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.”
The main crop on Leavell’s 2,900-acre property outside Macon is trees. Charlane Plantation — the name combines his first name, Charles, with the middle name of his wife, Rose Lane White — 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 said.
Following a comprehensive plan that 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 co-founder of a 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 past 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 that 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.
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, Alabama. 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: 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.