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.

I Am Really Tired, But Don’t Tell Anyone, It’s a Secret

Mike at football

Because of a fixture pile up due to the extremely wet winter we’ve just had I’m about to play my seventh competitive football match in just under 3 weeks, and at the ripe old age of 46 my legs and back are telling me enough is enough.  The trouble is, I’m worried that if I admit it to anyone connected with the football club it could convince them that my time is finally up, which of course is ridiculous because nobody can play that many games in such a short space of time and remain fresh as a daisy.  But because I am so much older than everyone else still on the team (next oldest 32), I’m sure you’ll understand when I admit to feeling a little insecure.

So I must go and play (and of course I still love it, which is why I endure the pain) and try not to collapse in a heap in the middle of the pitch (I have to play centre midfield, which as everyone knows who follows the game, is the most physically demanding position in the team because you have to cover the whole length of the pitch for the whole of the game…..I’m exhausted just writing about it :))

If I survive with my dignity intact I’ll only have 2 more games to go before the end of another long season.  Then I’ll be able to lie down.

The Music of a Landscape Part III – Badlands

Sadly I only visited the badlands of North Dakota very briefly many years ago.  Even more sadly my camera wasn’t working at the time so I wasn’t able to record the hauntingly beautiful landscape, so I did the next best thing and wrote some music about it instead…..

Of course the music of any landscape is completely abstract, so for every person that can identify with it, there will be many more who cannot – we all have different senses and points of reference, which is a very good thing.

This music is also dedicated to Yellow Bird, Kent, Grover and Dan, “The Wolf at Twilight”


The Old Road to Nowhere

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

High up on the slopes of the Rhinogau (Rin-og-i), an isolated, rugged range of mountains forming much of the Harlech Dome in North Wales, lies a 19th century gold mining complex.  All that remains of the hard toil of the men and women of the time are some deep,cavernous mine shafts which drip with the rain from the mountains, a few ruined buildings and the old track that was used to transport the rock for processing.

Photo:  Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

Since all the industry left the hillside, nature has quietly taken over again, so that now the only sound you hear up there is the sighing of the wind and the throaty call of the raven in his craggy domain.  The noise and disruption of the past is long gone, along with all the stories of the people who worked this land in order to provide a living for their families.

The land is now cared for by the National Trust, and I have had the privilege to write the plan for its future conservation.  There’s plenty more to see at this place, and I’ll update you as I go.  I’ll be back there next week.

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Music and art about San Francisco

So in composing the music for my album “Heading West”, which is essentially a travelogue about my journey across America, I wrote a song called “San Francisco” which leaned heavily on my love of jazz and jazz fusion.  I wanted to paint a musical picture of a cityscape, something that talked of vibrancy, excitement and a little edginess, and contrasted with the more peaceful sounds I had written on the album to capture great landscapes.  San Francisco is such a beautiful, exciting city to visit, I felt compelled to write music about it.

I also wanted to put together a video essentially to showcase the music.  What I ended up with, however, was something different – a video showcasing the amazing art of Jeremy Mann, who has painted some of the most beautiful and evocative cityscapes that I have ever seen of his hometown, San Francisco.  See what you think here….

In his creative practice, Mann aims to imbue his city with drama, mood, and personality.  He paints his immediate surroundings with intimate, dynamic expression. A number of his compositions are inspired by wet pavement that reflects street lamps and neon signs and glitters in the rain.

Painting on medium-to-large scale wood panels, Mann utilizes a number of techniques: staining the surface, wiping away paint with solvents, and applying broad, gritty marks with an ink brayer.  He paints with confidence and flair, addressing complex compositions with colors both vivid and atmospheric.

I love his work.  And so, actually, my song is dedicated to him and I hope it does his work justice, even in a very small way.

The wonderful history, landscape and wildlife of the Dinefwr Estate

I have been exceptionally lucky recently to have been asked to prepare a conservation management plan for the estate at Dinefwr (Din-ev-or) near Llandeilo in West Wales, which is owned and cared for by the National Trust.

It is quite a difficult task to paint a verbal picture of Dinefwr and it isn’t possible to convey the importance of the place in strictly factual terms.  It’s only when you are lucky enough to visit Dinefwr that the sheer unusual beauty of the place strikes you in a way that the words that you have read cannot.  It is a very, very special place indeed.

Dinefwr is of exceptional significance for its archaeology, designed landscape and buildings.  The present day landscape was set out by George Rice and his wife Cecil with some assistance from Lancelot ’Capability’ Brown in the second half of the 18th century.  It has been widely admired ever since with impressions recorded by means of painting, sketching and the written word – it even appeared on a dinner plate, part of a service commissioned by Catherine the Great.

Today the park is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest designed landscapes in the UK.  At its centre is Newton House, originally constructed in the 17th century to a simple but elegant design, it was encased in limestone to a Venetian-gothic design in the 1850s.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

Trees and open grassland are so important to the appearance and aesthetic qualities of Dinefwr’s landscape and they were deliberately set out as part of the landscape design, with most of the trees planted on the higher ground and the grassland occupying the valleys and the areas immediately adjacent to the house and the main drive.

Archaeological surveys have, inevitably, revealed evidence of earlier landscapes including the defensive structures of an Iron Age fort and most remarkable of all, two overlapping Roman forts.  Faint earthworks mark the outlines of tracks and field boundaries that predated the construction of the deer park in the middle of the 17th century.

One of the most significant archaeological monuments in the park is Dinefwr Castle.  The 12th century stone buildings and walls seen today apparently replaced an earlier timber structure dating to the 8th century.  This castle was the capital of most of west and south Wales in the 12th century so the surrounding woodland and park must conceal evidence of medieval tracks and paths.

Dinefwr Castle

The park is well known for its fallow deer and, in particular, its white park cattle – a rare breed restored to the park in 1992 after a long absence, but that can be traced back to Dinefwr from at least 1000 years ago.  Both the deer and the cattle are integral to the historic park in their own right, but also because they maintain a complex mosaic of ancient grassland habitats.

Ancient white park cattle Photo: Mike Alexander
Ancient white park cattle Photo: Mike Alexander
Fallow deer herd  Photo: Mike Alexander
Fallow deer herd Photo: Mike Alexander

One of the most striking features of the grassland in the deer park is the abundance of yellow meadow ant hills, which indicates how undisturbed this grassland has been for centuries.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

In some parts of the park there are remnants of medieval woodland featuring many ancient trees that are at least 400 years old.  And at its core, this wood pasture is dominated by nearly 300 huge oak trees, including some of the oldest and largest trees in the UK – one, the Castle Oak, is thought to be over 700 years old.

Photo: Mike Alexander
700 year old oak tree Photo: Mike Alexander

Dinefwr’s ancient trees, important in their own right, are host to a remarkable assemblage of wood decay invertebrates including 400 “saproxylic” beetle species, 26 of which are classified as nationally scarce.  More than 160 species of lichen have been recorded in the park, several of which indicate a long history of ecological continuity.

The assemblage of breeding birds at Dinefwr is very impressive, and some of the most important are the lesser spotted woodpecker, an increasingly rare species in the UK, as are the green woodpeckers, which thrive on the impressive colonies of yellow meadow ants, conspicuous by the presence of hundreds of ant hills in the deer park grassland.  Other notable bird species breeding in the woodlands include tawny owl, tree creeper, sparrowhawk, tree sparrow, jay, long-tailed tit and pied flycatcher.

On the lakes, ponds and ditches of the Towy floodplain greylag geese, Canada geese, swan, widgeon, goldeneye, heron and snipe amongst many others can been found year round.

Flood plain at Dinefwr  Photo: Mike Alexander
Flood plain at Dinefwr Photo: Mike Alexander

The Music of a Landscape – Part II

This song is dedicated to the Earth, the “Pale Blue Dot”…

“Hope” – the great photographs of Dorothea Lange

My fourth album “Heading West” is an interpretation of the landscape and peoples of the American west through the senses of a travelling Brit.  I wanted to express the emotions of my experiences and to convey the character of the places that I visited, although some of the music I composed turned out to be more abstract than that.

One example of this is my song “Hope”.  I’ve had some really lovely comments about this song which is always nice because you never know whether or not what you are doing is perhaps a cliche – the listener always decides this of course.  “Hope” is not easy to describe, which is why I gave the song that title after I had composed and recorded it – if one word can describe an abstract thing like a piece of music, then “Hope” was it in this instance.

When it came to putting together a video for this song, I started trawling aimlessly on the internet looking for inspiration.  It wasn’t long before the amazing photographs of Dorothea Lange jumped out at me as the perfect representation of what the song is about.

Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965) was an amazing American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her depiction of the Great Depression era which affected the world in the decade immediately preceding World War II.  Lange’s photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression in the American west and documented the migration of so many people intent on finding work and a place for themselves and their families.

In 1941 Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her excellence in photography.

The picture on the video thumbnail is entitled Migrant Mother, and the woman is Florence Owens Thompson.  Look her up on wikipedia, the story of how the picture came to be taken and of her life is fascinating.  I hope you like the video and the music.

Inspirational places….

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

This is the place, according to Welsh legend, where the red dragon of the Celts fought with the white dragon of the Anglo-Saxons.  Both fell into the lake, but only the red dragon emerged, and this is why the red dragon is the national emblem of Wales and appears on the national flag.  But that’s only a story, albeit a nice one.  I have written the management plan for this place and this will hopefully help to conserve the wonderful wildlife and the cultural landscape for the future.  And it in turn has inspired some of my music.

Spring on the Pembrokeshire Coast

Marloes Sands smaller

After 6 months of perpetual grey skies and torrential rain, spring has finally arrived on the Pembrokeshire Coast, and today our local beach looks like this.  It’s so nice to finally feel some warm sunshine, although admittedly there is still a chilly north-easterly wind coming down from the arctic.

Puffins on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire       Photo: Mike Alexander
Puffins on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire Photo: Mike Alexander

The sea birds have arrived back from the South Atlantic to breed on the offshore islands of Skomer, Skokholm, Grassholm and Ramsey.  These puffins nest in dis-used rabbit burrows on the islands, which are free of predators like rats and foxes, although the threat from the Great Black-backed Gull is still very real for the offspring of these little fellas.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

The gannets have returned from their winter feeding grounds in the south to breed in huge numbers (32,000 nesting pairs) on Grassholm Island, and can be seen diving into the sea wherever they spot shoals of fish on which to feed.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

In the next few weeks all of the spring flowers will emerge as the land awakens from its winter slumber.  The most familiar birds to be seen from the cliff tops are razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars and various species of gull, as well as shags, cormorants and the rarer choughs and peregrine falcons.

The music of a landscape – Part I

My music is often derived from and about some of the lovely places and wildlife of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in West Wales, where I have worked as an ecologist for 20 years.  I hope it is possible to hear the influence of this landscape in my song, which was deliberately written in a style evoking a kind of “national anthem for nature”, if that makes any sense?  Anyway I hope you like it 🙂  The song is from my album “Round River”.