Eight months before a young Senator from Illinois rode the tide of a developing Republican crisis to become the first U.S. President with African American roots, officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources delivered a rather shocking announcement. They had discovered a single, healthy, adult American chestnut tree. A rare enough sighting. But where they found it was perhaps just as head-scratching: in a marsh near the second-most polluted of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie.
As dutiful members of the tree family that also includes oaks, beeches, and the rare-breed-of-dog-sounding chinkapin trees, adult American chestnuts fan out as they reach heights of nearly 100 feet. Their canopies become broad, sweeping, like the arches of Roman aqueducts or the horsehair crests of the helmets worn by the soldiers who defended them. In the fall, the limbs of American chestnuts droop under the weight of their large crop of nuts, covered in a husk of quills that gives them the look of small porcupines levitating in the trees.