BENNINGTON -- While there is still much work to be done, Mount Anthony Union Middle School hosted the dedication of its American chestnut nursery on Thursday.
The nursery grew out of a partnership between the American Chestnut Foundation, the Catamount Rotary Club, and the middle school's sustainability class, led by teacher Stephen Greene. Greene and his students have worked extensively with rotary club member and former ACF president Marshal Case to make the nursery a reality.
"What we're working on, and what we'll continue to work on," said Greene to the gathered community members, "is being the first public school with an American chestnut nursery."
Students have worked since April vacation to start clearing out honeysuckle from the nursery site, and in the beginning of May planted seven seedlings and 44 seeds of a blight-resistant strain of chestnut. Case acquired the seeds and seedlings, which have been bred over multiple generations to be 94 percent American chestnut and 6 percent Chinese chestnut, from the ACF. The trees will be able to reach the original size of the American chestnut, up to 120 feet high and 17 feet wide, but will be resistant to the chestnut blight that drove the species to the brink of extinction during the first half of the 20th century.
Greene spoke highly of the project, saying that it benefited his students in a number of ways. "It offers them the possibility of bringing a species back from the brink of extinction," he said, "If you give them a purpose, if you give them something to do, they'll get inspired and take the bull by the horns and get it done."
"We're on our way here, as a leader in the state of Vermont," said Case, "It takes about seven years to grow each generation, so this was a long-term project. Next year, we'll plant more seeds and keep adding to the program."
After the ceremony, guests were invited into the middle school cafeteria, where Helen Fields' ancient civilizations class had prepared a number of different dishes from all over the world, including pizza made on einkorn, an ancient wheat that was cultivated in Mesopotamia as early as 7500 B.C., traditional Nigerian fried rice, soup made from rice, bean, and squash, Aztec guacamole, and cupcakes with Arabic writing. "Your children made this, and they were fabulous," said Fields.
Also in the cafeteria was a cardboard chestnut tree created by students, as well as numerous chestnut artifacts, including a chestnut guitar, which Case said was one of only two remaining. The cardboard tree was accompanied by the poem, "Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground" by Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda.
"Chestnut tree, autumn, earth," writes Neruda, "Water, heights, silence. Prepared the germ, the floury density, the maternal eyelids, that buried will again open toward the heights, the simple majesty of foliage, the dark damp plan of new roots, the ancient but new dimensions of another chestnut tree in the earth."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB