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American Chestnut

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree

Susan Freinkel (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 304 pages
ISBN: 9780520259942
April 2009
$34.95, £27.00
Other Formats Available:
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.
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
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.
“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. . . . The last word of this very good book is ‘hope.’”—American Studies Journal
“Describes those who witnessed the American chestnut's demise, such as seeing hillsides of “gray ghosts” - skeletal remains of still-standing trees. People also reported hearing the sickening “thuds,” audible from the front porch, as yet another giant would topple to the ground. . . . If this tale has whetted your appetite for learning more about chestnuts, [it] 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
“Delivers a spellbinding microhistory teeming with tales of conviction, ambition, frustration, and just plain luck. With poetic sensibility and crystalline objectivity, Freinkel artfully explains the effect of this historic annihilation and cogently explores the practical and philosophical challenges that lie ahead.”—Booklist
“Reads smoothly, like a well-written novel. . . . A thoroughly absorbing book.”—Library Journal
“American Chestnut is a parable for our time: a sad and salutary tale, beautifully written by US science journalist Susan Freinkel.”—Nature
An absorbing account of not only the decline of this Herculean tree, but of those who are trying to develop disease-resistant varieties.—New York Times
“A fascinating roundup of the characters and passions behind a century-old effort to rescue a tree that is both emblematic in American culture and deeply problematic to its erstwhile saviors.”—Orion
“Time after time, this impassioned book strikes resonant emotional chords that transform dry facts into dynamic prose.”—Publishers Weekly
An absorbing account of not only the decline of this Herculean tree, but of those who are trying to develop disease-resistant varieties.—San Diego Union-Tribune
“Freinkel chronicles the history of the tree, the people who drew their livelihood from its high quality wood, and the conservationists who are working with a near-obsessive passion to revitalize the chestnut population.”—Science News
“(Freinkel) makes a fine narrator. . . . You’ll find yourself rooting for a cure.”—Utne
"In prose as strong and quietly beautiful as the American chestnut itself, Susan Freinkel profiles the silent catastrophe of a near-extinction and the impassioned struggle to bring a species back from the brink. Freinkel is a rare hybrid: equally fluid and in command as a science writer and a chronicler of historical events, and graced with the poise and skill to seamlessly graft these talents together. A perfect book."—Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Spook

"A spellbinding, heart wrenching, and uplifting account of the American chestnut that asks the vastly important question: Have we learned enough, and do we care enough, to begin healing some of the wounds we've inflicted on the natural world?"—Scott Weidensaul, author of Return to Wild America and Mountains of the Heart

"This is a beautifully written account of the passing of one of the botanical wonders of the North American landscape, the American chestnut tree, which was nearly extirpated by a plague that entered the ecosystem and swept these great trees away. Freinkel, a gifted writer whose research is impeccable and whose reporting is topnotch, tells of the impassioned work of scientists over the past century and up to today, trying to bring the American chestnut back from the brink of extinction. Only a person in love with trees could have written this lovely book."—Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Wild Trees

"Graceful, provocative, and inspiring. Thoreau would be proud."—Alan Burdick, author of Out of Eden, a 2005 National Book Award finalist

"In this beautifully written volume, Susan Freinkel ably describes the marriage of science and passion that is being brought to bear to save this majestic American tree from extinction. The people whose ancestors lived among chestnut trees and their places come alive for the reader, as does the appearance and spread of the blight and the heroes who are struggling with it today. The book concludes with a tantalizing vision of chestnuts in the forests again—a thought of making the world right where it has gone wrong."—Peter H. Raven, Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden

National Outdoor Book Awards, National Outdoor Book Awards Foundation

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