Drawing musical inspiration from conserving nature

I have been lucky enough to be able to devote most of my working life to learning about nature and wildlife, and then learning about how best to look after it.  Of course the old adage is really true here, the more you learn the more you realise how much you don’t know.  But if you’ll allow me to put that to one side for a moment, one of the most surprising things that I have learned is that, contrary to what people might think, looking after (or conserving) nature is less about spending your time studying and managing wildlife and much more to do with spending your time dealing with people.  If you don’t have the ability to communicate with people, then your ability to conserve wildlife is seriously diminished.

This is because in most places in the world, people own or have a claim to the land that your wildlife is trying to share, and if those people don’t care about the wildlife, then they are unlikely to let you conserve it, particularly if there is no economic reason for them to do so.  More often than not, if you can convince people that the land they have is precious, and the wildlife living there is of intrinsic value, then you’ve got a reasonable chance of getting them to care.  What was it Leopold said?  “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”.  Well that’s kind of the sentiment that you’re trying to foster, and of course there are a lot of people who already feel that way, so it isn’t always an uphill struggle.

One of my more recent jobs was to write a management plan for a beautiful farm in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales which had been acquired by the National Trust, with the help of 20,000 donations from the public and weighty celebrity backing in the form of Welsh Hollywood star Catherine Zeta Jones.  The National Trust have the job of conserving places like this in perpetuity, and having a management plan is an important tool in that process.

Photo: Mike Alexander

Having spent some time at the farm and absorbed some of it into my bones, my first task was to communicate the beauty and wonder of the place so that people could begin to appreciate its value.  It was inspirational to help with this work, and the added benefit was the inspiration for my music.  This is what I wrote……

“There are some places that, when you walk into them for the first time, you know are special, places that make you pause in wonder, places that most of us rarely come across in our day to day lives.  Llyndy Isaf is one of these.

It isn’t that Llyndy Isaf is more special than anywhere in the surrounding landscape.  The farm lies within Nant Gwynant, which is one of the most dramatic and beautiful valleys in Wales.  Its northern slopes rise to the summit of our highest mountain, Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and to the south are the relatively undisturbed hills of Moel y Dyniewyd and the Moelwynion range.  The Afon Glaslyn river runs through two majestic lakes, Llyn Gwynant and Llyn Dinas, and below the picturesque village of Beddgelert, it tumbles down to sea-level through the positively alpine Aberglaslyn Pass.  This is a world-class landscape and is at the very heart of the Snowdonia National Park.

Photo: Mike Alexander

Photo: Mike Alexander

Ask any two people what they think is special about Llyndy Isaf and they will give similar but varying answers, “specialness” is very much in the eye of the beholder.  Natural beauty is one term that can be used to describe much of it, and as we shall see as we gather our thoughts on how this place should be cared for in the future, the features that comprise natural beauty are many and varied.

One feeling that dawns on a person at Llyndy Isaf is that this is a very old place.  The valleys, hills, streams and lake all feel like they have been around for a very long time, and the rocks from which they have been carved, much, much longer.  Even some of the trees are gnarled and twisted by many years of growth in rain, wind, cold and, from time to time, luxurious warmth.  And yet there is much that is youthful.

The feathery growth of new young trees, the first spring flowers of dog violet and bluebell tentatively raising their heads through the cold, wet, moss clad ground.  This is an unusual place of great antiquity and brand new life.

The unmistakable influence of human endeavour, the farm buildings, the sheep folds and pens, the field boundary walls and fences speak of hundreds, if not thousands of years of toil to provide food and shelter for countless generations of people.  Many of these features of the landscape are regarded as our heritage, and it has been, and continues to be, the way people interact with that heritage that defines our culture.

Photo: Mike Alexander

Photo: Mike Alexander

To the untrained or uninitiated eye this place looks wild, wonderful and natural.  Well it is wild and wonderful, but it isn’t natural.  This, above all else, is a cultural landscape.  The rich array of habitats, the woodlands, grasslands and heathlands are as much cultural landscape features as are the buildings and walls.

Like anywhere else, Wales’s landscapes have emerged from people’s interaction with natural resources under changing environmental and economic conditions through time.  This continues.  But while the character and form of these areas can be explained, it is much harder to predict how they will change in the future.

If we apply international definitions of wilderness, there are no wilderness areas in Wales, and there is no potential for such areas.  The common misconception of wilderness relates to people’s sense of exposure to the natural elements and absence of built development, not to wild untouched places.  When people understand the history of human settlements, agriculture, forestry and water management, the human influence becomes obvious everywhere.

Photo: Mike Alexander

Photo: Mike Alexander

In its place, we have a glorious living landscape, the wildlife of which has been shaped over thousands of years as the mainly unintentional by-product of generations of people toiling to provide a living for their families.  These activities have also left us with a landscape covered in wonderful historic buildings and monuments.  This is our cultural landscape and it is special and precious; its values should be celebrated and not diminished through comparison with something that happens elsewhere.

The land at Llyndy Isaf is a magnificent example of this, and now it falls to the National Trust to take responsibility, on behalf of so many people who helped to purchase the farm, for how this place is to be cared for into the future”.

The photographs show what a beautiful place it is, and so inspiration for music was plentiful.  This song was inspired by the magic of nature and also by the writings of Aldo Leopold, who proposed the “Round River” metaphor for life’s energy from the ground, through plants and animals and back into the ground in a never ending circle.

Mike Howe

Website: http://mikehowe.com/
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About Mike Howe

I am an ecologist and a composer of guitar based instrumental melodies signed to the Real Music label in California. I like to write about my work, music and nature conservation and how it all comes together. I try not to write about things I don't know much about.
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2 Responses to Drawing musical inspiration from conserving nature

  1. What you write is beautiful and I can relate to a lot of what you are saying, Mike.
    I deeply believe the community that “owns” the land is made of humans, but not only of humans. It is equally owned by animals, plants, stones, fairies and all beingness that is present, there.

    I always felt it would be a wonderful step into mutual understanding if we as a human society could also understand ourselves as part of nature, again, instead of seperating ourselves from it. Yes, we are shaping the landscape sourrounding us. That is part of nature.
    Just look at a plain piece of landscape. First there is the soil, then the first pioneer plants are starting to grow, and then other plants come in, and others, again. Maybe some birds are bringing new seeds or the wind is blowing them, here. However, they are all shaping this piece of landscape, too.
    If we could understand, that we are part of all this we maybe would respect our environment much more and care for it in an aware, sustainable and responsible way instead of treating the land like something to waste.

    I love, love, love your pictures – I see them so full of warmth and love for the places you’ve been!
    And your music feels beautiful, connecting and uplifting to me.

    Thank you for sharing all this – I enjoyed this sensual trip to Wales with you!

    Much love,
    Steffi

    • Hi Steffi

      Thanks so much for your comment, I really appreciate it and I couldn’t agree with you more! Such warmth and understanding in what you have written, thank you :)

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