CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2008
CRM Journal

Book Review

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

By Susan Freinkel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007; 294 pp., notes, index; cloth $27.50.

In the span of about a century, the American chestnut (Castanea dentate) went from a thriving species to near extinction. The onslaught of an invading fungus across its historic range (from southern Maine to central Georgia and as far west as Arkansas) was ecologically devastating, particularly in southern Appalachia. In American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, Susan Freinkel looks at the response to the crisis and efforts to reestablish the species, providing examples of informed management and object lessons on the perils of blindly striking out in an effort to do something before it was too late.

American Chestnut begins with an overview of the chestnut tree, its range, and its importance in the lives of Native Americans, early European settlers, and the mountain people who were their descendents. The chestnut was considered a “perfect tree,” not for any one outstanding characteristic, but because it did so much so well. A mountain farmer’s grove supplied lumber for buildings and fences. The nuts provided forage for livestock and food for the family. Even the leaves were useful as mattress stuffing and herbal remedies. Any surplus was circulated into a mountain economy built upon trade and barter for items that farmers needed but did not make. The people with whom the author spoke reminisced wistfully about this cherished resource. The most poignant were the memories of the shock at just how quickly the chestnuts died out.

Intertwined with the chestnut’s story are the blight’s discovery, classification, and efforts to stop its ravaging effects. The blight was identified in 1904 by Hermann Merkel, chief forester of the New York Zoological Society, now the Bronx Zoo, whose initial attempts to find the cause of Cryphonectria parasitica and a cure were fruitless. The United States Department of Agriculture had no experts on forest diseases, and the USDA’s recommended treatment regimen was invasive and of doubtful effectiveness. Directly across the road from the zoo, the New York Botanical Garden’s resident expert on fungi, William A. Murrill, established the basic pathology of the chestnut blight. Unfortunately, in lieu of a cure, the only advice Murrill could give was to cut infected trees down and hope the disease would run its course. By the 1920s, the chestnut was considered doomed, and operations went from rescue to salvage, with the USDA urging landowners to cut down healthy chestnut trees and use the lumber before they became infected.

Freinkel examines these attempts to minimize the blight and save the American icon. It was determined that the fungus originated in Asia, and that Chinese and Japanese species of chestnut were resistant to it. As early as 1914, key stakeholders began exploring the idea of creating a hybrid that combined the resistance of the Asian species with the desirable traits of the American. The USDA began research on the idea and promoted the introduction of Chinese chestnuts as replacements for native trees. Disappointing results led to the termination of the research effort.

The desire to preserve the American chestnut spawned myriad efforts to reproduce or recreate the tree. The book describes these efforts icluding research underway on genetic modification of the fungus itself and the introduction of biological controls. The American Chestnut Foundation is working on a program of backcross breeding to produce a hybrid with predominately American traits. Others have been seeking out the few non-infected chestnuts to serve as breeding stock for a potentially blight resistant tree. Unfortunately, the USDA salvage recommendations were too successful, and survivor trees are few and far between.

The book also ponders the future. Is it too late for the American chestnut? Can hybrids be considered true representatives of the species? At this point, can the tree be reestablished or restored to its original range and habitat, and if so, what are the ramifications to current ecosystems? Although the author may be rooting for the chestnut, she knows there are no simple answers, and ultimately concludes that the reestablishment of the American chestnut would at the very least “add a layer of diversity to forests that are becoming increasingly impoverished.”

This well-researched and footnoted book is highly recommended for resource managers, interpreters, and resource enthusiasts. The author has an enthusiasm for the subject, which she imparts to the reader. The only quibble is the lack of illustrations. There is only one photograph of a chestnut tree opposite the title page and one map of the tree’s historic range. The addition of photos showing healthy and infected trees, restoration efforts, blight symptoms, and the personalities involved in the discovery of the blight and the efforts to save the American chestnut would be helpful and increase the book’s value as an interpretive resource. There are some nice illustrations of the nut and the leaf cleverly utilized for chapter and section markers respectively. American Chestnut would be a valuable addition to any park library.

Kevin Moriarty
National Park Service