Chuck Leavell’s garden back home in Georgia has it all. Well, almost.
“Tomatoes – a variety: Big Boys, Best Boys, heirlooms – sweet corn, various squashes, cucumbers, peppers – we love peppers, we love spicy things – yellow and green bell peppers, okra,” Leavell says.
“Well, Vidalias come from down there, near us. It’s easier just to buy a 50-pound bag.”
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The main crop on Leavell’s 2,900-acre property outside Macon is trees. Charlane Plantation – the name combines his first name, Charles, with his wife Rose Lane White’s middle name – has been recognized locally and nationally for its practices: Leavell has become a respected voice for sustainable forestry, common-sense growth, conservation and environmental protection.
The main trees at Charlane are Southern yellow pine – longleaf pine, slash pine, loblolly pine and shortleaf pine – as well as some upland and lowland native hardwoods. “We try to maintain a healthy variety,” he explains.
Following a comprehensive plan Leavell developed, trees are grown and harvested for lumber. He’s also part of efforts by the American Chestnut Foundation to restore that tree, largely wiped out by blight in the last century.
“We planted 30, and 20 or so are surviving and growing,” he says. “The foundation wants to plant a million trees in 10 years.”
In addition, Leavell is a co-founder of the popular environmental news and information website, the Mother Nature Network.
Oh, and he plays the piano.
Leavell, 63, was a member of the Allman Brothers Band during its heyday (remember “Jessica”? Yeah, that’s him) and for the last 30-plus years has been keyboardist for the Rolling Stones.
Spending an afternoon with him, one gets the idea that the National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year award he and his wife won in 1999 means as much as the Lifetime Achievement Grammy he was presented in 2012 for his work with the Allmans.
On a day off during the current Stones tour, Leavell talked trees, music and family. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: Where did your love of the country, the land, come from?
A: When I was about 5 or 6, my family moved to the country, outside Montgomery, Ala. On an 8-acre spread. It stuck with me. How dark it was at night. The stars. The woods, the creek. It was a very special time of life for me.
Q: When did music enter the picture?
A: Eventually we moved to Tuscaloosa. I started playing the piano, and listening to my mother play. I had a cousin who played guitar, and I formed my first band. Fast-forward to 1970 when I moved to Macon seeking opportunity. (It’s where he became a member of the Allmans.)
Q: In 1972 you met Rose Lane White, who worked for Capricorn Records. And her family played a key role in your becoming a conservationist.
A: When things were getting serious, it was time to meet the family. For generations, her family had worked the land. We got married (in 1973), then in 1981 her grandmother passed away, and Rose Lane inherited 1,100 acres of land. We knew we wanted to keep it, so I studied up on what would be the best way to use it.
Q: Why trees?
A: We looked at cattle, crops, timber, peach trees, pecan trees. One day at breakfast, my brother-in-law Alton said, “We have a 50-acre plot where we usually plant crops. Why not try trees?” That started me going to the library, studying land management, forestry management, going to seminars, talking to other farmers. Eventually I enrolled in a correspondence course. Trees were perfect because they were less day-to-day than other crops, and I could pursue my musical career, which took me away from home a lot of the time.
Q: In one of your books, you refer to Charlane Plantation as your “family forest.” That’s a very cool way to put it. It encompasses family, the trees and a combination of the two that most people never get to experience.
A: It’s a powerful phrase. It’s an expression that’s exactly the deal. It goes back to Rose Lane’s family and the stewardship they showed the land.
Q: Mentally, what does being out among trees do for you?
A: I love the quote from Emerson that “in the woods, we return to reason and faith.” I find that to be so true in my own personal case. To commune with nature is a very spiritual thing for me. To breathe air that is clean from all the trees on Charlane that are sequestering carbon … to see the deer, wild turkeys, quail, songbirds and all the other wildlife; these are things that renew my spirit and give me a certain fresh energy when I experience them.
Q: What’s your favorite time of day to be out there?
A: I like the sunrises. The sun comes up over our horse pasture, throwing a new light on our horses as they graze in the early morning. Sometimes I go down to our duck pond to watch the sunrise and to see and hear the ducks coming in to land. After the sounds of them filtering in … quacking, whistling and chattering, the other sounds of the forest kick in … early morning songbirds, squirrels barking, maybe the hoot of an owl. It is a beautiful way to start out a day.
Q: How are the chestnut trees, and why is that project important to you?
A: The American chestnut was a true icon of this country and provided so many wonderful things for both mankind and beast. It was a tragic thing to lose them, and the idea of bringing that great giant of the forest back and restoring it is something that means a great deal to Rose Lane and to me. So far the survival of the chestnuts we have planted is about 80 percent. That is excellent, and we plan on planting more every year. But we will need much more time to tell if this will truly be successful. If our chestnuts are growing and healthy 15 to 20 years from now, then I’ll start celebrating.
Q: Do your bandmates ever give you grief about your interest in trees?
A: It’s so 180 degrees from rock ‘n’ roll. It’s quite a juxtaposition. I’ll get teased if they see an article. But the truth of the matter, every one of these guys is a father or grandfather, and they have the same concerns as I do about the future.
Q: What percent of your life is music versus tree farming these days?
A: It totally depends on the (music) opportunities that arise. Depends on my recording, working with other artists. I just do my best to balance it.
Q: Life is all about balance.
A: I use that word quite a bit. When we do a tour, there’s a constant buzz, playing in front of 60,000 people, flying from place to place. When you get back home and you have that peace and quiet, that tranquillity, a degree of spirituality, that means the world to me.
Q: Another musician who thought along those same lines was George Harrison. You knew George and toured with him. Did you two ever talk about gardens and such?
A: We did. He was kind enough to invite us to Friar Park (Harrison’s home in England), Rose Lane and me. He had vegetable gardens, topiary gardens, rock gardens, Japanese gardens, ponds on the place. It was one of the most fascinating places I ever saw. What a wonderful man he was. He always had that little smirk, and a soft chuckle I can still hear now.
Q: Your books are smart, common sense stuff. Any plans for another one?
A: What I think about is doing another children’s book. It’s very gratifying explaining the importance of nature and forests to children. … There’s a wonderful book, “Last Child in the Woods” (by Richard Louv), about how kids today are so engaged in the digital world. They don’t get into nature.
Q: Since your book, “Growing a Better America: Smart, Strong and Sustainable,” came out (2011), have things gotten better or worse in the area of land management and conservation?
A: I’d say things have gotten better, but not as quickly as we’d like. I applaud the president for taking executive actions in these areas. But I’m so disappointed in other government bodies who lag. With 95 to 97 percent of scientists agreeing (global warming/climate change) is a manmade problem, it’s time to get off our duff and do something.
Q: What’s an example of a program worth emulating?
A: Let’s take Atlanta. As I kid when I went there (to visit relatives), the population was 1.3 million, 1.5 million. Now it’s like 6 million. That’s phenomenal growth, and Atlanta has lost so much land to development. There’s a great organization called Trees Atlanta. They plant trees on an almost daily basis. They maintain them, take care of any problems. They take old railroad tracks and turn them into green space. You’re seeing more and more of that. Amazing.
Q: What about individuals? How can they do something on their urban property, which doesn’t come close to acreage? How do they go about planting a tree?
A: First, I’d (plant) something that’s indigenous. It’s important to have what has grown in your area. It takes study, but it’s not hard. Decide what you want. Hardwood? Evergreen? Be careful where you put it. It’s going to grow. So not too close to the house, no dangerous situations. You don’t want to overfertilize or overwater. Know the soil type. You want to give the tree the best opportunity to do well. It takes a bit of research, but nine times out of 10, you’ll be successful.
Q: An urban planning question. In the city where I live, they recently demolished the old Victorian-era high school. Now we have this square block of open space, a few old trees on the property, in a residential neighborhood. What would you recommend the city – or any city with an open space like that – do with such a space? Probably not a massive 7-Eleven.
A: (Laughs) I’d keep it a green space, whether a park or playground or both. Rose Lane and I have a second home in Savannah, two blocks from Forsyth Park, 30-plus acres with a beautiful open area in the middle to play soccer or volleyball, two playgrounds for children, beautiful live oak trees. When you have open space like that, it encourages adults and children to use it, to walk around it, to play there. You don’t need a 7-Eleven. If you’ve got 30 or 40 or 50 neighbors to contribute $100 each, you could get some projects started. Counties have agencies; cities have arborists. Engage the people, meet and discuss options. But save that space.