Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Perfect Tree

Did you know that the American chestnut tree once spread from Georgia to Maine? Its green canopy was so dense that people talked about how a squirrel could traverse thousands of miles through the tree tops without ever stopping? The tree was such a perfect specimen that its wood was used for everything from fence posts to furniture and its nuts were prized for their sweetness and nutritional value.

Unfortunately, the American chestnut tree is almost extinct, felled by an blight that was inadvertently brought to the U.S. on an Asian variety of chestnut. While the virus did not seriously damage the Asian trees, it killed off millions of acres of American chestnut forests.
The death of the American chestnut tree struck those living in Appalachia particularly hard. The tree was well-loved and well-used in the mountains of Virginia, and its disappearance transformed the culture of the region. Old timers in the area still talk reverently about the tree, as if it were a living, breathing creature.

I didn't know any of this until I read Susan Freinkel's fascinating book, American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. Freinkel, a science writer whose work has appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, Discover, Health, and Reader's Digest, movingly recreates the history of the tree. The book also documents the work of a cadre of scientists dedicated to saving the tree. Even though there are just a handful of American chestnuts left -- none of which are healthy enough to produce nuts -- there are men and women in the United States who refuse to let the species die.

Freinkel's book also touches on another theme. What responsibility do humans hold to try and preserve species? If they die naturally, is our obligation different than if they died because of human-related causes?

I went to Freinkel's book release party a few weeks ago. She is a member of North 24th, my writing group, and we held a celebration for her. The guests were a cross-section of Bay Area media types. Mary Roach, the author of the bestsellers Stiff and Spooked, was there. She wrote a blurb for Freinkel, calling American Chestnut "a perfect book." Nan Weiner, the executive editor of San Francisco Magazine came, as did my brother, Steven Dinkelspiel, the president of the magazine. Jim Steyer, who started Common Sense Media, showed up, as did Betsy Blumenthal, an avid reader and executive at Kroll Associates.

Unfortunately, the story of the American Chestnut tree is not unique. Other species, such as the elm tree, have been decimated by disease. The California coastal oak is under attack. Thousands of those trees are dying from a mysterious blight that can't seem to be stopped.
But Freinkel's book is not a downer. The scientists determined to find a cure for the chestunt blight or to create a hybrid strain that can resist attacks againt it are inspirational. I hope they succeed.

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