection of people working to solve a problem -- not a collection of people demanding that it be solved, or more typically, demanding that some action be forbidden because of a problem it might theoretically cause.

Most (all?) of the scientists there had started their careers working on the genetics of corn. They had moved on to other areas because, as one of them said, "There are plenty of people working on corn" and they felt that other areas might need them more. It was refreshing to see environmental concern and effort that was so divorced from the reflexive anti-corporate, and anti-technology biases so often characterizes "environmentalist" events. These guys had no problem with using biotechnology to grow bigger, better, faster growing crops. The money is good working in corn but the field is crowded. If you can make enough money to support yourself working with fruit trees -- even though it doesn't pay as well -- that's fine too. And if you have some extra time you can devote to working pro bono, or mostly pro bono with the American Chestnut -- even better.

As I said, one of the things that I liked about the meeting was that it wasn't at all political. That graduate student -- shifting and fidgeting because the historical trends in rainfall in the Appalachians might sound like climate change -- probably has opinions about the issue he was avoiding, but he was right to avoid making those opinions known. That wasn't what his presentation was about.

In keeping with that spirit I have separated my posting into two parts. In this part I have allowed myself the luxury of socio-political commentary. In the other part -- The American Chestnut - History and Hope -- I tried not to do so. My hope is that people who do not share my political viewpoint may still find the other part useful.

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