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University of California Press
American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree / Edition 1

American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree / Edition 1

by Susan FreinkelSusan Freinkel
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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. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In American Chestnut, Susan Freinkel tells the dramatic story of the stubborn optimists who refused to let this cultural icon go. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520259942
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/01/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 285,447
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About 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.

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.


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Table of Contents

Map of American chestnut distribution in 1938

1. Where There Are Chestnuts
2. A New Scourge
3. Let Us Not Talk about Impossibilities
4. A Whole World Dying

5. Rolling the Dice
6. Evil Tendencies Cancel
7. Let Us Plant
8. Chestnut 2.0
9. Faith in a Seed

Conclusion / The Comeback

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A moving portrait. . . . Freinkel's fine reportage sparkles."—Natural History

"A tale of the functional extinction of what was once one of the most economically valuable and ecologically important trees."—American Scientist

"Engrossing and compelling."—American Studies Journal

"Will not disappoint!"—Picayune Item

"Highly recommend it to anyone who cares about nature and perhaps this should be a required reading for all biology/ecology/environmental science students."—Wildlife Activist

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