The American chestnut returns to AS IF Center

If you were to walk among the forests of the eastern United States over a hundred years ago, you would likely be walking in the shade of Castanea dentata,  the American chestnut. It’s estimated that there were about 3-4 billion of these majestic trees in the east, possibly making up a quarter of the trees in the Appalachians.

Original range of the American chestnut

The trees could grow to a massive size and provided food for wildlife, domesticated animals,  and people. The wood was incredibly rot-resistant — historic cabins with chestnut siding still stand in our mountains today, especially in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The chestnut seemed indestructible, until the first half of the twentieth century when chestnut blight arrived on imported Asian chestnut trees, wiping out entire forests all across the east within a period of about 40 years.

American Chestnut trees destroyed by chestnut blight, Chattahoochee National Forest, north Georgia, 1930. Photo courtesy of ChattOconeeNF.

Yet a few of the trees persist. Miraculously, the roots of some of the trees have stayed alive, producing shoots that leaf out and grow for about a decade, then when the sapling reaches reproductive age, it gets the blight and dies back, only to leaf out again a few years later. One of the most optimistic sights in the southern Apps is encountering one of these everlasting chestnut saplings on a summer hike.  You reach out to touch them, and you’re touching a sacred remnant of our past.

But you might also be touching the future. Is it possible we could restore our American chestnut forests one day? For over 90 years, there have been efforts to restore this beloved tree species, often using the genetic material of those brave saplings that persist in our woods. In 1983, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) was founded to continue restoration efforts, and has been using a backcross method with Chinese chestnut species to develop blight-resistant American chestnut trees. They have developed genetic lines that are fifteen-sixteenths American chestnut, with one-sixteenth Chinese chestnut for blight resistance.

To support the TACF research and restoration effort, and as a gift to High Cove community and to Carol Jacobsen & Marc Poland whose land and facilities make our art-science center possible, AS IF purchased chestnut trees to be planted in our community this spring.

The seeds arrived in late winter and sat dormant in the fridge for a few weeks, little treasures packed in moist sphagnum moss, sealed in plastic bags. As the spring weather approached, several community members gathered at the Yellow House to select planting sites that would be optimal for chestnut — dry ridges with loamy, well-drained soils. Lucky for us, a geologist happened to be in our midst (thank you, Kaye Savage!) who got out her soil maps and advised us about site selection.

At the Yellow House, selecting optimal sites for our chestnut babies. L to R: Olga Ronay, Carol Jacobsen, Richard Martin, Kaye Savage

We had a late spring this year. It snowed, it stayed cold, it rained cold rains, then snowed some more. And then it snowed. And again. When spring finally came, it lasted about a week — then suddenly it seemed summer would be upon us. So we waited and waited for the right moment, then a week later, we were in a hurry — time to plant! One hot late spring/ early summer day, Olga and I geared up to plant our seeds. To keep voles and other small mammals away, we cut the top and bottom out of a beer can and created a metal sleeve for the seeds, burying them about halfway into the ground. To protect for deer, we made cages of goat fencing. Such a lot of hardware for one little seed!

Olga adjusts the deer-proof fencing around our chestnut seed.

We also planted a couple of seeds in pots that we will be tending throughout the year — when they are strong, we will plant the saplings next to their sister trees. Wish our little seeds good luck!

Good luck, little seed!

Addendum: Read this article from the Washington Post about biotechnology and the American chestnut, also featuring an image of a giant chestnut tree from our county in 1914!

American chestnut tree in Mitchell County (where AS IF Center is located) from 1914.




Crazy about Maps

Here in the Toe River region in the winter months, our neighbors down in the Celo community publish a calendar called Cabin Fever University, filled with good reasons to get out of the house: it might be a dinner cooked by a Congolese neighbor, a night of French cinema, or a contest for nibbling a slice of cheese into the shape of a country. CFU keeps us entertained. This past weekend, High Cove community member Olga Ronay hosted a CFU event at the Firefly Lodge called “Crazy about Maps.” About ten of us descended upon the Lodge with rolled up maps under our arms, inflated globes with meteorological markings on them, historical maps, links to electronic maps, all things cartographic.

A map of Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists.

Tania shared this wooden book cover, handmade  in Belgium by her father, decorated with a detailed map of her native Yugoslavia. Larger place names are burned into the wood and smaller ones are labels decoupaged onto the surface. Bodies of water and other large features are painted on. In 1955 when this map was made, wood-burning was a popular craft technique.

On this 18th century map of St. John Island, Patrick points out the location of the Akwamu rebellion of 1733.

Patrick and Emily brought us a map of St. John Island from the 1700s. Residents of St. John for many years, Patrick and Emily had explored every inch of the island. Sweating and bleeding their way through tangled vegetation, venomous spiders, thorny lianas that snag your skin, and no access to food or water, they scouted across the island to locate ruins and learn the island’s history. Committed to leave very little trace, they bushwhacked but did not blaze trails. A reprint of a Danish map used for tax purposes, the map they shared was surprisingly accurate for Patrick and Emily’s outings, which explains why it’s so well worn – it went on a lot of those bushwhacking trips through the Caribbean jungle. Above, Patrick points out the location of the Akwamu Rebellion of 1733, when King June and several other enslaved people from Akwamu (present-day Ghana) led the first successful revolt of enslaved African people.

Map of Virgin Islands with island silhouettes, useful for mariners.

We are fortunate that Patrick and Emily now live up the road from High Cove and visit often to share their stories. They still spend their days walking miles of territory both on and off the roads and trails so they know everyone and everything there is to know about our neck of the woods.


Patrick and Emily have gained a lot of expertise about Mitchell County in a few short years by walking everywhere and talking to everyone, but they can’t match the decades of historical knowledge of Byrne Tinney. Born in West Virginia and educated at Berea College, Byrne has been living in our neck of the woods for the better part of sixty years, at least when he wasn’t teaching university at UNC Chapel Hill, or living in Spain, North Dakota, and points beyond. He shared with us a teaching tool he has used for helping folks understand meteorology, one of his many areas of expertise.

Byrne’s meteorology notes on an inflated globe.

Olga Ronay, AS IF Center board member and one of the primary instigators of the High Cove community, was also the instigator of our little cartographic party. She shared a number of cool electronic maps, including a map of smells in a Manhattan neighborhood and a data map of Brooklyn showing Brooklyn blocks where people sent to prison cost over $ 1 million  (at $30,000 per year, multiplied by x years of the sentence, multiplied by the number of prisoners from the block).

Map of New York smells.

Heat map of arrests in Brooklyn neighborhoods.

We also shared some great online resources including a tragic and data-rich visualization of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, a free, interactive Mitchell County NC map collection, and a site that uses three-word combinations to help people anywhere in the world remember and locate a GPS point.

With folks from Germany and Yugoslavia, folks who’ve lived in the Carribbean and Spain, and folks who have collectively traveled on most continents, our little party was keenly aware that the map is not the territory. Our conversation turned from maps to our own experiences of places – from swinging bridges of Mitchell County to carrying food and water through the jungle. Maps are a great tool for sharing details from past adventures, and for planning and dreaming about new ones. We geeked out over maps for two hours and we can’t wait to get together again next month.

We crowd in for a better look at this topo map of Mitchell County.

High Cove masala

AS IF Center has been a seed of an idea for many years, drawing on the nutrients of the growing community of art-science, then floating around on the wind for a bit, looking for the right place to take root. We have set down roots in the remote mountains of North Carolina for many reasons, some of them not so surprising: the rich diversity of flora and fauna, world-class geological sites, dark skies for astronomy, and the abundance of artists that buzz around Penland School of Crafts, just up the road. Nearby Asheville, known for its creative environment, also hosts some excellent but lesser-known science institutions. For example, the National Centers for Environmental Information is the headquarters for the nation’s climate data, and the Southern Research Station of the US Forest Service does important work to study how our forests adapt to human impacts.

But there is another reason to be here, and that is the surprisingly cosmopolitan community that is High Cove, where AS IF Center is located.

High Cove is a magnet for visitors from all corners. On a recent night in May, we had a delightful gathering with Gary Martin, who had travelled from Morocco. Gary, an ethnobotanist who wrote a textbook on Ethnobotany, directs the Global Diversity Foundation for preserving the biological and cultural diversity of the planet. At our gathering, a dozen of us mingled, nibbled on local goat cheese and just-picked ramps, sipped some wine, then I asked Gary to tell us about his work. He pulled out a few dozen plastic bags and spread them on the coffee table, and suddenly it looked like a drug bust. What were all these things?

bags of spices on the table

Looks like a drug bust… but it’s just spices aplenty

He opened one bag, a potpourri that included ingredients from all the other bags. He rolled down its edges and offered it to me.  I stuck my nose down into the bag and inhaled. I was transported to a spice market in Morocco, with whiffs of cardamom, cinnamon, anise, pepper, and things I didn’t recognize. My olfactory world burst into complex chord: mineral, herbal, salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami, medicinal, fruity, woody, nutty… with overtones and undertones, foretastes and aftertastes, like a well-aged, complex wine.

We focused on the ingredients one at a time. Gary passed around a bag of Melegueta pepper, or “grains of paradise.” A member of  Zingiberaceae, or ginger family, the Afromomum melegueta makes seeds which sting the tongue, then reveal clean, citrusy, peppery clouds of flavor that entertain the nose and throat, and fill the head. There were spices that came from every part of a plant. Delicate red threads of the finest saffron in the world, highly valued stamens of the Crocus sativus. Golden, leathery-looking bits of mace, the fleshy aril covering the nutmeg in the Myristica fragrans tree. Orris root,  the rhizome of Iris pallida, used as a fixative to bind  flavors together.

samples of mace in a bag

Mace, the fleshy aril that covers the nutmeg.

an variety of spices in a bag

Take a whiff – incredible aromas.







One highlight of the evening was passing around a small, round seed about the size of a peppercorn, with a smooth woody surface the color of rosewood. It was a guessing game. We scratched and sniffed. One said, “Cloves?” Another asserted: “Cardamom! No, wait. Cinnamon?” And “Hmm… it has a spicy bite, like ginger-ish. But with a deeper note, like maybe nutmeg?” Then we realized, aha. Allspice! Indeed, that is where the name comes from. From Jamaica, allspice, or Pimenta dioica, has flavors reminiscent of so many of these spices.

We expect variety in cities. I have lived in three cities and travelled to a dozen more in different parts of the world. But it wasn’t until I moved to this remote location in the mountains of North Carolina that I had the privilege of learning about ethnobotany from a guy who wrote a textbook on it. Just a few days prior to that olfactory feast of spices, I was at a different kind of feast: my first Russian Orthodox Easter breakfast, eating pascha and drinking tea out of glasses with silver podstakannik, thanks to a Russian artist living at High Cove.


Russian Orthodox Easter pascha and eggs


Russian tea glass








High Cove has had visitors from Burundi, Switzerland, Austria, Morocco, India, and from all over the US. Folks who live here and those who visit have generally travelled widely, studied deeply, and do interesting work in the arts, the sciences, academia, engineering, journalism, and other fields. High Cove residents include a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist / ceramic artist; a physicist / musician;  a Stanford University classics professor / woodworker; a radio engineer / meteorologist / Spanish professor. Incredibly, when I arrived, there was already another artist / scientist here, who became a friend and partner in crime.

Our feasts of culinary and olfactory delights are a common occurrence here, as are the equally intriguing curries of stimulating conversation. We relish our “sobremesa” (Spanish for “around the table”), that time of lingering after a meal to enjoy stories, laughter, music, learning, and companionship. It is this rich masala of bright minds, delightful conversations, creative work, and adventurous eating, and  that brought AS IF Center to this place.

The world comes to High Cove. We hope you will, too.