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A sweet identity: a chestnut in Austria

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A sweet identity: a chestnut in Austria |

Under spreading chestnut-trees in the garden of my preschool, I collected many treasures when I was a toddler. With my feet I opened the hard husk with all its spines. I was not good at peeling the nuts themselves, so I took them home. Maybe mom peeled them for me, or they ended up somewhere in the garbage bin, the memory always stops there. It wasn't until my year-long stay in Austria that I collected sweet-tasting memories in which I actually ate them, mostly standing next to stalls in the beautiful streets of Graz. I often got drunk on roasted chestnuts during that period. When I lived in central Japan, I discovered chestnut ice cream and chestnut cake in traditional mountain villages.

Chestnuts link me with my identity too. When you root in a place, that place prints something in you and it will stay there. As a Belgian person, I have Germanic roots: some Germanic traditions are part of our collective memories too. One of the fairytales that had the most impact on my childhood (it taught me to work hard if I wanted a reward) was Vrouw Holle (Frau Holle). However, many Belgians are not aware of their Germanic heritage. Through the experience of studying geography and ecology in a German-speaking area, I became more aware of it. The chestnut is a symbol of this. And this Germanic root is connected with my interest in German romanticism. Did you know that Hermann Hesse opened his novel Death and the Lover with a sweet chestnut that the main character Goldmund noticed at the entrance of the monastery? When he leaves, he greets the tree tenderly- perhaps as an expression of kinship.

In that winter in Graz, thirty old chestnut trees had to be felled at Lustbühel. I did not know these trees personally and knew they were suffering from cancer, but it is always weird to feel the place change when a tree falls.One year ago, I hiked in the region of a monastery in Belgium. Activists hung posters calling to rescue the chestnut trees in a cobblestone street, both remainders of history that had to take place for modern redevelopment. It touched me so deeply that this story of the loss of history and chestnut trees stuck with me.

When I talk about roots, I talk about identity and a sense of belonging. These could be big motivators why people care again about nearby forests and trees and feel grief or anger when these forests or trees get felled. Many of us are not legal owners, but psychological owners of many nonhuman ‘resources’. Chestnut cultivation was part of rural life in Austria and other countries for some centuries, especially in mountainous regions. After some decay (as part of diseases), the interest came back in the 1990s, because of the need for cultural traditions and landscapes. In addition, people have rediscovered chestnuts as a healthy substitute for wheat or other cereals, and vital for regional gourmet cuisine.

There is a reason why we call places and streets after trees. They are part of our personal and collective identity. And yes, I am proud that I can be a nut.

© Wendy Wuyts 2021-11-13


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