Though ecstatically anticipating my first visit to Muir woods in two weeks, I’m enthralled right now by “redwoods of the East,” thanks to The American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. Science writer Susan Freinkel tells the riveting & often heartbreaking story of a tree that once dominated the eastern woodlands, from Maine to Michigan and south to Georgia. Moose, bears, turkeys, throngs of passenger pigeons, and communities of hardscrabble farmers depended on the trees’ abundant fruits, and the straight-grained, tannin-rich wood found uses ranging from paper pulp to fine furniture. But the King of the Forest had no defense against a fungus that hitchhiked into the US on Asian chestnuts in the late 1800s. Within a few decades, 3.5 billion American chestnuts had fallen.
Freinkel says she began her book with a question: “what happens when a species disappears?” Part of the answer is biological and ecological, and the author intricately recounts the mechanism of the fungus’ lethality as well as the impacts of the blight on the forest left behind. Much of Freinkel’s story, though, focuses on culture—the economic, aesthetic, and emotional relationships between people and trees. By collecting oral histories, especially in the southeast, Freinkel discovers that American Chestnuts remain a vivid living memory to a few, a bittersweet yearning to many more. “Why do people still care about the chestnut so much?” Frienkel asks one of her informers. She replies:
”Some people say they’re conflating the chestnut with the preindustrial way of life—that it’s an easy symbol,” . . . “I think elements of that are true. People miss their youth, their way of life, their parents and brothers and sisters. They miss their communities.” . . . “I think for people who had the direct experience of eating the nuts, picking them up, seeing the trees bloom, toasting the nuts—they literally miss that. . . . They literally wish they could taste a chestnut.”
Whatever its origins, passion for chestnut trees has fueled a century of labor to revive the species. From traditional techniques such as grafting and cross-breeding to post-modern attempts at genetic engineering and deployment of hypovirulent blight, scientists and horticulturists devote decades of their lives to shrubby, struggling remnants of the Chestnut’s former glory. Sometimes, the researchers’ and aficionados’ obsessions, rivalries, and sacrifices (e.g., indoor plumbing) cross the line between colorful and nutty. But, says Freinkel, “I am continually moved by the patience and underlying optimism of the chestnut scientists I’ve met; in their own way, they are as resolute as the tree itself.”
With dogwoods, butternuts, sugar maples, hemlocks, and other beloved eastern forest trees threatened by development, invasive species, and climate change, Freinkel’s story is a cautionary tale. Thousands of American-Asian hybrid chestnuts are being experimentally planted this spring in the Appalachians, but their success is far from certain. And some oppose the project, asserting that hybrids do not belong in native forests and could have unforseen effects on post-Chestnut plant and animal communities. Research continues on other fronts as well; one controversial project seeks to introduce a European blight virus to weaken the Asian fungus infesting American trees.
But even those who object to some of the restoration techniques can help simply by keeping their eyes open in the woods. Here and there, through luck or resilience, an old chestnut has escaped the blight, and you can report survivors you encounter—potentially invaluable genetic resources—to the American Chestnut Foundation. Freinkel postulates that restoring the tree would do more than just return a missing element to the forest. She writes, “If the day comes when our descendents can venture with wonder into chestnut forests, we will have gained back more than a perfect tree. We will have gained a new reason for hope.”