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The Time of Trees
A Report from Chestnut Fest
Written by an organizer with The Many Trees Project
On November 5, we welcomed nearly 200 people to Chestnut Fest, a celebration of perennial foods and regional food autonomy. Since 2019 we have been propagating and distributing thousands of nut trees for free around the southern edges of the Salish Sea. Our free nursery has made so many connections and met so many enthusiastic people since we began that we thought it high time for a regional encounter. What follows is a brief report from the event and a short summary of some of the ideas and themes that have driven us in this project.
We held this event on a friendly farm that hosts our tree nursery as well as an impressive food bank garden and several other small-scale agricultural projects. This place sits on traditional Nisqually and Squaxin territory, and the Nisqually and Squaxin people have cultivated, cared for, and lived here since time immemorial. We owe them gratitude for the gifts they have given this place in the form of healthy soil, diverse plant communities, and deep generational knowledge about how to tend the land and live in relation to it.
Festival day followed on the heels of a tremendous storm. After months of a summer drought that extended through late October, the rain and wind returned all at once, downing trees and spawning power outages across the region. The giant tarps that we had strung up the day before did not survive the storm, but we were blessed by a sunny day.
The day began with a work party planting out our newly tilled nursery beds for future tree distribution. We planted hybrid hazelnuts, chestnuts gathered from the best-bearing trees around town, Garry oak acorns, and tan oak and chinquapin seeds brought by a friend from southern Oregon. While assisted climate migration remains a topic of academic debate, a survey of human history indicates that people have always brought plants with them as they move across the landscape. We are curious to see how these plants from a few hundred miles south will grow and perform over the coming decades.
The “food court” brought a steady stream of visitors sampling fresh-pressed apple cider, wok-roasted chestnuts, entries in the chestnut recipe competition, and enough free, hearty soup to feed 200 people. We were fortunate and grateful to have incredible dedicated volunteers holding down the food zone. Ample and nourishing hot food was instrumental in creating an environment where people could mingle, talk, and participate throughout the day—as well as a small example of the kinds of communal food autonomy and culture that we believe are possible, and which underpin this project.
Workshops and presentations began in the afternoon. After a beautiful sunny morning, a fortuitously timed hailstorm funneled everyone into the high tunnel just as the talks were beginning. After a short presentation on the role of perennial tree crops throughout history and their potential for building climate resilience and autonomy from industrial agriculture, we welcomed presentations by local forester Patrick Shults on tapping our native Bigleaf Maple trees for maple syrup followed by a workshop on food sovereignty and plant relations by Tessa Halloran, garden coordinator for the Cowlitz Tribe. Patrick handed out free equipment to tap maple trees as part of a distributed citizen science and data collection project on the viability of maple syrup as a local tree crop, while Tessa facilitated a beautiful interactive workshop on plant relations, giving people an opportunity to learn and share their knowledge about local medicinal and edible plants, emphasizing everyone’s agency in reclaiming situated relations with their food.
We ended the formal activities with facilitated group discussions on climate resilience and food systems, adapted from the Inhabit facilitation guide for Strategic Climate Resilience. In regional breakout groups that extended north of the Olympic Peninsula and down to south central Washington, people met each other, connected tools, resources, and passions, and developed plans to continue collaborating. Walking around and participating, it was deeply inspiring to see so many former strangers conversing, talking about material projects, and brainstorming ways to expand food systems locally. We hope that many new projects might emerge from these encounters. Chestnut Fest, as well as the Many Trees Project, sprung out of a small handful of people having conversation. Let a thousand autonomous nurseries sprout!
The day wound down with more soup, an informal music session around a fire, the moon hanging above the illuminated high tunnel, and the satisfied feeling of seeing a brief glimpse into another world that so many people are trying to build.
Why Trees? Tree Crops and Climate Resilience
We know that our climate is changing and the industrial food systems that we all depend on for survival are vulnerable. The soil is depleted, the weather is too hot and dry and then too wet all at once. Our global supply chains are increasingly fragile, threatening the availability of everything from food to petroleum to fertilizers. Hotter temperatures stress vascular plants, and current estimates include a 20-40% decrease in food productivity and nutritional value by 2080 (see Eric Toensmeier’s The Carbon Farming Solution).
We know all of these things to be true and it seems like we should be declaring an emergency in our everyday lives to contend with this crisis. But the scale of the problem seems so immense, and the demands of reproducing ourselves on a daily basis so high, that it’s easier to be paralyzed and overwhelmed than to figure out how to act.
When confronted by an impossible-seeming present, turning to the deeper time of human history can be both soothing and instructive. A few particular examples have provided sources of inspiration for our project:
In 9,600 BC, global temperatures rose by 7°C in less than a decade. The rapidly-receding ice sheets and changing climate led to mass northerly migration by Mesolithic peoples in Europe. As they traveled, they brought plants with them—most significantly, the hazelnut tree. This tree became the cornerstone of the Mesolithic diet in Europe for thousands of years, in a continent-wide food forest that, according to Max Paschall, included over 450 different edible plants growing in the understory and also produced coppiced wood for building shelter and producing heat. This was a cultural ecosystem created by humans migrating in a changing climate—a food system that improved soil, encouraged biodiversity, and required human entanglement with the ecosystem.
Two thousand years ago, during the height of the Roman Empire, deforestation and monoculture grain production upheld by slave labor had spread across vast swathes of land. When the Roman Empire collapsed, so too did the unsustainable grain production and deforestation that it required. Chestnut trees spread across the mountains of Italy and became a perennial food source for people exiting the collapsing empire. Those same chestnut forests, tended by local communities over thousands of years, later fed Italian anti-fascist partisans fighting Mussolini. Our landscapes and ecosystems create possibilities of resistance and of life far into the future.
In the Pacific Northwest, Garry oak savannas were a vital cultural ecosystem producing vast quantities of acorns as a staple crop, a rich tapestry managed by first peoples through controlled burns and a deep understanding of long-term forest health. The violent process of colonization, land theft, and cultural genocide that followed—as well as a century of fire suppression by colonizers—destroyed many of these oak savannas.
We know that tree crops—whether the starchy carbohydrates that chestnuts and acorns produce, the high protein, high fat nuts like hazelnuts and walnuts, the sugar from maples, or the many forms of fruit that we all know and love—are highly productive for humans but also good for a changing climate. They improve water infiltration in soil, reduce water runoff, create healthy soil ecosystems, provide habitat, absorb atmospheric carbon, and create cool microclimates through their shady canopies and evapotranspiration. We also know that well-tended trees can live for hundreds of years.
Armed with this information, three years ago a few of us got together and started to brainstorm a small-scale free tree distribution project. Our vision was to spark conversation about climate resilience and food systems. Through purchases, generous seed donations, and local harvesting of seeds and plant stock, and especially thanks to the generosity of a local farm and the volunteer labor of many people, we installed nursery beds and planted out all of our seed in the spring of 2020. Just a few days later, the first Covid lockdown was implemented.
Since then, we have given away thousands of trees to individuals, small farms, schools, parks, and tribes. We’re very grateful and excited to be planting many more nuts this winter. We started this project with the goal of distributing a few hundred trees and now find ourselves distributing thousands. In the next couple of years, we’re hoping to scale that up to the tens of thousands each year. On a global scale, it’s a drop in the bucket. On a regional and local scale though, we believe that we can collectively plant enough trees to be a staple part of regional food systems into the future. All it takes is a few pots or a raised bed, some soil, and some nuts. A single person can propagate hundreds of trees in a small space and a small group can grow thousands. Each one of those trees could produce dozens to hundreds of pounds of food annually for decades or centuries.
Historically, revolutions unfold when the price of bread is too high. From the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, the many tensions and contradictions in society can be contained until people can’t afford to eat. Once there is desperation for basic staples, governments fall and societies change rapidly. The problem with our fragile industrial food system is that when it truly collapses, government policy will be unable to fix it. No amount of farm subsidies or food stamps can replace depleted soil or broken supply chains. And if we wait until the cost of bread and the hunger in our stomachs is the motivating factor for revolt, it will already be too late.
We need to plant trees now—with all the urgency of a bread riot, but with the endurance needed for a generation-long project. As the gambles of industrial agriculture and settler-colonialism reveal their failures, we have an opportunity to make a different wager. We are betting on the planet and on our local ecosystems as part of a vital life support system. We are betting on reciprocity with plants, animals, and soil. This is vitally important and urgent; it is also more rewarding and immediately satisfying than many other activities I can imagine. To grow trees, to tend the soil, to hope that the trees we plant today, wherever we can plant them, might provide shade and food for human and non-human animals alike, and to remember that our own well-being and our own fates are linked to the plants and soil immediately around us—this is our gamble.
Learn More About the Many Trees Project