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

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  239 ratings  ·  45 reviews
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 brin ...more
Hardcover, 294 pages
Published November 19th 2007 by University of California Press (first published January 1st 2007)
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Average rating 4.04  · 
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 ·  239 ratings  ·  45 reviews

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Freinkel provided just what I was looking for: a short, readable overview of the history of the American Chestnut in American culture, its decline due to the ascomycete fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, and all of the attempts to restore it using breeding and genetic modification. She went into personal detail about the main figure in the story, including William Murrill, who identified and studied the pathogen at the NY Botanical Garden; Phillip Rutter, the super badass curmudgeon who lives off ...more
Jun 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Carolyn
Recommended to Fox by: Nettie Koepenick
I was recommended this book by my mother, an ardent gardener and lover of nature. From the start I was curious about it, and over the course of her reading it she shared many little tidbits here and there that only further piqued my interest. I was lucky enough to grab it from the library shortly after she finished the book, and together we've now embarked on our own minor mission to discover an American Chestnut in the wild. Only time will tell if we'll be successful. This is the sort of passio ...more

The legacy of the American chestnut is as much cultural as it is botanical, as shown in Susan Freinkel’s superb book length study, American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree (University of California Press, 2007). For the uninitiated, the American chestnut, the dominant tree of the Piedmont and Appalachian forest canopy of the eastern states prior to European settlement, was wiped out by the twin scourges of a root fungus in the mid-1
Jan 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
I may be a little biased on this book because this is a subject that has always fascinated me. This is a comprehensive and absorbing account of the whole story of the American Chestnut. From a description of its admired qualities and its crucial role in rural Appalachia, to the arrival of the Asian-origin blight at the turn of the last century and the subsequent die off of an estimated three to four billion trees over the next twenty five years. But what is most interesting is the near century o ...more
Jul 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Very interesting subject matter, and I thought the author was excellent. That's what you get when you have science writers writing on scientific subjects instead of partisans or journalists. You don't get much half-baked non-sense or misunderstandings of the subject. Freinkel interweaves her thoughts and observations throughout the story, but does not attempt anything more than an exposition of the subject at hand. The book is not a prescription, and I don't feel like it was lacking a prescripti ...more
Mar 25, 2010 rated it really liked it
This was a very readable account of the blight and the current efforts to restore the tree. I hadn't realized that there were several different approaches being taken - let us hope that one succeeds in our lifetime.
Jul 11, 2008 rated it really liked it
A fascinating story about the near extinction of the American Chestnut due to the Chestnut Blight, and the ongoing struggle to restore the tree (even using gene technology!). Very interesting!
Mar 07, 2018 rated it liked it
Enjoyable and enlightening account of the devastation that the loss of the American Chestnut played in Appalachian life and of the efforts to restore the species in the wild. This book certainly reveals how we humans have affected our environment. As a native of Patrick County, Virginia, the book was particularly interesting to me because the author interviewed people that I know in the area. There were a couple of very small errors that only a native would notice: the name of the wife of one of ...more
Feb 03, 2019 rated it liked it
A fine idea for a book. But it got kind of sloppy and tired before the end. Or maybe I did. It's kind of hard to tell sometimes. Telling the story of a chestnut has multiple paths and this book kind of tried to travel them all. There was the chronology across time. And the different approaches. And the personalities involved. And the different related species and their points of origin. But somewhere in this braid has to be a book and in the end this book got lost. And perhaps that's because as ...more
Donald Radcliffe
Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Detailed and very readable history of a story we usually get the short version of. The author traced the development of many of the strategies for breeding blight-resistant chestnuts, and all the logistical and ethical dilemmas that each strategy raises. Considering all the other tree diseases we're facing today, and how well the book was done, I think this is a must-read for ecologists and tree people.
Kevin O'Brien
Sep 14, 2019 rated it liked it
Super informative but lacks the poetry of The Overstory, one of my favorite books of late. The author and the people she interviews clearly have great love for the chestnut, but that love wasn't as infectious to the reader. Still enjoyable (also relatively short). Sobering reminder of the harms we have done our planet in the last 100 years.
Feb 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
really lovely. Hopeful and sad.
Feb 08, 2019 rated it liked it
A little dry but a very good read. I always enjoy these natural history studies.
Mar 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
A beautiful portrait of the grief inspired by the loss of the American chestnut, and of dedicated efforts to re-introduce them to their native range.
Sep 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Very informative, well-written, and engaging.
Oct 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
Susan Freinkel’s American Chestnut, subtitled The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, is the perfect book for the reader who loves things natural. It is nicely written, wide ranging, easy to follow, built on good science and, despite being the biography of a tree, overflowing with human interest. The final chapter in the tragic story of our native chestnut is yet to be written, so it isn’t clear if it ends in tragedy or redemption. If you are like me, by the time you reach the last pages ...more
Jan 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
I first learned of the American chestnut blight after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer in which one of her characters, a crotchety curmudgeonly octogenarian euphemistically known as Old Chestnut, is a passionate tree breeder, crossing American chestnuts with other chestnut species, hoping to achieve what no one in a hundred years has been able to achieve—a blight resistant American chestnut. I was so enamored with Old Chestnut’s story that I wanted to know more about his cause, and t ...more
Jul 05, 2015 rated it liked it
Favorite quotes:

In 1963, after a decade of searching and weeding out false reports, USDA breeder Jesse Diller confirmed 180 large survivors across the chestnut's vast historic range, including a mammoth seventy-two-foot-tall tree in Chelsea, Michigan, which one writer described as "a really notable survival, like a dinosaur turning up in a backyard swimming pool."

Restorationists start out with a vision of the landscape they wish to restore: the sinuous line of a river before it was dammed, a Mid
Literary Mama
From "Now Reading" by Literary Mama staff:

Literary Reflections Editor Andrea Lani writes, "I am reading American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree by Susan Freinkel. I borrowed the book from my library as research for an essay I'm writing about the chestnut trees we watched being planted when my teenage son was a newborn―and which are now succumbing to chestnut blight―but I'm finding it fascinating reading in its own right. Freinkel brings these near-extinct trees to life
Feb 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
A very readable, often compelling story of a tree that had a central role in ecosystems and economies, before a blight decimated the species. The tenacious drive to produce a blight-resistant version is a hopeful sign that intervention might possibly be positive.

Freinkel displays a muted skepticism for the possibility that genetically modified variants may succeed where traditional (if advanced) cross-breeding would not. Nevertheless, and although she adds in a footnote that there are patent iss
Dec 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I always heard stories growing up about chesnut trees from my grandparents/ greatgrandparents, but relalized I never actually saw aa true american chesnut tree before after reading the book. This book gives a hostorical account of the american chesnut trees fall from one of the most common trees on the eastern sea board to one rarely if ever seen. I was shocked at the shear numbers of trees that dies off, and how integrated the tree was to everyday peoples lives in many regions of the us at the ...more
Katie/Doing Dewey
Mar 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book, through the many primary sources gathered by the author, vividly describes the death of nearly all American chestnut trees in the face of an invasive species and the monumental scientific efforts by chestnut lovers to save them. At first I had some trouble getting into the book. As all the different personal stories connected to the story of the chestnut tree began to take shape, it took a little while for them to connect to each other and the different sections seemed a little choppy ...more
Mar 18, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: naturalists, environmentalists, anyone who enjoys eastern forests
It took me about a month and a half to pick this book up and read the last 10 pages (life got in the way). I was considering writing my review without them, but I'm glad I didn't. They really left the reader with a hope that is so often lacking in the environmental movement. Other than that, I thought this book was really well-written, and really allowed me to envision what our country might look like if there were no blight. I also learned quite a bit of fascinating things about breeding techni ...more
Dec 23, 2007 rated it it was ok
Shelves: science
Who even knew that the American Chestnut is on the verge of extinction due to a fungus blight? It is estimated that between three and four billion trees have been killed as a result. The tree is very temperamental—resisting all efforts to restore it. One of those trying to save it says that, “It’s like it wants to go extinct.”

It was an interesting read to learn of the three sedulous techniques that are being employed in an attempt to bring it back by making it resistant to this blight (hypoviru
May 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
Fascinating look at how the american chestnut, that spine of the eastern ecosystems, vanished in the twinkling of an eye and how that disappearance affected the communities relying on those trees and scientists at the time. The author goes on to review the ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the tree using outcrossing and interspecific hybridization and genetic modification in the laboratory. I did not care for the author inserting her own judgement on the molecular modification efforts; the propone ...more
Feb 19, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
The American Chestnut is a perfect case study of the disastrous affects of invasive species on America’s biodiversity. The story of the American Chestnut species is the main focus of Susan Freinkel’s book. She primarily covers the consequences of this species dramatic decline from a purely human perspective. In fact, she utilized a range of stories gather through oral history from scientist to locals, which I found interesting. Unfortunately, the history and the biology of this remarkable specie ...more
Jun 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
I was horribly depressed at the beginning of this book, as I read of the almost-complete destruction of the American chestnut by a single fungus and the repeated failed attempts to stop the spread of the blight. I thought I was plunging into a tale of no hope, and was struggling with denial when I reached the second part of the book and things started looking up. Though the book starts a little slowly, with many poetic ramblings about the majesty of the chestnut, Freinkel does a great job of mai ...more
Jan 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
Excellent retelling of the collapse of American Chestnut, Castanea dentata, in the eastern U.S., scourged by the chestnut blight funugs, Cryphonectria parasitica, as well as the efforts to bring the tree back to something like its former glory. By way of exploring the various approaches—conventional backcross breeding, genetic engineering, breeding hypovirulence into the attacking fungus—Freinkel considers the pros and cons of 21st-century biotechnology.

Her account of a conference held in Pennsy
Amanda Coussoule
Nov 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A lovely, thought provoking but sad tale of an American icon. The writing is scientific enough to teach the reader but not so technical that it's off-putting. It mostly reads like a novel of love and loss with a thin thread of hope for the future.

I was originally inspired to read this due to Bill Bryson's offhand comment about the loss of the chestnut in A Walk in the Woods as well as the mention of its importance to the native people in the tome 1491. It's an interesting compliment for context
Jun 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
Absorbing account of the blight that ravaged the American Chestnut tree. Documenting the several attempts to bring back the tree, one by back-crossing it with a blight resistant Chinese Chestnut and another by trying to biologically alter the Blight organism. The book was published in 2006, so I'm not sure what the current prognosis is.

I became interested in this tree from reading 'A Prodigal Summer' by Barbara Kingsolver. One of the threads of the story is about an old-timer who is trying to gr
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Susan Freinkel is the author of American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. She is a San Francisco based writer who most often writes about science and medicine. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications including: Discover, Smithsonian, Reader's Digest, the new York Times, Health and Real Simple. American Chestnut is her first book."
“An editorial in the Los Angeles Times [1923] wistfully asked, 'Will eating chestnuts by crackling log fires become one of the lost arts preserved by a devoted people only in poetry and romance?” 2 likes
“This is where the will to grapple with our hard and pressing environmental problems begins: in relationship to something other that you love beyond any utility, beyond any logic.” 1 likes
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