The American chestnut was one of the most important natural resources available to Mvskokes in the old country. The ripened nuts are nourishing and delicious; they can be roasted, boiled, dried, ground into flour, salted for storage, or eaten raw from the bur.
Until recent times, chestnuts were also the most vital wildlife food in the eastern woodlands. Animals of every kind—squirrel, crow, rabbit, raccoon, turkey, deer—relied on the annual harvest to survive winter. “The bears are great Lovers of Chestnut,” observed colonist William Byrd in 1727, and they were adept at collecting its fruit. In the early 1900s, a backwoods hunter watched one at work: “The b’ar corkscrews up a chestnut and rakes down a bunch of burs, then gather ’em up and set beside ’em. He takes a rock in each paw and mashes the burs open and eats the nuts.”
Humans have long used other parts of the tree to make medicine, supplies, and building materials. The astringent leaves, for example, can be boiled and applied directly to open sores. Drinking chestnut-leaf tea can ease the symptoms of head colds, whooping cough, upset stomach, and rheumatism.
Chestnut bark is full of tannin, the essential ingredient for processing animal hides into leather. Local tanneries in the southeast blended oak, hemlock, and chestnut bark to produce various grades of leather, until this labor-intensive method was replaced by an industrial process in the last century.
The wood also is high in tannin, making it rot-resistant and more durable than other hardwoods. Chestnut trees grow tall and straight, producing lumber that is very even-grained and relatively lightweight, easy to work by hand and less likely to warp as it cures. In the days before power tools, it would have been ideal for post-and-beam construction on open ground: brush arbors, palisades, stock fences.
So it’s not surprising that two of the twelve months in cokv-walv Mvskoke are named for this staple tree. The fourth month of the Mvskoke year is Otvwoskv-Rakko, “Big Chestnut-Thrashing.” The name was formed by combining the noun oto, “chestnut,” with an inflection of the verb wvsketv, “to thrash,” producing the phrase otvwoskv, “chestnut-thrashing,” then adding the augmentative suffix –rakko, “big.”
Interestingly, the Mvskoke word oto is very close to eto, the more general term for “tree” or “wood.” Other native trees bear Mvskoke names that are more diverse and specific: hecelwv, “yellow poplar”; lakcvpe-cate, “red oak”; ocē-vpe, “hickory”; ‘to-hvtkv, “white ash”; vhahwv, “walnut.” But oto was the definitive eto of the Mvskoke homeland, both in nature and in the vocabulary of nature.
The English distinction between forest and orchard is not very useful for describing the Mvskoke relationship with oto. The greedy settlers who displaced our ancestors in the nineteenth century quickly learned to exploit this tree, in part because they found chestnut groves waiting to be tended.
These were natural stands of mature, fruit-bearing trees that had been groomed by generations of native caretakers. Clearing the underbrush and selectively thinning the chestnuts helped promote growth by opening the canopy. Keeping the ground clean made it easier to gather nuts after they were thrashed down from the branches. Picture an old-growth forest managed like an estate orchard.
A well maintained chestnut grove would be an Edenic spot in summer. It must have been hard to leave these familiar places—cast out of the Garden, you might say, and driven to a land with no oto at all, where the Mvskoke people had to find new means of survival.
Yet this forced removal might have been a blessing in disguise, at least insofar as our dependence on the American chestnut is concerned.
In the late 1800s, Asian chestnut seedlings imported from Japan brought with them a fungus that infects chestnut bark. Asian chestnuts have developed resistance to this parasite, but it proved deadly for the American species. Diseased American chestnuts were first noticed at the Bronx Zoological Park in 1904.
What ensued has been called “one of the greatest natural disasters in the annals of forest biology” and “the worst ecological catastrophe in American history.” In 1911, the New York Times reported that some letter-writers believed this plague had been caused by “the general wickedness of the people of the United States,” as “a scourge for sinfulness and extravagant living.”
Over the next few years, the virulent fungus attacked and killed nearly all of the four billion American chestnut trees spread over two hundred million acres in eastern North America. “Chestnut blight remains the most destructive disease known for any host, including trees, other plants, animals, and humans.”
A handful of trees inexplicably survived the epidemic, and scientists have been working for decades to develop a blight-resistant strain of American chestnut. With a little luck, future generations in Mvskoke country may be able to visit a mature stand of oto, and perhaps even join in some friendly otvwoskv.