text, haiku and photo by Kristen Lindquist

One of my co-workers brought this into the office today:

These days, most people would not immediately recognize this as the burrs and nuts of an American chestnut, which was once the dominant tree of Appalachia. For centuries, this tree produced one of the primary mast crops that fed the deer, bears, and turkeys of the Eastern forests. Devastated by an introduced disease for which it had no immunity, this native chestnut has been reduced to small remnant stands of varying degrees of health. Here in Maine, only a handful of undiseased, mature trees remain, with a few of them found in the Midcoast. This set of burrs with nuts was apparently found on the Megunticook Golf Course in Rockport.

The Maine Chapter of theĀ American Chestnut Foundation, which is working to develop a blight-resistant strain of this once majestic species, calls their newsletter The Tree Urchin. One look at the burr and you can understand where the name came from. I was so drawn by this striking plant part–I’m trying not to call it a “set of nuts”!–that I immediately photographed it. I think what attracts me are the graceful leaves and smooth nuts contrasted with the crazy spiked burrs which have split so they look like muppets with their mouths open. Or cracked sea urchins. But I’m also very drawn to them as artifacts of our natural heritage that two hundred years ago would have been as recognizable to you and me as an acorn, or the non-native, not-so-edible horse chestnut that we grew up with instead.

Passenger pigeons
once gorged on these chestnuts. Both
bird and tree now gone.