Cheese Club, Chestnuts and My Umbrella Adventure

I recently lost the most awesome umbrella ever – short when folded up, but large and sturdy when open – so I currently only have this golf umbrella my dad lent me.  It’s a nice enough umbrella except for one thing: it really never stops being large and sturdy and even folded is approximately half my height.  So I spent all day Tuesday carrying this ridiculously large umbrella everywhere I went in anticipation of rain.  It didn’t rain.  And it didn’t rain.  And finally I got to my lab at the end of the day, completely exhausted, propped my umbrella against the wall and promptly left it there.  Of course, when I got downstairs it was raining.  I seriously considered going back for it, but I was just too ready to be home.  Luckily the rain wasn’t too bad, so I when I showed up at cheese club later that evening I at least didn’t look like a drowned rat on top of showing up by my self.

Which brings us to the best part of the story – cheese club!  Ever since I read The Joy of Cheesemaking I’ve been noticing loud speaker announcements for a cheese club at my local HyVee, but I only ever caught the very end of the announcement.  At first I thought I must be imagining things; in such a small town, it seemed too big a coincidence for there to be a cheese club at my local grocery store!  But last week I finally asked someone about it and just in time because the monthly cheese club meeting was this Tuesday.  Despite feeling a little awkward going alone, I’m really glad I went.  We got to try a bunch of cool Irish cheeses, learned that all dairies in Ireland sell their cheese under one brand name, and basically got dinner for $5 since the resident chef made lots of tasty dishes incorporating the cheeses.  If you have something similar at a Hy-Vee near you, I’d definitely recommend it.  And now that I know how much fun it is, I’ll probably be inviting some friends and going again next month 🙂

In terms of new project-related reading, I most recently finished American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree.  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.  This probably wasn’t helped by the fact that I read the first few chapters in short sections even though I ideally like to read at least a chapter in a sitting.

Despite these initial problems with the flow of the narrative, I immediately loved the author’s writing style.  Some authors use big words in a way that impedes their ability to make their point.  Susan Frienkel  is not one of those authors.  Although not a chestnut-lover herself (she’s more interested in the story than the tree, I think) she does a wonderful job of conveying the feelings of others.  She also uses elegant language to pull you into the story, as in one of my favorite passages here:

Here’s one way it might have begun: A tiny yellow speck drifts weightlessly on a warm spring breeze, floating in a neither-here-nor-there state, that “hungerless sleep” of a spore.  The wind pushes the spore this way and that.  It lights onto an oak leaf and is shaken free, comes to rest on a twig of a poplar, then tumbles loose and resumes its’ aimless flight.  A sharp gust propels it against the branch of an American chestnut tree.  As chance would have it, the bark is cracked from the slight scratch of a squirrel’s sharp claw.  The spore slips into the crevice.  With awful randomness, all the elements have conspired to deliver the spore just where it needs to be.  Now, like a spark dropped onto a pile of dry brush, it flare to life.

The writing style and the many personal anecdotes are two of the most compelling parts of this story. At first I was worried that too many characters would be introduced for me to keep track of, but the author spends enough attention on each player in the drama of the chestnut tree that I felt attached to each one.  We often got a little background, a story about how each person became involved, and then they’d probably show up again later interacting with other characters or heading up scientific efforts – but not so much later I’d lost track of them.  Through this focus on the personal side of events, the author does a great job of make science exciting.  Policy debates became much more interesting because the author had already introduced major players on each side and you couldn’t help but feel for the researchers who devoted years of their lives to the attempt to breed resistant trees.

Scientific details were also presented exceptionally well.  For instance, when talking about genetics, even having some previous knowledge of the subject,  I didn’t feel talked down to by the explanation.  Correct scientific jargon was used where appropriate, but never without a plain english explanation right beside it, so I think it would be easy for someone with no knowledge of genetics to follow too.  I also really liked all the fun facts presented here.  As with A Spring Without Bees there were some sections with so many interesting tidbits I had to make myself keep going instead of writing them all down!  A few of my favorites were:

  • in 1909 alone, enough lumber was cut in the region from Maryland to Georgia to encircle the equator 32 times
  • the chestnut was considered “the perfect tree” not because it was the best for anything, but because of it could be used for a wide variety of applications
  • apparently it has been suggested that we restore the prairies in the middle of the US to their natural state – from the Pleistocene era!  This would include releasing camels, cheetahs, elephants and other modern relatives of Pleistocene era animals

Overall, a really interesting read with much more of a focus on the human element than most of my other books read for the project so far.


American Chestnut – 4 stars – Well written, lots of great first-hand accounts, handles presentation of scientific information exceptionally well, although focused on the human element.  I would recommend it to: people who like exciting stories about science, people who like stories that are really about people, and people who like well-researched histories with lots of first-hand quotes.

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