In a Walk in the Woods, the account of his hike along the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson balances his gift for making readers laugh out loud with his concern for the environment. He writes of the population decline in song birds and wildlife in the eastern United States, by 50% at least, since the 1930s. His comments on the plight of chestnut trees astound, captivate and leave readers wondering if indeed we can conserve natural resources essential to human life.
The massively graceful American chestnut tree symbolized the abundance that preserved the primeval super-Eden feel of the original forest… Rising a hundred feet from the forest floor, its soaring boughs spread out in a canopy of incomparable lushness, an acre of leaves per tree, a million or so in all. Though only half the height of the tallest eastern pines, the chestnut had a weight and mass and symmetry that put it in another league.
In 1904, chestnuts in the Bronx Zoo “began to sicken and die” from a blight of “small orange cankers.” Scientists identified an Asian fungus as the cause, but too late. Called “Endothia parasitica,” it invaded the “great sprawl of the Appalachians, where one tree in every four was a chestnut.”
…before the tree has the faintest idea, chemically speaking, what hit it, [the fungus] spreads by means of spores, which are produced in the hundreds of millions in each canker… At the height of the American chestnut blight, every woodland breeze would lose spores in uncountable trillions to drift in a pretty, lethal haze on to neighboring hillsides. The mortality rate was 100 percent.
Bryson’s conclusion stuns, dazes and stupefies, resting on the unimaginable:
In just over thirty-five years the American chestnut became a memory. The Appalachians alone lost four billion trees, a quarter of its cover, in a generation.
The anthracite coal fires burning underground in parts of Pennsylvania through which the Trail passes are no less alarming. Virtually impossible to extinguish, one ignited near Lehigh in 1850, remaining lit for 80 years. Another started in 1962 and continues to burn in Centralia, PA, “the strangest, saddest town” Bryson believes he has “ever seen.”
Today Centralia isn’t really even a ghost town. It’s just a big open space with a grid of empty streets still surreally furnished with stop signs and fire hydrants… a modern church stood in a lazy pall of white smoke… hovering wispily off the ground, and just behind it, great volumes of smoke were billowing from the earth… I walk over and found myself on the lip of a vast cauldron, perhaps an acre in extent, which was emitting thick, cloudlike, pure white smoke – the kind of smoke you get from burning tires or old blankets…
Bryson uncovered an article from Newsweek quoting “a fire mine authority observing that if the rate of burning held steady, there was enough coal under Centralia to burn for a thousand years.”
Returning to his penchant for hilarity, Bryson also makes brisk, cheerful comments on American life, the subject of another review at another time.
Bryson concludes his experience of the AT “slender and fit for a brief, proud period,” having gained “profound respect for wilderness and nature… understanding now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world.”
— Tucker Cox, Zeteo Contributing Writer