American Chestnut

By SUSAN FREINKEL

You could fill a library with paeans to the American elm, but far less has been written about the American chestnut, which dominated forests from Georgia to Maine until a virulent fungus brought it to near-extinction in the early 20th century. Few humans bore witness to the decimation of the chestnut: now this absorbing book gives the majestic tree its due, combining science, history, and environmental polemic to explain both the tree’s demise and the surprisingly touching efforts of a devoted band of scientists to bring it back to life. The blight gained entry on chestnuts imported from Asia, wiping out billions of trees in a single generation. The disappearance of the chestnut was a blow to animals and people alike: its nuts sustained an abundance of wildlife, and its timber and bark formed the backbone of the Appalachian economy. Devotees of the tree employ various methods to battle the blight, including controversial bioengineering technology, with little success to date; still, they slog on. “I am continually moved by the patience and undying optimism of the chestnut scientists I’ve met,” author Susan Freinkel writes. “In their own way, they are as resolute as the tree itself.” -