Keyboardist Chuck Leavell works to save American chestnut trees

Chuck Leavell is one of the world’s greatest keyboardists, performing with superstar groups such as the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and his own group, Sea Level.

But when I visited him the other day at his Charlane Plantation near Macon, the talk was all about American chestnut trees. Leavell, an ardent conservationist, tree hugger and co-founder of Mother Nature Network (mnn.com), is nurturing four chestnuts planted last year on Charlane.

The plantings are part of a major effort to develop an American chestnut resistant to the devastating blight that nearly wiped out the species during the last century — and then restore the tree to forests where it once played a dominant ecological role.

Leavell’s trees, donated by the American Chestnut Foundation, contain a smattering of genes from the closely related Chinese chestnut. The genetic material makes the Chinese chestnut naturally immune to the blight and another lethal disease, root rot.

Over the past 30 years, scientists with the chestnut foundation have painstakingly bred the genes into American chestnuts. They hope the genes also will protect the American chestnut from the blight and root rot.

The loss of the massive, once plentiful tree is one of America’s great ecological tragedies. The American chestnut dominated hardwood forests — particularly in the mountains — from Maine to Georgia. They often grew 100 feet tall with trunks 4 to 5 feet in diameter. In Appalachian mountain forests, one in every four trees was a chestnut.

In the fall, black bears, deer, turkeys and numerous other animals competed for ripe chestnuts. People also loved them. Mountain folk harvested tons of chestnuts and shipped them to Northern cities; the income helped many families have money at Christmas. The chestnut’s light, durable wood also was highly sought after.

Then, in the early 1900s, an accidentally introduced Asian fungus started killing American chestnuts by the hundreds of thousands. By the late 1950s, the species was all but gone. Although chestnut trees still sprout, they rarely reach a height of 20 feet before the blight strikes them.

Now, Leavell said he envisions the day when his grandchildren can look up into the high canopy of a spreading chestnut.

IN THE SKY: The Orionid meteor shower will reach a peak of 25 meteors per hour Saturday and Sunday nights. Look to the east from about midnight until dawn, said David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer.

The moon will be first quarter Sunday. Mars is low in the west just after dark and sets a few hours later. Venus rises out of the east about two hours before sunrise. Jupiter rises out of the east before dark.

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