Tree planting to honor Mara Smith legacy, contribute to chestnut restoration project

Published 10:00 pm Monday, February 2, 2015

On Feb. 7 at 11 a.m. in honor of Mara Smith, a memorial planting ceremony officially reintroducing four American Chestnuts to Polk County will take place at Harmon Field. Later, at a private event, two more seedlings will be planted in the Norman Wilder Forest.

About 10 months ago, Mara’s husband Ford, their daughter Cassandra Kennedy, their family, and friends, were considering what might be appropriate memorials to honor Mara. In her last months, Mara—an avid traveler, hiker, and award-winning nature photographer—said she really wanted to leave something to enhance the natural beauty of this area, something for future generations to enjoy.

After the Celebration of Mara’s Life at Walnut Creek Preserve last year, Preserve owners Babs and Bob Strickland, and Pam Torlina, the director of stewardship and land protection for the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) all suggested Ford take a look at the American Chestnut restoration effort as a possible project.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Ford took to the Internet and began researching the chestnut, and its history. He found that until the early twentieth-century, the most dominant hardwood in the eastern U. S. (including Polk County) was the American Chestnut. Around 1900, a blight was inadvertently introduced by humans. The fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, came from Asia where the Chinese Chestnut had evolved a resistance but the American species had no such defenses. It spread quickly and by the 1950s, an estimated four billion American Chestnuts were dead. The magnitude of this die-off is unrivaled in the history of human-wrought ecological disasters.

Ford found that of the three major organizations striving to reintroduce the tree, the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) with its national headquarters located in nearby Asheville, is the largest. Would they consider a memorial planting of their new hybrid seedlings? And where in Polk County would be an appropriate setting? He wanted the seedlings in a public locale where not only his grandchildren but all future generations could witness the experiment.

The largest park in Polk County is Harmon Field. A neighbor, Linda Ligon, was on the Harmon Field Board and she’d spearheaded the recent Harmon Field tree plantings. She suggested Ford contact landscape architect, Mark Byington, who laid out the park’s 2012 master plan, and Mark e-mailed a copy of the plan showing where he had already reserved a protected area for a future chestnut trial!

John Vining, the county’s extension agent, added several other possibilities including the Norman Wilder Forest. This PAC-owned property has a varied topography and would provide a challenge to find favorable locales for the chestnut, but Ford was now on the PAC Board as education chair and thought it might be feasible.

Realizing these may be appropriate locations within the county, TACF was contacted to see if this endeavor would be possible. E-mails were sent to Tom Saielli, TACF’s Southeast regional science coordinator and Doug Gillis, president of TACF’s Carolinas’ chapter. In August, a series of phone calls indicated that this memorial planting would not only be possible—but welcomed.

Over the next several weeks, proposals were made to both the PAC and Harmon Field boards. Maps showed where the seedlings would be placed and reassurances made that the boards would incur no financial liability. Unanimously, both boards approved the proposal and became excited at the opportunity of being a part of the massive attempt to reintroduce the American Chestnut.

The next step was for Tom Saielli of TACF to drive down from Asheville to meet with Mark Byington; Travis Aldred, supervisor of Harmon Field; Pam Torlina of PAC; and Ford Smith. The areas for the seedlings were approved, with Harmon Field to receive four trees and Norman Wilder Forest to get two. One year and two days after Mara’s death, Feb. 7, was set as the planting date.

The new seedling hybrids are approximately 94 percent American and 6 percent Chinese. Over the last several years, studies have shown promising resistance to the blight. These chestnut trials are crucial steps in understanding how to successfully reintroduce a native species crippled by an invasive pathogen.

There’s a reasonable likelihood that there will be failures along the way and it will take years before results are known. But throughout her life, Mara believed you should attempt to reach your dreams. She insisted that you can give yourself permission to fail in the short-term, but you should always keep trying. This memorial seems a fitting tribute to a forward-thinking and remarkable woman.

-Submitted by Ford Smith