A Rolling Stone and His Love of Trees

Published October 1, 2005

Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest
By Chuck Leavell and Mary Welch
Published by Evergreen Arts, April 2004
Distributed by Mercer University Press http://www.mupress.org/webpages/books/leavell.html
$24.95 cloth, 202 pages, ISBN 0865549001

Chuck Leavell has twice been voted Georgia Tree Farmer of the Year. In 1999 he was voted National Tree Farmer of the Year. I can tell you why.

I have met Leavell on numerous occasions at natural resource-related meetings. There has never been a man who loved trees more or understood trees and their forests (or vice-versa) better. Leavell knows from experience how trees grow, prosper, must be managed, harvested, planted, and regulated (that is, less regulated). On top of all that he can describe how trees were logged from the primitive beginnings to today’s computer-driven high-tech forestry.

Please do not hold against him the fact that in his other life Chuck Leavell is a legend in rock music, making gold and platinum records and winning Grammys as a keyboardist with the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, and, for the past 20 years, The Rolling Stones.

My favorite poem has always been “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer. Now my favorite natural resource book is the beautifully written and illustrated Forever Green.

A New Understanding

Leavell begins by dividing drywood into cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, tall oil, and turpentine, then describes their chemistry and value. He traces the history of wood’s use through the ages, from furniture to sports to music and medicine. I have taken numerous courses in forestry and botany over the years, but never understood trees as I do now. Whether he is describing the process of photosynthesis or explaining that coconuts are seeds often distributed by the tides on seashore, Leavell narrates as though he was telling of his love for a beautiful woman. And yet his book could readily be a superb textbook in either high school or college.

The breadth of the book is amazing. Leavell explains every type of forest–temperate, boreal, subtropical, and tropical. He explains how advanced the American Indians were in forest management, including controlled burns. He tells of the role of lumber in the transcontinental railroad and its millions of cross ties and hundreds of wooden bridges.

Leavell profiles the lives of those who have contributed to the preservation, restoration, and harvesting of America’s fabulous forests. They include Gifford Pinchot, America’s first true forester; Charles Sargent of Harvard University; Frederick Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park and the famous Biltmore Estate; and Presidents Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, Harrison, and both Roosevelts.

He touches upon the contribution of painters Thomas Cole and Frederick Church as well as writers James Fennimore Cooper and Henry David Thoreau, naturalist Aldo Leopold, and the founder of Arbor Day, J.S. Morton. Few have ever honestly explained the hostile relationship that developed between Pinchot, the great forester, and John Muir, the preservationist who founded the Sierra Club.

The legends of Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan are a treat. Appleseed, in fact, is not a legend at all, but real-life Ohioan John Chapman, who did indeed roam Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana planting thousands of seedlings. While Paul Bunyan may never have lived, his story has brought millions to enjoy the wonders of our forests.

Life in the logging camps of the late 1800s is poignantly described in pictures and text. Logs were mostly cut in winter and floated downstream in spring. Using steel-pointed long-handled poles on special boats they tried to prevent log jams, often jumping into the freezing water. Leavell tells us, “All too often, the drivers drowned or were crushed when the logs started moving again.”

Tree farmers work with a remarkable variety of equipment. Forever Green describes the detailed operation of the most primitive equipment to the development of chainsaws by Andreas Stihl, to band saws and machines that grab trees and cut them at their base one after another bundling them like asparagus before placing on a truck, at times today depositing them for a helicopter to remove.

Leavell’s knowledge of yesterday’s lumbermill and today’s computer-driven sawmill is fascinating. Every tree can be turned into an infinite variety of lumber sizes depending on need, and there is no waste. Every last particle of wood finds a use. Leavell’s description of the process to manufacture fiberboard from waste wood chips is complex chemical and industrial engineering made simple.

Public Policy Implications

As Patrick Moore did in his book Green Spirit (reviewed in the May 2005 issue of Environment & Climate News), Leavell makes a strong case for clear-cutting under the appropriate conditions. In its most obvious form, Leavell says, “Cutting a stand that has been grown specifically for harvest is no different than harvesting acres of corn or soybeans.” Afterward a new crop is planted. “For several years after a clear cut,” Leavell notes, “there is a whole new group of wildlife thriving. Since the land now gets full sunlight, new varieties of plants, herbs, and animals are attracted to the sun-kissed land.”

In the book’s final sections the author deals with the softer environmental issues relating to trees. At the city level, he boasts of their value in cleaning the air, buffering sound, reducing urban blight, removing carbon dioxide, intercepting rainfall, and enhancing the smell of the air. He cites a 1994 study that “found those patients in a hospital whose windows offered a view of a wooded landscape got better faster and with less medicine than those that could only look out at a brick wall.”

Leavell’s view of conservation practices is fair and balanced. He broadly details the environmental advocacy group certification programs for tree farms. They are often misdirected, he says, producing cost with little benefit other than bringing money to the certifying body and reduced wood crops. This is likely an unspoken goal of many of the programs.

Leavell appropriately rails against unnecessary government regulations that require unreasonable harvesting fees, excessive buffer requirements, public hearings prior to harvesting, prohibitions against prescribed burning, and even outright prohibitions against timbering.

Crop protection programs do not recognize timber as a crop, and business development programs such as those offered through the Small Business Administration won’t loan to tree farms because they do not make loans to agriculture and they do consider tree farmers to indeed be farmers.

The book is a cornucopia of wonderful statistics. Some examples:

  • we still have 70 percent of the forest land that existed when the earliest pioneers came, 737 million acres;
  • Vermont was 35 percent forests in 1850; it is 80 percent forests today;
  • since 1890, the number of forested acres in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia has increased from 24 to 40 million acres.

Finally, Leavell shows himself to have a significant grasp of biotechnology when he explains how many improvements will be made in the future through genetically modified seeds that may protect from a variety of insects and blights as well as improving growth rates of valuable wood.

In a closing paragraph Leavell writes, “Just don’t be fooled by the extremists who maintain that tree farming, or growing trees for commercial purposes, is a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing. We need those well managed forests for wood production.” And then Keith Richards said, “Oh God, Chuck’s talking about trees again.”

Until Chuck Leavell records this book on tape and entertains with his keyboard in the background, you will have to read it … but you will hear the music anyway.

And if you want to read about leading a normal life with a rock band, you will enjoy his book Between Rock and a Home Place, with Jay Marshall Craig.

Jay Lehr Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

More information about Chuck Leavell and Charlane Plantation, his award-winning pine and hunting plantation, is available online at http://www.chuckleavell.com and http://www.charlane.com.