All posts by 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.

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: https://mikehowe.com/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/mikehowemusic
Twitter: https://twitter.com/mikehowemusic
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How a road trip, John Steinbeck and Charley, Hank Jones and another Charlie, Pat Metheny and a book called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee inspired my new album Heading West, by Mike Howe

Quite a long time ago I fulfilled a long held dream and traveled all across the USA in an old Buick Skylark with a friend of mine.  We traveled 11,000 miles and visited more states, National Parks, cities, state parks and rest areas than you can shake a stick at (a favourite saying from the trip that, being from England, we’d never heard before and it made us giggle).

For me it was an unforgettable experience, as I traveled to places with names that had held a deep fascination for me since I was a young boy, Oregon, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, California, Nebraska (the list goes on, sorry not mention them all, no offence intended to residents of Connecticut and elsewhere).

My fascination started watching western films as a kid.  I couldn’t believe the incredible wide open spaces and big skies, the beautiful forests and deserts and mountain ranges, with their amazing wildlife – bears for goodness sake!  We get excited if we see a squirrel (and most of them are from N. America and not native to the UK at all, but that’s another story).

And as I grew older I started reading more and more about this wondrous land.  I read the Lewis and Clark journals.  What an incredible story of an expedition sent out by President Thomas Jefferson to see what lay beyond the great Mississippi River, because back then few people knew, it was literally the wild west.  And what did they find?  They found an incredibly rich land roamed by enormous herds of buffalo, native people in numerous tribes, wolves, bears, forests and prairie, incredible.  Imagine climbing up a ridge and finding yourself looking down upon the geysers and steaming hot springs of Yellowstone, a primordial landscape?  In fact the whole landscape was on a par, if not better than, the great plains of Africa for all round natural splendour, and it was still largely intact only 150 years ago.

Then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.  What a heart breaking but deeply fascinating account of the history of Native Americans in the American West in the late nineteenth century.  He describes the people’s displacement through forced relocations and years of warfare waged by the United States Federal Government.  Much later I read two books by Kent Nerburn, Neither Wolf Nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight which explored the story of the American Indians in a much more intimate and real, and ultimately far more complex way.  Both books beautifully written and compelling, I’d recommend them to anyone.

So you see I’ve got quite an interest in the American landscape.  If you add in the influence of the great North American nature writers such as Rick Bass, Doug Peacock, Edward Abbey, David Rains Wallace and of course the greats, Aldo Leopold, Thoreau and John Muir (ok he was Scottish), then that interest has developed into a passion.

Of course I listened to a lot of music, I’ve been doing that since I was 3.  Of all the many musicians that were able to speak to me about the American lands through their music (and not their words), Pat Metheny stood out for me.  In particular his album with Charlie Haden, Beyond the Missouri Sky was a sublime interpretation of an open, prairie like landscape of big skies, huge fields of wheat and corn, and small farms.  That album showed me that you can paint quite specific pictures with simple music, you don’t need an orchestra, as so many of the great film soundtracks have got.

Of course Pat Metheny is a genius and can make his guitar say pretty much anything he wants it to.  And Charlie Haden is a master of the understated, delivering warm, folky bass lines focusing on purity of tone and texture.  His Oklahoma roots can be heard in the playing of a double bass, now that is a mark of great musicianship.

Later when I heard the album that Charlie Haden made with Hank Jones the penny dropped.  They released an album called Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs which is a soft, gentle masterpiece and the title tells you all you need to know about the style of the music.  Here we had a simple blend of what I’d call ‘woody, blocky’ piano reminiscent of old churches and school rooms, and bass that sounded beautiful to me.

Finally I read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and when I finished I thought how good it would be to write a similar account of my travels, before realising that I ain’t no author.  And then it hit me, why not write songs about it instead?

So I started to work with piano, double bass, guitar and drums, and became totally immersed in the whole project as it began to unfold.  The more I worked, the more the songs and melodies would come to me.  It was as if they had been stored up just waiting to be released, which in a sense I suppose they had.

What resulted is something that I am very proud of because it was such a challenge to compose, arrange and perform the music so that, at times, it sounded like a four piece folk/jazz band.  It wasn’t easy to play all of those instruments to the standard that I required so that, hopefully, the listener would be able to hear the emotion and the depth of each composition, and most importantly, feel the wide open space and atmosphere of the landscapes.

I guess it’s for others ultimately to decide how successful you have been as a writer and performer of the music, but all you can ever do is be honest with yourself and ask, did I do that with all my heart and to the best of my ability at that time?  My answer is yes, and that’s all that really matters.

Mike Howe

Website: https://mikehowe.com/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/mikehowemusic
Twitter: https://twitter.com/mikehowemusic
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The Last Buffalo – a story of loss and revival

This song is about the destruction of the great buffalo herds of North America in the late 1800’s, which coincided with the final demise of the last remaining native Indian tribes at that time. Like them, a very small remnant of the original buffalo population survived in Yellowstone National Park, and they are still there to this day.

Photo:  Mark Sisson
Photo: Mark Sisson

The song is on my new album “Heading West” released on January 15th 2013.  The album grew out of reflections on an epic journey I once took across the North American continent. Occasionally it’s good to give oneself up to a particular landscape in your experience, to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it and to listen to the people who made their mark on it.  It isn’t simply the sublime thrill of moving through magnificent plains, mountain ranges, valleys and cities.  It could be the sigh of the wind through juniper trees, or the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset, or the smell of an old wooden church on a quiet street.  Distinctive music often defines cultures that have emerged from such a landscape, and so drawing on folk, gospel and jazz influences, the songs on Heading West are reflections and dreams from my journey.

Music for St Davids Day in Wales

Happy St Davids Day!  Here is the Welsh landscape in all its natural glory….the song is the the title track from my “Time Stands Still” album from 2009

Time Stands Still

Lovely itunes customer review for “Time Stands Still”, thank you Brewmaestro 🙂

TSS cover

Something special

by Brewmaestro

There’s something very unique and special about Mike Howe’s music and his sound. This is not your typical New Age guitar music. This music touches me instantly and continually. Beautiful, peaceful, and relaxing, yes, but there’s something more that seems so natural, yet very special. I learned (from RealMusic) that Mike is a Welsh national park ranger. “I hope that people can hear the deep-felt respect for people and wild lands in my music and that it helps bring peace, warmth and curiosity to a small part of their day.” I do, and it does. Thanks, Mike.

Press acclaim for “Heading West”

Heading West, which marks Howe’s fourth journey with Real Music, features some of his most sublime music to date.  The guitar is central on this release, featuring warm, carefree strumming that is accented by keyboards, piano and rhythm.  Songs like “Old Wooden House” and “American Travels” have a pensive beauty to them — the guitar harmonies bear a reflective essence, as if Howe is wandering through old haunts reminiscing of past joys.  “Badlands” ups the tempo a bit and adds a bit of bluesy groove, while maintaining Howe’s signature laid-back flair.  A must listen for fans of relaxing guitar music.

Dan Cowan, Music Design/New Sound

My 4th album “Heading West” is released worldwide today :)

Heading West

See details of where it is available to buy under “Albums” above

Press acclaim for Mike Howe’s new album “Heading West”

“Despite growing up and living an ocean away, there is no denying that Howe is able to faithfully recreate the spirit and the soul of the American west.  What results is something refreshing and utterly unique that makes this disc into one of the best we’ve reviewed in the last 12 months.” – James McQusiton, Neufutur Magazine