American chestnut trees were once found far and wide in North America’s eastern forests. They towered up to one hundred feet tall, providing food and shelter for people and animals alike. For many, life without the chestnut seemed unimaginable—until disaster struck in the early 1900s.
What began as a wound in the bark of a few trees soon turned to an unstoppable killing force. An unknown blight was wiping out the American chestnut, and scientists felt powerless to prevent it.
But the story doesn’t end there. Today, the American chestnut is making a comeback. Narrative nonfiction master Sally M. Walker tells a tale of loss, restoration, and the triumph of human ingenuity in this beautifully photographed middle-grade book.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: None
Booklist (March 1, 2018 (Vol. 114, No. 13))
Grades 5-8. When Hermann Merkel was hired in 1898 to be New York Zoological Park’s chief forester, the 1,500 American chestnut trees were his favorites. In 1904, Merkel noticed a blight that was quickly destroying these beloved trees, and by 1911, only 2 remained. Merkel’s observations were the start of a scientific mystery with ramifications that still continue. Walker documents some of the many scientists, from the beginning of the blight to today, who have worked to save this American icon. Why all the interest in a tree? The author first explains the importance of the American chestnut on the eastern forests’ environment. The bulk of the investigative text, however, concentrates on the source of the blight and three different approaches to saving the American chestnut. In the process, Walker shows how the comeback of this tree can serve as a model to restore other species. The niche subject may be a hard sell to recreational readers, but with additional photos of scientists in action, this STEM volume is a boon to life-science and engineering units.
Kirkus Reviews (February 15, 2018)
Once a ubiquitous presence in North America’s eastern forests, the American chestnut tree was nearly brought to extinction by a deadly blight, but it was brought back from oblivion through the ingenuity of determined scientists. In 1904, forester Hermann Merkel discovered ugly wounds on some of the American chestnut trees in the New York Zoological Park. No other trees in the park were affected. By 1911, only two of 1,500 trees in the park remained. A scientist with the New York Botanical Garden identified the disease as a blight fungus. All attempts to find a remedy failed. A U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist discovered that the blight originated in Asia, brought to the United States through the cross-breeding of the American and Asian chestnuts. By 1940, nearly 4 billion trees succumbed to the devastating blight. Using clear, accessible language, Walker explains how research scientists have developed three promising approaches to restoring the American chestnut: backcross breeding, using weak strains of virus-infected fungus to attack lethal strains, and engineering transgenic American chestnut trees. These approaches are cause for cautious optimism for restoration of the trees, which Walker describes as a “gargantuan task,” requiring “time and patience.” Walker’s passion for her subject and her ability to convincingly explain how the American chestnut is an icon worth saving makes this stand out. A compelling, inspiring true story of a species rescued from extinction through decades of determined innovation. (photos, appendices, source notes, glossary, bibliography) (Nonfiction. 10-14)
About the Author
Sally M. Walker is the author of the Sibert Medal winner Secrets of a Civil War Submarine as well as many other nonfiction books, including Boundaries: How the Mason-Dixon Line Settled a Family Feud and Divided a Nation. Sally M. Walker lives in Illinois.
Her website is sallymwalker.com
American Chestnut Foundation Educational Resources
American Chestnut Lesson Plans
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