Of Chestnut Saplings and Wild Geese

I can remember a particular hiking trip with my family. I was probably seven or eight years old, and my parents and my brother and I had been camping, and we decided to hike a trail through some of the lush forests that cover the southeastern United States. My mother, who is a daughter of the southern Appalachians, has always been an astute observer of the forest, and when we happened upon a particular tree beside the trail, she called my brother and I over to look. It was a stump—perhaps a foot in diameter and a couple of feet tall. It had been there for quite a while, as the stump was decaying—in the way that everything in those mountain woodlands begins to decay the moment it ceases to grow.

In this nondescript example of decay, however, there was something else. Out of the stump rose a thin gray trunk, topped with green leaves. The tiny tree was not much more than an inch in diameter—nothing really to speak of in a forest of towering trees. My mother, though, explained to us that this stump and this sapling were American Chestnuts. The trees, she told us, had blanketed the hills and vales of those mountains in the time of her father, my grandfather, and in her own day they had all been felled by a blight. This disease attacked what had once been the dominant tree in the forest, a tree that made up one in every four trees on every mountain and in every valley. In the space of a generation the American Chestnuts were gone, all lying silent on the forest floor, rotting into humus. The sapling we saw was a sick joke of a natural quirk: the blight let saplings grow, often out of the stumps of old fallen trees, offering hope of recovery and new life. But once those small trees reached a certain size, the blight attacked them too, and they fell back to the forest floor.

I long for those hardwood forests of my youth. I now live out among the prairie grass and Ponderosa pines, on the front range of Colorado. The trees here all seem strange to me, beautiful as they are, and I relish every chance I get to return to the southern Appalachians. This week I receive just such a chance; my wife and I are traveling to Hot Springs, NC, where the Wild Goose Festival has its incarnation for this year. As it happens, the site of the festival is a short drive from where we first met, at a tiny mountain college, and we know the town well, and the forest around it. It is a small place—an unlikely one for a festival—and it is embedded in the sort of riotously green woods that once hosted uncounted American Chestnut trees. Out there in the forests around Hot Springs, I am sure there are old Chestnut trunks, lying on the ground, nearly rotted away but not yet, because nothing that big disappears that quickly. Out there along the banks of the French Broad River, I am sure there are some of the saplings like my mother showed me, shot up for a season but consigned to blight and death like all before them.

The Wild Goose is, I am told, a festival about the Spirit—or, at least, spirit-like things. It is a place where the impish spirit of God roams free, playing at the intersection of people and ideas and communities seeking to be faithful to whatever they seek to be faithful to. This is all very vague. I don’t know, honestly, what the Wild Goose Festival is, because no one gets very specific about it. It is about music, I am told, and prayer, and camping out, and the exchange of ideas and food, and relationships, and the pursuit of peace. It is awesome, they say. People have told me this for a couple of years now, these vague, non-descriptive, “awesome”-punctuated descriptions, and I don’t know what to make of it, but it all sounds very promising to me.

So this year I am going to the Wild Goose Festival, and though it might cause consternation to those who discourage approaching experiences this way, I am going with a purpose. My purpose is this: I want to know what grows out of the trunk. Like those giant dead American Chestnuts I saw in that forest so long ago, there is much that is blighted and dead in the Christianity I know. And like that tiny sapling that stretched up to the light, I think there must be something else that is alive, that is striving towards life. I’m tired of talking about how dead the church is—about how we’re dying and shrinking and dying and becoming irrelevant and dying and declining and dying and dying and dying. I’m sick of it. I’ve seen the trunks littering the forest floor. Let them rot into the soil. I’m interested in the new life. What grows? What shoots upward towards the sun, blight be damned, to see how far it can go? That’s what I want to know about.

The American Chestnut is not dead. Most American Chestnuts are dead, but the American Chestnut is not. There are a few surviving trees that seem to be unaffected by the blight, and there are people breeding those in the hopes of producing a resistant strain. There are those cross-breeding the American Chestnut with its blight-resistant cousin the Chinese Chestnut. And there are those working at the genetic level, isolating and modifying genes controlling the blight and its resistance. Every so often I see a news article full of hopeful scientists and forest-goers, optimistic that some new sapling will be the one that makes it. The American Chestnut is not dead—not so long as it has such people on its team.

I don’t know what the Wild Goose Festival is all about. I’ll find out soon enough; my flight leaves in about 24 hours. But I know this: I’ll be glad to return to my native range among the hardwoods of the southern Appalachians, and I’ll be on the lookout for thin saplings straining towards the light. Somewhere in all that music and spirit and food and community, I hope someone has the cure for what ails the church. I’ll be on the watch for it. If you see it let me know. Because nothing that is well-loved goes easily into oblivion, and the American Chestnut and the church alike are too beloved by too many to pass out of memory just yet. The day is coming, and soon, when we can talk about what’s living, instead of what’s dying.

See you at the Wild Goose.

Read all of Eric’s posts from his Wild Goose journey here.

The Reverend Doctor Eric C. Smith is the Minister of Community Life at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Englewood, CO. He joined the First Plymouth staff in July 2007, after serving a church in Asheville, North Carolina, for 5 years. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Interpretation from the Joint PhD Program of Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver, a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Mars Hill College. He was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2007. 

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3 responses to “Of Chestnut Saplings and Wild Geese”

  1. I think we must all participate in the regrowing of our faith and I think you’re a part of that. So bummed not to be at the Goose this year, hope you’ll enjoy it for me.

  2. Bravo! Bravo, indeed Dr. Smith! While at Wild Goose visit the Phillips Theological Seminary tent for good fellowship!