I discovered Chuck Leavell pretty late in the game. Having heard an interview and a few cuts from his 2001 CD, Forever Blue: Solo Piano, on National Public Radio, I immediately fell for it. Somehow I had missed the fact that he was keyboardist for the Allman Brothers Band in the 1970s and for the Rolling Stones since 1982, not to mention Eric Clapton, George Harrison, the Black Crowes, and the Indigo Girls. (Maybe law school does that to you.)
Forever Blue, Leavell’s first solo album, features the artist playing ten tunes-seven original compositions and three old favorites such as “Georgia on My Mind” and “Ashokan Farewell.”
Great stuff even if your default position is more akin to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. While listening, I did not pay much attention to the text printed on the inside of the case: “PLANT A TREE.”
I did not know until recently that Leavell is a serious forester. He and Rose Lane Leavell, his wife of thirty years, manage family property, some 2,200 acres, an award-winning pine and hunting enterprise in Georgia named Charlane Plantation. They are justifiably proud of being chosen as the National Outstanding Tree Farmers for 1999 (out of 50,000 family forest landowners).
In a profile of Leavell in the Wall Street Journal (“Tree Growin’ Man,” January 25, 2006), Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., describes the difficulties that Chuck and his wife faced after inheriting their original 1,200 acres from Rose Lane’s grandmother. The estate taxes were so burdensome that they had to sell a parcel of land that had been in her family for 100 years in order to make a down payment to the Internal Revenue Service. They spent the next 15 years paying off the balance.
A PASSION FOR FORESTRY
On the cover of Forever Green, Mick Jagger claims that “Chuck is always talking about trees on tour . . . sometimes it drives me crazy!” But Jagger concedes that Leavell’s “passion for forestry is undeniable, and he’s made some strong contributions to the environment through that passion.”
What I missed, the advocates of “free-market environmentalism” had not. PERC featured Leavell at its 25th anniversary bash. The White House invited him to address its Conference on Cooperative Conservation in August of 2005. Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior, recognized the Leavells for Citizen Stewardship. And the environmental group Environmental Defense featured Chuck Leavell on its Web site recently. The Washington Post dubbed Leavell the “Bono of Trees.” Leavell, along with coauthor Mary Welch, wrote a book on forestry, Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest, released the same year as his CD Forever Blue. The book covers every conceivable aspect of forestry and the challenges of reforesting America, including the Leavells’ struggle to overcome the disincentives of estate (read “death”) taxes in their efforts to preserve privately-owned forest lands.
Chuck Leavell is a model of private stewardship of the kind beloved by free-market environmentalists of all stripes. The only off-note in his beautiful life story is that he recently employed his fame and well-earned credentials as a conservationist to urge government subsidies for private forest owners. Like so many Americans, he does not see the peril to his own deeply held values inherent in the political allocation of economic wealth.
Leavell’s combination of forestry and musicianship became known to me when I served on a panel of reviewers of children’s books on the environment for a foundation’s annual awards program. I had to review 58 different titles and rank them accordingly.
I admit to some trepidation in undertaking this task. As the father of seven children, I am always sensitive to strains of environmentalism that view people as a blight on the earth or neglect the tradeoffs between the stewardship of nature and making a living. In the past, such ideas often crept into course materials. Instead of teaching kids the hydrologic cycle, the books treated them to a discussion of overconsumption in the developed world. The link between economic growth and human health and environmental quality was rarely discussed-or was rejected outright.
I was pleasantly surprised as I reviewed the submitted publications. Despite occasional lapses, most of the books were blessedly free of cant or agitprop. (Given the very young target audience, the economic tradeoff issue was probably beyond the grasp of the readers, anyway.)
These books were more sophisticated versions of the nature books I remember as a child, with vivid prose, superb artwork, and terrific photography. Swamps were now wetlands (a good thing in my view), and the narratives followed the natural cycles of animal species with greater attention to detail.
Halfway through the stack of books there appeared The Tree Farmer by Chuck Leavell and Nicholas Cravotta. With a simple, but not simplistic, story line, this book describes a conversation between a boy and his grandfather. “We grow trees,” responds the grandfather to the boy’s wonder at seeing the family farm with no chickens, cows, or pigs. He explains the planting, trimming, caring, and cutting of trees. Th e boy is incredulous: “You cut them down? But why? How could you?”
A TREE LIVES ON
The grandfather responds that the tree will be made into a crib to protect a baby “and gently carry her as she dreams.” (The narrative is accompanied by an image of a large tree branch shaped in the form of a baby’s bed. The illustrations by Rebecca Bleau are vibrant.) The old man then makes the same point about the tree providing a family a home and offers a litany of things-a baseball bat, a chair, a newspaper, a piano-that will be made from the wood of the tree.
Indeed, the piano and other instruments “will live on in the sweetness of music, reflecting the rhythm, harmony and melody of life.”
The final passages emphasize the need for self-giving by the steward of the tree farm. “And I, too . . . have given of myself. I am a steward of this land and have worked hard with respect and love to care for the trees,” says the grandfather. “We must remember to give of ourselves as the forest has given to us.”
This story reflects Leavell’s view of stewardship as a multi-generational commitment. “My family, my trees and my music are the most important elements of my life,” he maintains in publicity material announcing the book. “Now that I am about to become a grandfather for the first time, I want to put my passions about forestry into words for the next generation. I’ve always said that we don’t inherit the land from our parents-we borrow it from our children.”
I wish he would leave it at that. But Leavell argues, as reported in Jenkins’ Wall Street Journal column, that private foresters are squeezed by rising property taxes, which are driven by real estate development and subsidized lumber from Canadian public forests. To address this problem, he recommends that tree farmers receive a larger share of farm subsidies. Leavell cites the ecological services provided by tree farmers-better water quality, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat-to justify his support for increased subsidies for tree planting.
But farm subsidies, even with the new conservation dollars mandated in the recent farm bill, are a net loser for the environment, at least for traditional agriculture. They create incentives for farming on marginal lands, increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, and elimination of habitat- and aggravate the federal deficit.
And wealthy farmers receive most of the subsidies. The wealthiest 10 per cent of U. S. farmers receive 72 percent of the subsidies, says H. Sterling Burnettt of the National Center for Policy Analysis. Subsidies for tree farming would probably be allocated in a similarly distorted way. Leavell is on much stronger ground when he argues that government should do less rather than more, as in eliminating death taxes.
Despite this lapse, Chuck and Rose Lane Leavell are model citizens and stewards of nature. Their deeply ethical approach to reconciling the needs of human beings with their love of nature is expressed with great poignancy and power in a lovely book for children and grandchildren. And after you read the book, you can return to Leavell’s equally powerful music.
G. Tracy Mehan III was assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He is currently a principal with the Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Arlington, Va. He may be contacted at email@example.com.