AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
American chestnut trees once made up a quarter of the forest between Maine and Georgia, but at the beginning of the last century, a blight wiped out almost all of them, an estimated four billion. Still, a few remain today, and reporter Natasha Haverty has the story of one pair a family planted in northern New York, in the town of Russell.
NATASHA HAVERTY, BYLINE: To get to the trees, we have to walk up a forest path.
TODD ALESSI: When you go and stand under it, you'll understand.
HAVERTY: Twenty-eight years ago, Todd and Nancy Alessi planted a couple of American chestnut seedlings a friend gave them on a whim. They knew nothing about the chestnut's past or how high the odds were stacked against their little seedlings. Today, the trees stand 60 feet tall.
T. ALESSI: So isn't it cool how it's like an umbrella?
HAVERTY: Hardly any sunlight makes it through their low electric-green canopy. They're in bloom right now, covered in flowers that look like blond pipe cleaners. Hundreds of bees hover up in the branches, coating their legs with pollen. If you listen, you can hear a hum like the trees are vibrating. Todd says these are the only chestnuts for miles in any direction.
T. ALESSI: The sad part of the blight wiping out all the trees was the fact that instead of waiting to see if any tree survived, people just assumed that they were all going to die and they cut them all down.
HAVERTY: Only a few hundred trees escaped that fate and by the time the Alessis planted these, Todd says most people figured the American chestnut was history.
T. ALESSI: It's just like a miracle that this tree is of this size here now, 'cause typically trees of this age would have succumbed to the blight by now. And there's a lot that they don't know about how and why they get the blight, and so we'd like to think it's just one of those mysteries.
HAVERTY: He and Nancy come sit here whenever they can.
T. ALESSI: Every year, it means more and more to us because we realize that at any time it could be gone.
NANCY ALESSI: They can have a 400-year lifespan, so hopefully they'll outlive us by many, many years. It's hard to find hope sometimes.
HAVERTY: There's an effort to breed a new blight-resistant American chestnut. The Alessis aren't part of that. But from their trees, Todd's been able to sprout hundreds of seedlings and he's giving them away to friends and neighbors, and if those fare as well, more people may get to witness the spectacle of a fully-grown thriving chestnut in their lifetime, a look at the world as it used to be. For NPR News, I'm Natasha Haverty in northern New York.