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.
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