Chuck Leavell, the Rolling Stones’ keyboard player for 31 years, is loving life and staying grounded with trees and forests. That’s his other life.
He has a 2,500-acre Georgia forest plantation near Macon, and he has become a staunch advocate for the idea that using the nation’s trees is what will save them. It will help people recognize their value.
They give us materials for buildings and books. They clean our air and our water. They shelter wildlife. That’s just for starters. Did he mention jobs, too? He turns serious when he talks about this. He wants to get through, to make people see. He knows some think using trees is harmful. But he argues that, we need more reasons to grow more trees.
He was a young, long-haired musician from Alabama when they met at Capricorn Records in Macon. She came from land, and, as he got to know her family, he saw their “deep passion and respect.” It began to rub off.
In 1981, Rose Lane’s grandmother, Miss Julia, died. They spent 15 years paying the inheritance taxes on what was then a 1,200-acre property – “buying it back from the government” – and acquiring a distaste for a system that punishes heirs and encourages development.
Along with the land came the inherited responsibility of stewardship. Leavell thought about crops. Or livestock. But those required day-to-day management. Playing with John Mayer, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton . . . it wouldn’t work.
The more Leavell considered forestry, the more interested he became. He read books and attended seminars. On tour with the Fabulous Thunderbirds in the ’80s, he took a forestry correspondence course.
But, yeah, sometimes it’s tough for a celeb to be taken seriously. Leavell had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal recently – about how Europe could power itself with wood – and some of the comments were so unkind: “Stick to the keyboards, stoner.”
New Jersey-certified forester Bob Williams had a decidedly raised eyebrow, too, when he heard about Leavell. Then he read Leavell’s third book – Forever Green, a history of forestry – and was impressed. He went to Georgia and was surprised to see Leavell doing a lot of the work himself.
The duality of Leavell’s life came together in one glorious month last year, when he was included in a lifetime achievement Grammy for the Allman Brothers band (the “Jessica” solo is his) and was named an honorary ranger by the U.S. Forest Service (he played “Georgia on My Mind” for the assemblage).
Perhaps, the luckiest thing of all is that he doesn’t have to choose between the two. And now there’s a third.
In 2009, he and Joel Babbit launched the environmental website Mother Nature Network. Today, it gets 10 million unique visitors a month, he says.
Now, as Leavell and Rose Lane near their 40th wedding anniversary – they’ll celebrate it on tour – their thoughts turn to their two daughters and two grandsons.
“It’s truly a wonderful feeling to think that our grandsons and future heirs can walk in forests that Rose Lane and I have planted,” he says. “And I hope they will think of us when they do.”
He and Rose Lane will get back home to Charlane – the beginning of his name, the end of hers – in mid-July.
By then, the loblollies and the native longleaf pines will be into their summer spurt. The light green candles – the new growth – will stand out vividly against the dark green of the mature needles.
Leavell finds truth in Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In the woods we return to reason and faith.”
Come August, you might find him riding his tractor in the woods. Or maybe simply walking and “listening to the wind through the pines.”