Bennington students plant seeds of unique chestnut strain


BENNINGTON -- Students in Mount Anthony Union Middle School's sustainability class were able to play a major role in the ongoing struggle to save the American chestnut tree on Wednesday, with the help of Marshal T. Case, former president of the American Chestnut Foundation.

"Every school group that comes after you, hopefully, for 50 years or more, will carry this project forward," said Case. Both the school and the Catamount Rotary Club, of which Case is a member, have been working extensively with the ACF to create a wooded corridor of a blight-resistant strand of American chestnuts about 200 yards from the front entrance to the school, the first of its kind in Vermont.

Members of Stephen Greene's sustainability classes have been learning about the American chestnut since before April vacation, and spent several weeks in April clearing brush out of the growing area. "We learned about honeysuckle and what it looks like," said Greene, "Then we went outside and removed the honeysuckle from the hill. We did lose some plants that weren't honeysuckle and shouldn't have been cut, but for the most part the kids did a good job."

On Wednesday, Case visited the school and showed the students how to make cylindrical cages to protect the young trees from animals. Case had seven saplings and about 44 seeds of the specially-bred chestnut trees, which he said, because of the amount of research that went into producing them, were worth about $250 a piece. Genetically, the tree is about 94 percent American chestnut and 6 percent Chinese chestnut, and is expected to grow to the size of a pure American chestnut, up to 120 feet high and 17 feet wide. "We're starting something like the Redwood National Forest right here at Mount Anthony Union Middle School," said Greene.

Chestnut blight was accidentally introduced to North America in the early 1900s, perhaps from imported Japanese chestnuts. By 1940, most mature American chestnuts had been wiped out from the disease. "Entire mountain communities disappeared, and had to move to cities, because their entire livelihood came from this tree," said Case.

"As a teacher," said Greene, "this is a really exciting project. I've been wanting to do something like this for decades.

On May 17, Catamount Rotary Club members will clear the remaining honeysuckle from a 600-foot stretch of land up the hill from the middle school's parking lot. They will then install 1,600 to 1,800 feet of fencing around the area where the trees will grow. Once completed, the entrance of the enclosure will feature a three-panel kiosk that will tell the story of the American chestnut. The entire kiosk will be built from American chestnut beams that originally came from Cornwall, Conn., where a ACF member had discovered several beams while dismantling an old barn, according to Case. The rotary club is paying for the fencing, which will help protect the trees from deer.

On Thursday, May 29, a dedication ceremony for the enclosure will be held at 5:30 p.m. Students will present an herbarium of various plants found on the school's 109-acre campus. One class will present pizza made from ancient grain. Greene described the event as the culmination of many different projects, for many different classes. The ceremony is open to the public.

Case is MAUMS' naturalist in residence, and played a large roll in getting the construction of the school at its current location approved. "I was doing staff development on this property 4-5 years before the school was built," he said.

Moving forward, students will monitor growth rates and conditions, and record their findings in a logbook, which will allow students years in the future to look back at the work their predecessors accomplished.

Case praised the sustainability program at the middle school, saying, "MAUMS has initiated a very futuristic sustainability program. It is the first school in southern Vermont to have incorporated composting into their lunchtime ritual, as part of a Farm to School program. The first sustainability teacher, Stephen Greene, is a veteran science teacher and his wife, Helen, is also on the faculty and head of the Agriculture Committee. Both are very excited to now incorporate an American chestnut science component to their current and long-term vision."

Greene said students weren't always aware of the major role they were playing in the struggle to save the once flourishing tree, but he hopes that they will be able to visit the site years in the future and know what an impact they made. "So many people have no idea what has been lost, ecologically," he said.


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