Southern Roots

If Trees Could Sing

By Pamela A. Keene  |  Photography courtesy of Allen Farst Photography, Andrew Newiss and Jason Ringenberg

The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee matched musicians with their favorite trees to encourage a love of nature through music.

If anyone can spin a good story and get people to pay attention, it’s musicians. That’s exactly what the staff at The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee thought when it approached Southern musicians several years ago to help them launch “If Trees Could Sing.”

“The idea actually came about because of a project we did with students to certify high schools as arboretums and to engage students in the environment and a love of nature,” says Nashville-based landscape architect Tara Armistead. “By making a connection between students and trees through the words of popular musicians, it had more appeal than just talking to students about the importance of trees to the environment. “

As the national organization, The Nature Conservancy sought ways to bring trees to the forefront of its conservation message, TNC in TN board member Armistead shared her arboretum project with fellow board members. Soon, staff and volunteers began planning, making calls to musicians and agents, and setting up production schedules to launch “If Trees Could Sing” and give trees a voice. Musicians selected their favorite trees and recorded videos about their selections that are accessible via QR codes on plaques at designated places across Tennessee.

The singing moved into Georgia as well. For Southern Rock musician, keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, and Georgia tree farmer Chuck Leavell, it was a natural that he would choose the longleaf pine as his favorite tree to be part of a similar program in Atlanta for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia that was active for several years.

“Longleaf pines were the dominant tree from Virginia all the way down to East Texas before the European settlement, so it was the ‘original tree’ of the South,” he says. “Of course, in the mountainous areas like the Appalachians, you had mostly hardwoods, and the iconic American Chestnut. But for the most part, longleaf ruled the landscape. It was and is a majestic species, and the lumber from those early days literally built most of the South. Today, and for the last some 20 years there has been an effort to restore longleaf throughout the South, and we have participated in that.”

By doing his part, Leavell currently farms 350 acres of longleaf pines on his farm, Charlane Plantation, near Macon. Recipient of numerous awards for his tree and conservation work, he serves on boards and committees for several conservation groups and is active in conservation and forestry issues.

“Any time I have the opportunity to help people understand the value of trees and forests, it’s my personal obligation to exploit that, especially in urban areas, where it is important that message is disseminated to the public,” he says. “Those of us who live in rural settings have a closer relationship with trees and forests for obvious reasons, but in cities that have high populations, sometimes that value is overlooked. It’s critical we help folks in these urban arenas understand the true value of trees.”

Singer/songwriter Kim Richey didn’t blink when asked to support “If Trees Could Sing.” As a musician, she frequently entertains at TNC’s fund-raising events.

“I really believe in the organization and what it does,” says the Ohio native who graduated from Ohio University with a degree in environmental education. She also ran a nature center in Vail, Colo., years ago, before moving to Nashville for her career. “The outdoors has always appealed to me as a place to relieve stress and renew my faith in the world.”

Richey selected the sycamore as her tree. “It is beautiful in every season, from its bright-green leaves in spring to its ghost-like appearance in the winter when the bark has such great texture.”

Richey, who landed her first recording contract at age 37, released “A Long Way Back: The Songs of Glimmer” this spring to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the original “Glimmer” album.

Known as Farmer Jason, singer/songwriter/entertainer Jason Ringenberg grew up on a hog farm in Illinois. His favorite tree was a hackberry.

“That tree was like a cat with at least nine lives,” says Ringenberg, who is known for such fun, upbeat, and humorous songs as “John the Baptist was a Real Humdinger,” “Santa drove a Big John Deere” and “Lookin’ Back Blues.” “I know my daddy cut down that old tree at least three times and it just kept growing back. He finally just gave up and it became my climbing tree. Now it’s a really huge tree in my parents’ back yard.”

Talk about getting close to nature. A couple of years ago, Ringenberg spent three months as artist-in-residence at the Sequoia National Park, where he wrote his latest album, “Stand Tall.” It includes another tree tribute, “Here in the Sequoias,” that captures his respect for nature and the reverence of the giant trees. “You know, the spirit of the sequoias is all over that record,” he says.

“If Trees Could Sing” is located in 12 sites in Tennessee, from Nashville’s Centennial Park and Coolidge Park in Chattanooga to Montgomery Bell State Park in Dickson County and Morningside Park in Knoxville. Trees at each location have markers with QR codes that can access videos of musicians talking about their favorite trees.

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