Sunday, 31 July 2022

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

Manifest Equity

Day 12: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

"Progress" (The Advance of Civilization), Asher Brown Durand,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In this painting by Hudson River School painter, Asher Brown Durand,  "manifest destiny" is ostensibly advanced. It was, after all, commissioned by a railway administrator. And yet, I can't help but to read a (too) subtle critique in the painting.  In the right of the work, colonial expansion and development is depicted in its many forms.  We see smoke stacks, bridges, roads, busy colonists farming and tending "livestock." 

We also see deforestation - loss of habitat - which equates with loss of inhabitants. This is said to be "progress." 

Gone will be the wolf. Gone will be the mountain lion, Gone will be the forests. Gone will be the chestnut tree. 

Most tragically, gone will be human beings who called their ancestral land "home." 

To the left of the painting, we see First Nations people watching the scene from on high. (In retrospect, was this not the moral higher ground?)

A common trope of the Hudson River School painters was to paint the tree stump as allegory. Many times the stump has been cut indicating that a tree has been "felled,"  representing development and "civilization." In the case of a stump that has been "blasted," the symbolism is for a tree that has fallen naturally. 

In this painting, stumps have been both cut and "blasted." Trees on the right have been (almost obscenely) turned into telegraph poles. Trees to the left seem to have fallen naturally. The impact on the environment left by  First Nations is comparatively minimal as indigenous people lived (and live) very much in harmony with the natural world.  For some First Nations, the North American continent was called "Turtle Island." 

The colonists' perceived need to tame the wilderness resulted in elevating the woodsman as hero and the woods as  "enemy." Aesthetics or preservation did not occur to those charged with clearing the way. 

Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School painters, aspired to capture the rapidly vanishing landscape in oil on canvas.  He 
was so dismayed by "the ravages of the axe," he dedicated his life to painting and writing about it as in the poem  The Lament of the Forest.  In a letter to a friend, he cast  "maledictions" upon the "tree-destroyers" who were "cutting down all the trees in the beautiful valley on which I have looked so often with a loving eye." 

He also painted First Nations people of the United States in a way that defied stereotypes and demonstrated cultural similarities with those of European colonizers...Cole rejected conventional conceptions of the native people, and, instead, he presented to his elite art audience alternative ways of thinking about the American Indian, as a people who had an impact on diplomacy and democratic ideals.

It may come as a surprise for many to know that most of the 15 million First Nations people who lived in what would become the United States were farmers and lived in towns. Their homes took a variety of forms depending upon geography. Moreover, they had extensive trade routes which went from village to village, nation to nation, covering the whole continent. 

Today the planet faces a multitude of challenges stemming from the "progress" which began with colonial expansion and technological development: deforestation, extinction and extirpation of a multitude of species, pollution, climate change, etc. Sadly, indigenous people all over the world face ever greater challenges maintaining their land and culture.  It would be a mistake to presume that First Nations - the people or culture - were annhilated, however. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Indigienous people of the U.S. - those survivors of genocide - thrive and number three million today.  Many continue to work to safeguard the most precious resource of all - the land itself. 

Meanwhile, while technological advancement has brought many gifts to humankind, it has also killed and destroyed and threatens to keep doing so if we continue to fail to learn from the past, to try to make things as right and just for the present, and listen to the teaching of representatives of indigenous cultures - past and present - many who call us to live in harmony with the natural world which sustains us all. We do these things or pay - not only with our own lives - but the lives of many of the beings on this planet.

Picnic in the Forest, 1840, Brooklyn Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Picnic in the Forest painted in 1840 by an unknown painter,  the treatment of the tree in the foreground in contrast to the people and livestock in the mid and background is intended to call attention to the amputated tree as though writhing in pain from its wounds.

Saturday, 30 July 2022

 A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

Who came before

Day 11: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

Michael Naranjo, The Prayer, bronze, 1986
The story of the indigenous people - the Native Americans - who had lived in Ridgebury in "Penn's Woods" long before their land was stolen from them by European colonists (some of whom were, no doubt, my own non-Irish ancestors) is not one for me to tell. In stealing and deforesting the land,  we simultaneously displaced, sickened, and - most tragically - either directly or indirectly killed too many of the human beings who had lived where their ancestors had lived for thousands of years.  This remains a tragedy on a scale so massive it can never be reversed or fixed, and yet, reparations must be made. 

Although the story of the indigenous people of the United States is not a story for me to tell - it is a story that MUST be told - and taught - by the people who live it and whose own ancestors lived it. There is not a day that I walk in any forest on U.S. soil when I do not think of  those who came before me, and, as a descendant of colonizers, I must not be silent about the truth of history.

With that conviction in mind,  I took a visit to the
Rockwell Museum in Corning, NY, to see displays of artwork created by artists indigenous to the United States - some of whom were,  or are,  members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of six nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora. It is my understanding that surviving members of the Carantouan Nation (Susquehannocks, Andaste) who likely lived closest to Ridgebury, Pa. were eventually assimilated into the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.  

In addition to works in their permanent collection, the work of two contemporary Native artists was also on display 1) 
Objects in Motion: Wendy Red Star’s Accession Series and 2) Please Touch! The Art of Michael Naranjo. Additionally, Wendy Red Star's artwork is also on display just around the corner at Kids Rockwell Art Lab.  

I highly recommend EVERYONE to go see these moving, powerful SUBLIME exhibits, including the work at the Kids Rockwell Art Lab! 

If you can't get to the Rockwell Museum, please do click on the links to some artists included in the various exhibitions to learn their stories as only they can so brilliantly tell them. 

Michael Naranjo, Deer Hunter, bronze

I was deeply moved by this piece as it seemed to exemplify for me a full awareness of the sentience and sapience of all beings and connections between the human and non-human. 

Wendy Red Star, Clockwise: 1) Catalogue Number 1948.102, 2019; 2)  Crow Peace Delegation, Pretty Eagle (detail);  3) Indian Summer, 2006; 4) Her Dreams Are True (Julia Bad Boy), 2021

Norman Akers, Elk Calling, 1999, Oil on canvas, 66 3/8 × 60¼ inches, Clara S. Peck Fund, 2000.17.1

Judith Lowry (born 1948), Family: Love's Unbreakable Heaven, 1995

Now added to my bibliography

Susquehannock - Wikipedia

Other artist links:

John Feodorov

Nicholas Galanin


Alan Michelson

Shelley Niro – Shelley Niro

Jolene Rickard - Wikipedia

Lecture honors contemporary Haudenosaunee artists – The Miscellany News

Thursday, 28 July 2022

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

Pennsylvania or Ireland? 

Day 10: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

Ridgebury - site of the mid-19th century Irish Settlement as it looks today

Long views from the third manifestation of "Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church" which was built by residents of the Irish Settlement. It is very well maintained and attended to this day.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church aka Chapel on the Hill. Pennsylvania or Ireland?

Panoramic view from the church property. The only thing missing is the Atlantic Ocean!

Residents of Ridgebury still farm the land to this day

The tombstones in "Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cemetery" read like the storefronts I saw in Skibbereen: Cain, Crowley, Donovan, Driscoll, Hurley, McCarthy, Sullivan..etc.

The bucolic scene we see today provides little hint of the devastation of the land and desperation that drove the Irish to board frequently crowded, disease-ridden, rickety ships and sail west.  I am referring, of course, to the potato famine. However, conditions in Ireland in the immediate years before the famine were dire in some places - especially in West Cork -as well. 

Cornelius Driscoll arrived in Ridgebury about a decade before the start of the famine.  As with the others who would join him - all born in County Cork (specifically Skibbereen and Clonakilty) - he could neither read nor write. It was an act of desperation to attempt to carve out a new life in a strange land which was, itself, undergoing dramatic changes. 

Initially, the Famine was felt hardest in the West and in part of Munster. This reflected the socio-economic structure of these regions. Areas such as Skibbereen in Country Cork became by-words for suffering   In the winter of 1846 and early 1847, conditions in Skibberrean and the surrounding district deteriorated. In the townland of Drimelogue, ‘one in four died that winter.The continuing lack of food, meant that one Cork doctor declared that ‘not one in five will recover’ In these regions the tenants’ farms were generally small and that more poor and marginal land was in use and as a result the local inhabitants were more likely to suffer from any disruption to their food supply. 

My Irish paternal ancestors were comparative newcomers to America.  As remote as Ridgebury was, even it had been settled before Cornelius crossed the sea into Quebec, down the St. Lawrence Seaway into Lake Champlain and down into  this tiny little portion of Pennsylvania  known as "Ridgebury."

However, "'Penn's' Woods" had belonged to other people long before Penn or any other European colonists who found themselves in the rapidly vanishing sylvan paradise. 

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

'What came before' in Ireland

Day 9: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

I had the great privilege to spend six weeks in West Cork, Ireland, in 2019 and two weeks the previous year touring much of the country with my family.  I was able to get a good long look at this stunningly beautiful country. The iconic terrain of West Cork is striking in that you can see for miles and miles all the way to the sea from almost anywhere. Part of the reason for these long, breathtaking views is that much of the Emerald Isle is devoid of trees.  I was thinking this was due to the soil composition or micro-climates, but  I was quite shocked to learn that Ireland was once covered in an "unbroken wilderness" of primeval trees - just like Pennsylvania! 

The Beacon, (see the upper right corner) Baltimore Ireland, 2019

The story of Irish forests is very similar to the story of Pennsylvania's arboreal habitat. Only the timeline is different.  Imagine Ireland about 10,000 years ago when it was covered in mixed species of trees: oak, elm, pine, hazel, elder, and birch, among others.  The ancient indigineous Irish people would have lived near the coasts leaving the "unbroken forest canopy" untouched until about 5,000 years ago with the development of agriculture and bog land expansion swallowing up forests. 

The time of Christ is actually characterized as "the wood age" in Ireland when timber from forests - moreso than stone or bronze - facilitated advancement of civilization." This may be said of many cultures.

The country was once so forested, the people even referred to themselves as a "forest people!" Even the letters of the Irish alphabet are based upon trees. 

In spite of human habitation, the ancient forests were substantial for centuries. 

Lough Hyne woodland

In Gaelic culture, agriculture was integrated with the forests - cattle,  forest-dwelling creatures in their wild state - were allowed to graze in the forest where in some places the acorns were knee-deep. However, Gaelic farming methods were "efficient" which means that substantial clearing occurred.  There is some controversy over when the majority of deforestation occurred, but some insist only 3 - 12% of forests remained by the 16th century at the time of the Tudor (English) conquest. 

Further deforestation occurred under English empire expansion in order to clear the way for food production - much of which would be sent to the colonies in America.

Another reason the English wanted the forests gone during the Elizabethan age was to control the Irish who would find shelter in the forests where they would remain undetected from Imperialist overlords and their henchmen.   The Irish would also use the forest cover to ambush the interlopers.  It was said the Irish will never be tamed while the leaves are on the trees.’

With that, most of the forests were gone by the 18th century, along with the animals which lived there - species such as wolves, European wildcat, the auk, Eurasian beaver. 

It sounds a little bit like the story of Pennsylvania!

By the time Cornelius Driscoll was born in 1784,  the terrain of West Cork would have looked pretty much as it does today and the Irish would have been considered an agricultural people rather than a "forest people."  
Is it any wonder the first thing Cornelius Driscoll did when he got to Ridgebury was to "commence a clearing?" 

Views of woodlands on an island as seen from Roaring Water Bay; 
Lough Hyne, Liss Ard Estate, Skibbereen; West Cork countryside

Wood you like to know where the trees went? – Trinity News

The History - Wolfgang Reforest

(14) Lecture 32: Wild Animals of Ancient Ireland by Killian McLaughlin - YouTube

Wolves — Wild Ireland

(14) A History of Irelands Forest and its People 2016..Deforestation Of Ireland . - YouTube

A gallery of extinct Irish animals from St Patrick's time - Green News Ireland

Trees which comprise a forest are inhabitants which become habitat.

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

What came before in Ridgebury

Day 8: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

In order to understand what is there now, we have to understand what has been there before.  Matthew Carl

One of my objectives in doing this project is to try to visualize the world as newcomers to the "Irish Settlement" in Ridgebury, Pa. saw it as early as 1832. The following excerpt provided some hints.  Even in its brevity the account offers profound insights into the character of the immigrants escaping severe hardship around the time of the potato famine as they sought opportunity in a new land. It appears, however, that some Ridgebury settlers dodged the famine as their arrival predates the deadly blight by about ten years. 


The above is the name given to the settlement in the southeast part of Ridgeberry, and which extends slightly into the adjacent towns of Athens and Smithfield. Its area was, as late as 1839, an unbroken wilderness. The greater portion of the land originally belonged to Charles Carroll, who acquired his title from the State in 1792. It was subsequently divided among his heirs and legatees, and was not offered for sale until about the year before named, 1839.

About that time Cornelius O'Driscoll commenced a clearing, and soon put up a small log house for himself and family, on the present farm of Corkins. He came to America, remained four years, and then returned and brought out his family, accompanied by several of his neighbors. The North Branch canal was just then being constructed, and the prices offered for work seemed fabulous to the new comers. Driscoll boughtof Patrick and Williston. He brought his family to his clearing in 1840, and died February, 1876, aged ninety-six.

Richard O'Connor was the next settler, with his two sons. They came in 1840. James White was the third settler, and came in 1841. He bought the possession of John Downs, one mile south of the Catholic Church, on which he is yet living. James White emigrated from Ireland, andlanded in Quebec, in April, 1837. His son, the present owner of the farm, was born the following December, on Victor E. Piollet's  farm, in Wysox. From there he moved to Browntown, and thence to Ridgeberry.

George O'Leary was the fourth settler, and had a large family of sons. He came from the mouth of Sugar creek in 1842, and settled on the farm now lives on, nearly opposite the church. His house was burned down recently. These four families were the pioneers. After them, the Irishmen came by squads, among them Daniel Desmond, with his sons John and Timothy, Richard Hurley, John Mahoney, Patrick Butler, Daniel Chambers, George Chambers, Thomas Chambers, Daniel Cain, and James Crowley. There are now about a hundred families in the settlement.

Father O'Reilly came on horseback to the settlement in March, 1843, and was the first priest who celebrated mass in the township. There were fifteen or twenty persons present. The service was held in the house of Daniel Cain. After that be came quite regularly. The chapel was built in 1847, by Colonel Scott, for $750, In 1877 it was enlarged and refitted.

Father O'Reilly was bitterly opposed to liquor-drinking and the traffic in that beverage. One of the women of the settlers, while they were working on the canal, sold whisky to the men, and on one occasion,, when she had just laid a fresh barrel on tap, the priest came along, and taking an axe knocked the head of the barrel in, and let the whisky run out on the ground.

Nearly all of the present settlers formerly worked on the public works, and when work ceased on the North Branch canal, they came one after another to the settlement. They helped one another in their clearings, and were very social in their habits. They were charged a large price for their lands, but by perseverance, industry, and frugality they have paid for them, and their neat homes, well-tilled farms, and numerous, well-kept herds, attest their success and prosperity.

Although the painting above depicts a mid 19th century scene near Watkins Glen, NY, the "Southern Tier" New York State border is very close to the Northeastern Pa. hamlet of Ridgebury.  In fact, Watkins Glen is only 33 miles away. Certainly the wild scene witnessed by newcomers to Ridgebury was not unlike the  landscape depicted by Hope.  

According to Dan Rhodes, Education Coordinator for the Bradford County Conservation District, The "unbroken wilderness" of Ridgebury, Pa. would have included evergreen, hemlocks, white pine, maple, oak, beech, birch, and, perhaps, 30 - 40 percent chestnut trees. Animals would have included wolves, mountain lions, wolverines, elk, fishers, pine martens, moose. Although the Irish were relative newcomers to America, there were still areas of rugged wild nature in the mid 19th century.

Hudson River School painter, Asher Durand painted many scenes from the Catskill wilderness about the same time.  Although a little farther from Ridgebury than Watkins Glen,  the Catskills are still only 144 miles away. Here Durand depicts beech trees which were also present in the Ridgebury, Pa. woods at the same time. 

Asher Durand, The Beeches, 1845

Pennsylvania literally translates to "Penn's Woods," and although the idyllic scenes in the paintings were surely not unlike the scene in Ridgebury, the sylvan paradise would soon be in jeopardy. 

After all, the state of Pennsylvania once contained 29 million acres of forest. It is said that John Bartram in 1743 came upon woodlands so dense along the Susquehanna River that, We observed the tops of the trees to be so close to one another for many miles together, that there is no seeing which way the clouds drive, nor which way the wind sets: and it seems almost as is the sun had never shone on the ground, since the creation.

By the mid 19th century,  millions of forests were cleared for agriculture.  As we have seen, taming the wilderness was surely the case in Ridgebury, Pa. My own ancestor, Cornelius Driscoll, was the first of the Irish to "commence a clearing" in order to build a home, start farming, and growing potatoes. Agriculture would not be the only demand on Pennsylvania woodlands. 

Between 1760 and 1895, more than four million acres of forest were harvested two to four times to feed the charcoal furnaces of Pennsylvania's iron industry. When the outbreak of the Civil War unleashed an unprecedented demand for the wood needed to build new railroads and fortifications, the nation turned to the forests of Pennsylvania, where "the trees came down like tall grass before a giant scythe."

The Old Saw Mill, James Hope

White Pine was desired to build masts of clipper ships. White pine, hemlocks, chestnuts and other hard woods were used for building furniture and homes.  Sawmills - even portable saw mills - sprung up all over the state. 60 miles from Ridgebury, Williamsport, Pa. was known as the "lumber capital" of the world and became home to more millionaires than anywhere else in the country.

The boom would not last indefinitely. By the 1900s,  the state was dubbed "The Pennsylvania Desert" as sixty percent of the forests had been decimated. Joseph Rothrock said There are few places in the East where the natural beauties of mountain scenery and the natural resources of timber lands have been destroyed to the extent that has taken place in northern Pennsylvania. - Stories from PA History

For Cornelius and the Irish of Ridgebury, Pa. the deforestation of their state would not be unlike the deforestation of their native Ireland. 

"The Pennsylvania Desert"

Pennsylvania Forest History

Monday, 25 July 2022

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:


Days 6 and 7: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

I have been wanting to animate my drawings for years, but the thought of laboriously replicating hundreds of drawings for five seconds of movement was not appealing. To be clear, I was never interested in "cartoons," à la Disney animation.  I want my animations to be like my other work - particularly my still drawings - just as moving sequences  incorporating layers of image, sound, and time.

A decade or so ago Windows had a neat little app called "Windows Movie Maker."  It would make still images "jiggle," replicating the experience of watching an old movie. Aliens and Healers were made using some drawings I had and mining some lines from attempted poems I had lying around. Imbuing drawings with the most minimal illusion of motion can be transformative. 

As fun as was "Windows Movie Maker" (now discontinued), I wanted to do more. Discovering the work of William Kentridge  a couple decades ago and seeing his process was a revelation. Kentridge is an artist who is making powerful, expressive, socially conscious two-dimensional work, but adding sound, sequence, and motion enables even greater possibilities for evocative narrative. 

Since that time,  I have been introduced to the work of many other artists working with time-based media - video, animated drawings, stop-motion "clay-mation:" the ingenuity of techniques is only matched by the ingenuity of content. Artist colleagues I know - including artists who have been members of our collective, 2X2, Sandra Stephens (video and projections), Christine Heller (animations and projections), and Ben Altman (muti-channel video) - have worked with time-based media. Currently, three of my favorite contemporary artists working with animation include Julia Oldham, Sun Xun, and John Knecht. 

I have reached out to some animators to ask them for hints about their process. I was stunned to learn that Photoshop can be used for animation. I already knew a little bit about it, but am now trying to learn "deep" Photoshop. I am taking a course via Domestika with Rodrigo Miguel.  His Instagram page has many examples of animations by various artists. 

My practice and process are not usually something that happens in a public forum. Mistakes and failures usually happen behind the scenes; only finished, refined projects are reserved for the web-page or social media. Learning animation is a slow, but rewarding process, and I am definitely on a learning curve. 

So announcing that I aspired A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea to be an animation/projection project is my way of "living on the edge!"  Displaying my nascent animations is definitely venturing outside my comfort zone.  What follows is the result of spending all of Sunday experimenting both with Photoshop and "old school" animation techniques. Early efforts of the day were frustrating and I was entertaining the idea of discarding the whole idea of animation. However, I persevered through the doubt and exasperation and, in the end, I was ecstatic I got my mountain lion to move!  Call it "garage band" animation, but where there is movement there is hope for sound, story, expressive possibilities to follow!

Note: my big cat is a composite of  SEVERAL sources including still photography and moving images.

My drawings with a Photoshop "poster" filter and color

The original "old school" drawings in their rough state with some corrections begun. 
The roughest manifestations were rejected and discarded. 

"Fresco" filter in Photoshop. I was intrigued with the expressive line. 

Beginning to render (always my favorite part).  It is now very late at night and I have to force myself to stop to sleep. I could easily exist, again, as the pencil-wielding creature of the nocturne which was my younger manifestation. 

Voila! My first ever animation! If it were music, it would have been made in a garage, but the big cat's head moves and this makes me very happy! The mountain lion, by the way, will become a character in my final animation/projection. She will accompany many of the other creatures who inhabited the mid-19th century forests of Ridgebury, Pa., and West Cork, Ireland.  Much more to come!

Sunday, 24 July 2022

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

When the inhabitant is the habitat

Day 5: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

Some mornings while walking the forest path behind my house, a particular tree will startle me, as it did so this morning. Twice. On neither occasion was there a discernable breeze, and yet, some imperceptible disturbance prompted this mumbling, and then...silence.  

I stood for a while with my phone waiting to catch the sound via video, but the tree would not oblige. In order to simulate the experience, I pushed gently on the tree. 

If I were to fancy the tree was actually "trying to tell me something,"  I would interpret it as a complaint.

Or maybe a plea...

As with much of the planet,  this little patch of woods is suffering symptoms of the heat and drought. 

In addition to needing buckets of rain, the sugar maples have suffered repeated maulings by spongy moth caterpillars two years in a row. Some trees were almost completely defoliated. It is said the infestations are exacerbated by climate change.  Of course.

So are droughts - or the other extreme - floods. 

Parched pokeweed, goldenrod in the forest by my house; last photo shows a dry creekbed at Fischer Old Growth Forest, Newfield, NY.

Almost every species of tree is under some sort of threat: almost every forest. Whether besieged by invasive pests, drought, floods, fires, logging, fracking, agriculture, human habitation, development for commerce, rising seas leading to erosion and drowned forests, the proliferation of diseases due to climate change, leveling rain forests for cheeseburgers - the list goes on and on.  

If we don't care for the habitats of the earth,  their inhabitants will not stand a chance. 

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea is, in part, a requiem for forests past, a cautionary tale - no, a cry, a scream - for forests present, and hope for forests future. 


Friday, 22 July 2022

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

Sequoia of the East 

Day 4: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

There are few things as beautiful to my eyes as these funny, spiky, little balls that look more like they were dreamed up by Hayao Miyazak than produced by a tree largely extirpated from the American arboreal landscape. 

I met a chestnut tree today!  A real American Chestnut! 

The introduction was provided by my friend, River Santina, who knows heaps about the flora and fauna of the region. River can not only name names, she can describe intricate details about plant characteristics. When she told me she knew the location of a chestnut tree, I begged for a viewing! I didn't have to plead too much, though; she was more than happy to show me. In my heart,  I was not sure how I would react.  Since the story of the American Chestnut is an American environmental tragedy,  I was totally expecting to collapse in tears at the sight of what I was anticipating would be a pathetic sapling struggling to grow, ambitious, but doomed from the get-go. 

Happily I was wrong! The tree actually exceeded the scale of many of its neighboring trees! I was filled with joy and awe that it was able to survive so long. 

In a "nut shell," here's the saga of the magestic tree that was known as the "sequoia of the east." According to many sources, chestnut trees dominated the 19th century forests, comprising between 30 - 40 percent of Pennsylvania forests. The trees were not just grand in stature, they provided food for countless animals including human beings. Their wood was rot resistant and used to build homes and furniture. Their loss was not just an environmental tragedy, it was also an economic disaster. 

The infamous chestnut blight was responsible for the death of nearly three billion trees in the eastern United States...due to the deadly fungus around 1903 due to a nursery of infected Asiatic Chestnut trees being imported into New York City...The infection quickly spread...By the year 1940, over the course of thirty years, the fungus managed to kill all but a few Chestnut trees in Pennsylvania. 

The Demise of the American Chestnut – (

Loggers around 1900-1901 in the southern Appalachians in a grove of very large American chestnuts.
Library of Congress.

Forests of a Century Ago – The Dominance of American Chestnuts | Department of Biology (

Today, very few American Chestnuts survive. Scientists are trying to increase resistance to the blight through genetic engineering, but it will be some time before the trees will ever proliferate as they once did. 

It is also fascinating to note that the roots of the chestnut tree do not die, but continue to send up shoots fated, of course, to wither as they, too, succumb to blight. 

And yet, these shoots succeed in bringing hope, and sometimes the shoots become actual trees as was the case for the tree I experienced today. It was also delightful to see the many chestnut burrs strewn about the groundWhere there is life, there is hope!


Closer inspection of the tree, however, told a more somber story.  While this tree is an over-achiever, it, too, is not invulnerable to the deadly fungus as seen below.

The fungus called Cryphonectria parasitica enters the cracks in the tree and spreads what is known as a canker disease.  The cankers are of the diffuse type. They grow rapidly and in most cases continue to develop until the stem is girdled and killed; then they continue to colonize the dead tree.

Chestnut Blight: An American Tragedy | Forest Pathology

The crumbly red substance is blight that has gotten into the cracks of the tree and has spread. 

Sadly, another view of the tree reveals the dead canopy.

Meanwhile, however, one of the shoots coming off the trunk still looks quite healthy! The tiny round protrusions are called "lenticels" which River tells me "help with the passage of air." 

These leaves here are also perfect and beautiful. 

I could not do this project without the help of people with much knowledge of natural science - the botany and biology of the flora and fauna. I have learned so much through walks with River!

So much gratitude!