American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree

Overview

The American chestnut was one of America's most common, valued, and beloved trees—a "perfect tree" that ruled the forests from Georgia to Maine. But in the early twentieth century, an exotic plague swept through the chestnut forests with the force of a wildfire. Within forty years, the blight had killed close to four billion trees and left the species teetering on the brink of extinction. It was one of the worst ecological blows to North America since the Ice Age—and one most ...

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Overview

The American chestnut was one of America's most common, valued, and beloved trees—a "perfect tree" that ruled the forests from Georgia to Maine. But in the early twentieth century, an exotic plague swept through the chestnut forests with the force of a wildfire. Within forty years, the blight had killed close to four billion trees and left the species teetering on the brink of extinction. It was one of the worst ecological blows to North America since the Ice Age—and one most experts considered beyond repair.
In American Chestnut, Susan Freinkel tells the dramatic story of the stubborn optimists who refused to let this cultural icon go.
In a compelling weave of history, science, and personal observation, she relates their quest to save the tree through methods that ranged from classical plant breeding to cutting-edge gene technology. But the heart of her story is the cast of unconventional characters who have fought for the tree for a century, undeterred by setbacks or skeptics, and fueled by their dreams of restored forests and their powerful affinity for a fellow species.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In the first years of the 20th century, a mysterious blight began to infect the majestic American chestnut trees of the east. Thirty years later, as many as four billion had been felled by a virulent scourge from Asia, sweeping like a relentless wildfire through forests from Maine to Georgia. Freinkel's enthralling synthesis of science and sentiment chronicles the devastating impact of the chestnut tree's precipitous disappearance on generations of hardscrabble Appalachian homesteaders, who lost a "flavorful nugget of nutrition" that got their families through bitter winters, and on flummoxed but determined botanists, who battled with politicians in the early 1900s about the best way to halt the blight's inexorable advance. As the presence of towering stands of "the perfect tree" faded into melancholic memory, she shows that resolute citizens and scientists have set out, with almost religious fervor, to resurrect the dead-with signs of success. Detailed explanations of the science of crossbreeding, "hypovirulence" (fighting disease by "infecting the infection") and genetic engineering often make for heavy if informative slogging. But time after time, this impassioned book strikes resonant emotional chords that transform dry facts into dynamic prose. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

The American chestnut tree was once king of the forest. Its range stretched nearly the length of the eastern seaboard, from Maine to Georgia, and as far west as the Ohio Valley. Central to human economies, it also played a key role in the hardwood ecosystem. And then, in the late 1800s, an imported Asian fungus quickly killed a staggering 99.9 percent of the species; by 1950, only 50 to 100 trees remained of the estimated original four billion. Restoration attempts continue. Curiously, outside of the scientific literature, this sad, powerful story of death and rebirth has rarely been told, but two new titles fill the gap wonderfully. Science journalist Freinkel's compact, entertaining history of the tree's demise and the many attempts to bring it back reads smoothly, like a well-written novel: the settings, whether deep in the heart of 1920s Appalachia or in a modern, upstate New York gene-splicing lab, are richly drawn; the "characters," be they human, sylvan, or fungal, will entice many readers, perhaps even those with only a perfunctory interest in trees. A delightful lack of squeamishness distinguishes Freinkel's account. We read, for example, of one chestnut breeder's complaint that his persnickety experimental subjects "didn't give a shit that I was trying to help them." Descriptive detail is such that one sometimes wonders how it was obtained: at a 1912 high-level meeting to discuss blight containment strategies, the air, we are told, "was thick with a sense of urgency," and one of the participants "looked weary as he took his place." This may be the stuff of fiction, but it does not in any way detract from a thoroughly absorbing book.

In Mighty Giants, a celebratorypublication of the 25th anniversary of the American Chestnut Foundation, editor Bolgiano gathers photographs, essays, poems, and personal recollections into a fascinating cornucopia of all things chestnut. This includes a certain vernacular flair, as in a local's description of old trees: "grea-a-at big, and they'd sprangle out, have a big clustery top to'em." Images of the big trees evoke an aching sense of what's lost, while stories of those trying to save them are cause for hope and admiration. Although each title can stand on its own, they work best in tandem. Both are highly recommended, even for those libraries outside the chestnut belt.
—Robert Eagan

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Natural History
“A moving portrait. . . . Freinkel’s fine reportage sparkles.”
American Scientist
“A tale of the functional extinction of what was once one of the most economically valuable and ecologically important trees.”
American Studies Journal
“Engrossing and compelling.”
Picayune Item
“Will not disappoint!”
Wildlife Activist
“Highly recommend it to anyone who cares about nature and perhaps this should be a required reading for all biology/ecology/environmental science students.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
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." --Barbara Spindel
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520247307
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/19/2007
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 294
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Freinkel is a freelance science journalist whose feature writing has appeared in Discover, Health, Smithsonian, and the Reader’s Digest, among many national magazines.

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Read an Excerpt

American Chestnut

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of A Perfect Tree
By Susan Freinkel

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 Susan Freinkel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24730-7


Chapter One

Where There Are Chestnuts

Early McAlexander looks through the window of his granddaughter's car onto a wide open hill fringed by a line of white pines. "All this land used to belong to my father," Early says in a voice that's surprisingly steady for a man of ninety-two. His Virginia accent twists and pulls the vowels like taffy. "I was raised up where that house is now," he adds, looking across the blacktop road to a large, modern, red-brick house with a quasi-colonial portico. It's a far cry from the house in which he and his six brothers and sisters grew up: a four-room log cabin built before the Civil War. In Early's day, the log exterior was covered with clapboard, a common bid by mountain families for respectability. To Early's amusement, the man who bought the cabin from the family moved it to a new lot up the road and stripped off all the clapboard siding to reveal the original rough-hewn logs, this wealthier generation of mountain dwellers' bid for authenticity. Early's family has lived in this area at the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Patrick County, Virginia, for generations; he's not sure how many. But he knows his great-great-grandfather hailed from here and fought in the Confederate Army until he died of pneumonia in a Richmond hospital. His worn grave marker is in the family cemetery, which still stands near where the cabin once stood.

Early is a dapper, spry man with a full head of snow-white hair, a hearing aid in each ear, and liver-spotted hands that are still steady enough to wield a chain saw or guide a tractor-mower (much to his protective granddaughter's horror). On this windy day in early April, he's dressed in a navy blue blazer, striped tie, and crisp white shirt-his Sunday best. We've spent the morning the same way he has spent most Sunday mornings for the past sixty years: at the Baptist church in this tiny mountain community, Meadows of Dan (population 1,934). Though the white-steepled church can hold at least two hundred congregants, there were only about fifty present on this day. Most were elderly. They came in carrying well-thumbed bibles and asking about one another's health. Many have known each other for decades, since they were schoolchildren together in another time and another world, when this land was laced with dirt roads linking family farms, the hillsides were dotted with fragrant haystacks, and children knew the woods flanking the Welds as well as they knew their own home. Many date the end of that world to the late 1920s, when the American chestnut trees all began to die.

Patrick County sits on the southern edge of Virginia, snug against the North Carolina border; it is a wedge-shaped, 470-square-mile area that stretches from the rocky edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the north to the rolling clay lands of the Piedmont in the south. According to the official county history published in 1999, Patrick County's southern border "is about the same distance from the equator as the Rock of Gibraltar, the southern part of the Caspian Sea and Death Valley, California." In a further effort to fix the county's coordinates, the authors note that the county seat, Stuart, lies 2,530 miles north of the equator and 3,670 miles south of the North Pole. What the official history doesn't note is that Patrick County also lies in the heart of the historic chestnut belt and that it was once one of the biggest producers of chestnuts and chestnut products in the region.

Only a handful of artifacts scattered around the county testify to the chestnut's former presence. They include the split-rail chestnut fences bordering the Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds along the county's northern border; the chestnut paneling that lines the walls and ceiling of the Methodist church in the village of Woolwine; and the jar of slightly moldy nuts on display in the Patrick County Historical Society Museum.

Like much of the south, the county luxuriates in its history. Officially formed in 1791, the county was named for Patrick Henry, the firebrand orator-"Give me liberty or give me death!"-of the Revolutionary War. The county seat was named for the confederate war hero J. E. B. Stuart. Silver-colored square historical markers frequently appear along the two-lane roads that crisscross the county: here is Stuart's birthplace; here, the site of the Frontier Fort; here, the homestead of tobacco king R. J. Reynolds. Local family histories and genealogies fill a whole bookshelf in the modest county library. "You know," one woman explained, "that's a Southern hobby." Yet there's a whole other history unnoticed and unremarked on by either texts or roadside markers, a history intimately bound up with the tree that once covered the mountains of this region. "Up here there was a world of chestnuts," one elderly resident recalled. His words speak not only to the abundance of the trees in the region, but also to the role they played in the community and culture. Just as chestnut wood once served as the unseen solid backing for the veneered furniture that used to be manufactured here, so the tree itself once provided the unsung foundation of the lives of the county's poorest residents. Its story is also their story.

* * *

The American chestnut belongs to a storied clan of trees known as Castanea-a branch of the beech family-which flourishes in temperate zones across the northern hemisphere. Consider the genus a diaspora, its far-flung population a legacy of an ancient time, tens of millions of years ago, when the land masses of North America and Eurasia were joined in a single supercontinent known as Laurasia. Chestnuts, or rather their remote ancestors, grew all over Laurasia. Eventually the land masses pulled apart, the oceans widened, and the multitude of plants, insects, and animals on each new continent were left to pursue their own distinct paths of development. The chestnuts of China became a different species from the chestnuts of North America. Their ancestral links would later prove the American chestnut's undoing-and the potential source of its salvation.

Although botanists quibble over the precise number, most count at least seven distinct species of Castanea. (The name refers to the region of Kastanea in what is now Turkey, where Bronze Age humans are thought to have first started cultivating the tree.) The Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia gave rise to the European chestnut, or Castanea sativa, which closely resembles the American tree. Four more members of the family emerged in Asia: the Japanese chestnut (Castanea crenata), the Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), the dwarf Chinese chestnut (Castanea seguini), and the treelike Chinese chinquapin (Castanea henryi). Meanwhile, a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of trees emerged in North America: the often shrublike Allegheny chinquapin (Castanea pumila) and its grand towering cousin, the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata, so-called because the edges of the leaves look like a row of sharp teeth). Even the untrained eye can spot some of the differences distinguishing the species. The leaves of Japanese chestnuts look like a thin spearhead, for instance, while American chestnut leaves look more like a canoe. Asian species have fine hairs on the leaves (hence the Chinese chestnut's nickname, hairy chestnut); American chestnut leaves are relatively bald. Chinquapin burs contain just one nut, while Europeans usually have three fat seeds to a bur. Other distinguishing details, such as the shape of the buds or precise shade of the twigs, demand a practiced eye or even a botanist's hand lens. Even so, mistaken identities are common.

Despite the differences, all Castanea members share certain traits. They all bear nuts that are flavorful nuggets of nutrition (high in fiber, protein, vitamin C, and carbohydrates; low in calories and fat), and they can be cultivated with relatively little care-so little that some nineteenth-century critics complained that raising chestnuts induced peasants "to laziness." The trees are fast growing, and if you cut down a chestnut, dozens of stems will sprout as abundantly as weeds from its roots-a system of regeneration known as coppicing. Such qualities have endeared the trees to people across time and place. The Romans considered the chestnut one of the pillars of civilization, along with the olive, the grape, and grain. Wherever imperial legions planted the empire's flag, they also planted chestnuts. Thus the chestnut trees that shade old Roman roads in England and the orchards that flank the craggy mountainsides of the southern Mediterranean. Visiting Corsica in the early 1900s, American geographer J. Russell Smith asked one villager how long the local chestnut orchards had been going. "Oh a hundred years, five hundred years, a thousand years-always!" the man replied. Likewise, in the hilly regions of Japan and China, farmers have cultivated the trees for millennia.

In most parts of the world, the prized chestnut was a cultivated tree, raised in areas where cereals would not easily grow by peasants who recognized that a family with a chestnut orchard would never go hungry. But in North America, devotion centered on a tree that was never tamed, a wild forest king whose dominion sprawled over more than two hundred million acres. American chestnuts spread along the length of the eastern seaboard and west to Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Legend has it that a squirrel could travel the chestnut canopy from Georgia to Maine without ever touching the ground. Along the way it would pass over at least 1,094 places with chestnut in their names. The chestnut was in many ways the quintessential American tree: adaptable, resilient, and fiercely competitive. Given the right conditions, no other hardwood could beat out the American chestnut in the race to the forest canopy.

Despite, or because of, the trees' abundance, they were rarely corralled into formal cultivation. One reason may be that the nuts, while sweeter than other types of chestnut, were also far smaller: little acorn-size kernels that were difficult to peel. When colonial Americans began planting chestnut orchards, they ignored the native trees, turning instead to the Old World trees that produced bigger, plumper nuts. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, imported European cultivars for his orchards at Monticello. When another wave of interest in chestnut cultivation hit in the late nineteenth century, breeders such as Luther Burbank again disregarded American chestnuts in favor of imports from Japan. It was a development that would have dire consequences for the native trees.

Although untamed, American chestnuts were a boon to all who dwelled in their vicinity. Unlike other nut-bearing trees, chestnuts are perennial and prodigious producers. (It's said that this predictability is the source of the expression "a chestnut" to mean an often-told tale.) Oaks, which shared the chestnut's forest niche, might offer a huge crop of acorns one year, then nothing the next. Because chestnuts are late bloomers, flowering beyond the reach of even the latest frost, the trees could be counted on for nuts every year, and lots of them: a single tree might bear as many as six thousand nuts. Such bounty supported an abundance of wildlife: bears, elk, deer, squirrels, raccoons, mice. The huge drives of wild turkeys that thrived in pre-Columbian Appalachia-estimated to be as many as ten million birds-feasted on the nuts, as did the enormous flocks of passenger pigeons that once blackened the skies in mass migrations.

The Native American tribes that shared the forests with American chestnuts were equally reliant on the trees. Here was a source of food that, unlike acorns, didn't need to be boiled for hours to be palatable; these nuts were sweet right off the tree. It is small wonder the Cherokees developed rough chestnut orchards in the woods by burning competing trees. The trees also were a rich source of remedies. One account advised: "Tea of year old trees for heart trouble; leaves from young sprouts [to] cure old sores, cold bark tea with buckeye to stop bleeding after birth; apply warmed galls to make infant's navel recede; boil leaves with mullein and brown sugar for cough syrup; dip leaves in hot water and put on sores."

The Iroquois celebrated the sustaining gifts of the tree in the story "Hodadenon and the Chestnut Tree." Hodadenon lived alone with his uncle; the rest of their family had been killed by a group of seven evil witches. Their only food was a cache of dried chestnuts that was magically replenished at every meal. One day, Hodadenon foolishly destroyed the last of the magical nuts. His uncle cried that they would starve, so Hodadenon resolved to steal more chestnuts from a grove of trees jealously guarded by the seven witches. After many tries, he managed to get into the grove and take the nuts he needed, an act that broke the witches' curse and restored his family to life. Hodadenon gave each of his relatives a chestnut and told them to plant the seeds everywhere. The nuts, he declared, were a sacred food, to be shared forevermore with all who wanted them. In that spirit, perhaps, the Iroquois, as well as other Native Americans, sold chestnuts to the European settlers who arrived and surely showed them how to take advantage of this most useful tree.

But it was in Appalachia, in places like Patrick County, Virginia, where the ties between the chestnut and people were most tightly bound. "If ever there was a place defined by a tree, it was Appalachia," says folk historian Charlotte Ross, of Appalachian State University. The American chestnut "was our icon. We loved that tree."

On the steep slopes and in the cool, moist hollows of the southern Appalachian mountains, chestnuts grew so abundantly that they accounted for as many as one in four forest trees, and in some places, even more. Chestnuts were big trees everywhere, but this land gave rise to giants-trees a dozen feet wide and ten times as tall. One Goliath in Francis Cove, North Carolina, measured seventeen feet across. In spring, the trees bloomed long bushy catkins of cream-colored flowers that filled the woods with a pungent perfume and made the forests look, from a distance, "like a sea with white combers plowing across its surface," as the naturalist Donald Culross Peattie wrote.

Until the early eighteenth century, few whites had ever laid eyes on the Appalachian region's oceanic forests. The first European settlers had hugged the coasts, reluctant to venture too deep into the rough unknown mountains to the west. But by the mid-1700s, population pressures and rising land prices in the coastal communities forced many residents across the Appalachian divide in search of new homelands. Scots-Irish, English, Germans, and Scandinavians began migrating south from Pennsylvania, across the Alleghenys, through the gently rolling hills of the Virginia Valley, and into areas such as present-day Patrick County. The lucky first arrivals got to claim the rich bottomlands; their children and new arrivals staked farms higher up the hills, with each succeeding generation climbing farther up the ridges to where "the bare bones" of the mountains poked through the thin skin of soil. To clear the land, residents burned the brush, girdled the trees, and planted their crops-corn, wheat, barley, rye, and oats-among the remaining stumps. The Scots-Irish in particular were skilled highland farmers. They brought with them farming customs well-suited to the mountains, such as the use of common grazing lands. They also brought a taste for corn whiskey and a stringent brand of Presbyterianism that gradually morphed into the fundamentalist "hard-shell" Baptist sects whose tiny chapels are still scattered throughout Patrick County.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from American Chestnut by Susan Freinkel Copyright © 2007 by Susan Freinkel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Map of American chestnut distribution in 1938     xi
Introduction     1
Part 1
Where There Are Chestnuts     11
A New Scourge     28
Let Us Not Talk about Impossibilities     48
A Whole World Dying     71
Part 2
Rolling the Dice     93
Evil Tendencies Cancel     108
Let Us Plant     129
Chestnut 2.0     151
Faith in a Seed     178
Conclusion: the comeback     203
Notes     229
Acknowledgments     273
Index     277
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 18, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommended

    In 2011, my wife and I moved to southern Indiana. We bought a house built in 1895 and set in on the restoration. I had hired several older Amish men to help with the work. One day they asked me if I knew what kind of trees were in my yard. They were referring to two trees that appeared to have been planted when the house was built. I told them I didn't know. They said they thought they knew every species of tree in the area but these two had them stumped. Later the same month, my sister-in-law who has worked as a biologist for the National Forest Service paid us a visit. I put the question to her and she was also stumped.

    Long story short, they turned out to be Chestnut trees. Samples were sent to the Indiana Chestnut Foundation and it turns out they are a hybrid. What puzzles them is the age and size. In addition, Perdue University is planning on working with some of the seeds.

    I said that to say this. In my excitement over the Chestnut I purchased several books on the subject. American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree is by far the best written, researched and passionate about the Chestnut.
    This book will appeal to a wide scope. At times it reads like a whodunit. In other places, it is excellent scientific writing and for those who love history, it is chock full of the historical role of the chestnut.

    It is a great example of how we can have a negative impact on nature with the most innocence intentions.

    I highly recommend this book. It is simply great!

    Michael L. Gooch, Author of Wingtips with Spurs

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2007

    Beautifully written and fascinating

    American Chestnut explores history, culture, the scientific process, the environment and even philosophy, all through the lens of a remarkable tree that few remember. The book reads almost like a mystery -- will the scientists solve the case? I don't have a special interest in trees, but Freinkel's writing made the subject quite fascinating.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2007

    A Fascinating Glimpse into The Perfect Tree

    After reading Susan Freinkel's lush tribute to the American chestnut tree, I wish I lived back in the 19th century when chestnut forests stretched from Georgia to Maine. The trees were an important part of American life, providing a dense green canopy that covered the Eastern seaboard, wood that could be used in everything from fence posts to furniture, and a delicious nut that was nutritious, low in calories, and full of fiber. Unfortunately, a blight imported from Asia destroyed the American chestnut. Freinkel does a wonderful job examining the tree and what its loss means to the country. But the book isn't depressing. In fact, it's uplifting because Freinkel brings to life the small cadre of botanists and scientists who are determined to resurrect the tree. With them on the side of the trees, there is room for optimism. A great read.

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