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American Chestnut

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

Susan Freinkel
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 294
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  • Book Info
    American Chestnut
    Book Description:

    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. InAmerican 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93273-9
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Map of American chestnut distribution in 1938
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    In the spring of 2006, a wildlife biologist hiking a little-used trail near Pine Mountain in Warm Springs, Georgia, made a startling discovery. Not far from the trail he spotted a small stand of American chestnuts—living examples of a tree that had become all but extinct half a century before. The biologist had never seen an American chestnut, but as soon as he spied one among the gnarly oaks, he knew at once what he had found. “It was just shining there, almost impossible to miss.” The find made headlines around the country. As one news report pointed out,...


    • [Part One Introduction]
      (pp. 7-10)

      The tree looks like an aging champion struggling to stay upright until the last round. It is badly bruised. A major branch is missing. But it still has a heavyweight’s build and a veteran’s endurance. Perhaps 150 or 200 years old, this tree is one of the few survivors of a century-long plague that has brought down nearly every mature American chestnut tree from Georgia to Maine. At sixty feet tall and nearly four feet wide, it’s the largest chestnut left in the species’ historic range.

      The tree stands alone in a field in central Virginia. Its devoted fans have...

    • ONE Where There Are Chestnuts
      (pp. 11-27)

      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...

    • TWO A New Scourge
      (pp. 28-47)

      Here’s one way it might have begun:

      A tiny yellow speck drifts weightlessly on a warm spring breeze, floating in a neither-here-nor-there state, that “hungerless sleep” of a spore. The wind pushes the spore this way and that. It lights onto an oak leaf and is shaken free, comes to rest on a twig of poplar, then tumbles loose and resumes its aimless flight. A sharp gust propels it against the branch of an American chestnut tree. As chance would have it, the bark is cracked from the slight scratch of a squirrel’s sharp claw. The spore slips into the...

    • THREE Let Us Not Talk about Impossibilities
      (pp. 48-70)

      Pennsylvania governor John Tener looked out over the glittering chamber of his state’s House of Representatives. Every leather seat was filled, but not by the familiar crowd of legislators. On this late February day in 1912, the hall was packed with scientists and bureaucrats, foresters and businessmen from across the eastern seaboard who had all journeyed to Harrisburg to talk about just one subject: a new, fantastically ambitious plan to stop the spreading chestnut blight. The visitors’ gallery was packed with reporters, Harrisburg residents, even detouring tourists drawn by what was sure to be a day of dramatic debate. The...

    • FOUR A Whole World Dying
      (pp. 71-88)

      The male flowers of chestnut trees develop on long pendulous spikes called catkins. A single catkin holds dozens of tiny pollen-producing anthers. Catkins are fuzzy and floppy, so that when a tree is in full bloom it looks as if it is sporting cream-colored dreadlocks. A blossoming chestnut is beautiful, but the smell is not. In their most fertile season, chestnuts give off a pungent odor that is alluring to insects only. One diehard friend of the tree described the scent as having a “saving tang of acrid,” but most would consider the description overly generous. I’ve heard it compared...


    • [Part Two Introduction]
      (pp. 89-92)

      Out in the forest a chestnut sapling grows . . .

      I could be talking here about woods in upstate New York, in western Pennsylvania, near the Chesapeake Bay, or in the Great Smoky Mountains, but the sapling I have in mind lives in the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia, a place with a primeval, magical feel. The woods here are full of towering tulip poplars, birches, and sassafras, as well as thickets of mountain laurel with polished leaves. On this June day, the air is still damp from the rain a few hours before and the foliage is wet...

    • FIVE Rolling the Dice
      (pp. 93-107)

      I’ve got a handful of chestnuts scattered on the desk in front of me. They come from well beyond the American chestnut’s native range. I scooped them up while walking through an orchard of various chestnut varieties in southeastern Minnesota. These nuts are a pack of mutts, their lineage a jumble of Asian, European, and American chestnut species. Looking them over, I am struck, as always, by the beauty ofCastaneaseeds. I love the rich mahogany hue, the glossy surface that begs to be touched, the pleasingly roundish shape that tapers at one end in a pucker as dainty...

    • SIX Evil Tendencies Cancel
      (pp. 108-128)

      In 1936 Robert Frost wrote the poem “Evil Tendencies Cancel.” The poem concerns the chestnut blight, though as the title suggests, it is also about much more:

      Will the blight end the chestnut?

      The farmers rather guess not.

      It keeps smouldering at the roots

      And sending up new shoots

      Till another parasite

      Shall come to end the blight.

      Frost scholars don’t pay a lot of attention to the poem—it’s not considered one of his major works. But scientists like Dennis Fulbright do. In six brief lines, the poet not only succinctly captured the chestnut’s plight, but also accurately predicted...

    • SEVEN Let Us Plant
      (pp. 129-150)

      One cold December day in 1980, Charles Burnham, a retired University of Minnesota corn geneticist, came across a publication about the American chestnut. The title was a mouthful—“The Prospect for American Chestnut Plantings in Minnesota and Neighboring Upper Mississippi Valley States”—but it intrigued him. He took the pamphlet back to his quiet St. Paul home to read it over the Christmas holidays. That happenstance discovery would lead to the most promising strategy yet for saving the American chestnut tree.

      Burnham was born in 1904, the same year the chestnut blight fungus was discovered. He grew up on a...

    • EIGHT Chestnut 2.0
      (pp. 151-177)

      Many of the chestnut people I’ve talked to are optimistic, go-get-’em types. But even in that can-do crowd, Herb Darling stands out. A compact, outdoorsy septuagenarian with a shock of white hair and an expressive face, Darling spent his career as a construction engineer in Buffalo, New York. He built the foundations of some of Buffalo’s biggest buildings, burrowed beneath Lake Ontario, and tunneled under the Niagara River—“Twice!” he notes—to bring water to his thirsty hometown. He’s not the kind of person who gets hung up when knotty problems arise.

      In the mid-1980s, a hunter informed Darling that...

    • NINE Faith in a Seed
      (pp. 178-202)

      “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. . . . Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau in one of his last works, an essay titled “The Succession of Forest Trees.” It was intended as part of a larger work aimed at debunking the then-prevailing anti-Darwinian belief that plants can spring up spontaneously—unaffiliated with roots, cuttings, or seeds. Thoreau made his case, in part, by tracking the propagation of chestnuts,...

  7. Conclusion: The Comeback
    (pp. 203-228)

    In an essay discussing his environmental philosophy, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold described the vital importance of every part of what he called “the land organism.” “You cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm.” All are parts of one organic whole, he wrote. “Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and co-operate with each other,” and only a fool would discard parts that he didn’t understand or appreciate. “To keep every cog and wheel,” he counseled, “is the first precaution...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 229-272)
    (pp. 273-276)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 277-284)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 285-285)