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The musician, conservationist, rancher and fellow podcaster shares stories behind their place-based albums, Songs of Sonoma Mountain and Songs From a River, talks about their family’s work conducting habitat restoration projects in partnership with Point Blue Conservation Science, and answers fan questions.

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Conservation Value Institute today released Episode 7 of The Nature of Music podcast, a conversation with singer/songwriter, Avery Hellman of Ismay. I am grateful to a mutual friend in the music industry for introducing me to Hellman (they/them), who is the granddaughter of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival founder, Warren Hellman. Between their incredible fingerpicking, enchanting vocals, nature-based songs, and interest in regenerative agriculture, it quickly became clear that we share common passions.

Episode 7 opens with a general question about the influence of nature on Hellman’s lyrics and songs. Speaking with a zest for healthy rural landscapes, Hellman explains how:

“Nature certainly, as my bio says, has a massive influence on my music…I didn’t grow up on a ranch or rural place at all…but I think my connection to Nature really started with horses and that sort of intermediary between people and the natural world, and then it kind of grew from there into an interest in ranching and environmentalism.
And so for me, the music is connected to Nature because of the kind of life that I live, meaning that I do live in rural California on a ranch and I spend a lot of my time doing ranching kind of work and management, and…the kind of things and stories that I encounter tend to be associated with the natural world, I mean especially these days with the pandemic. When you’re around…wildlife or farm animals more than you are people, your stories and your music are going to end up reflecting that.”

I asked Hellman about the root of their environmental passions – if there’s any particular event in their life that awoke them to the connection between the health of an ecosystem and the health of a ranching business:

“Well my interest in ranching actually grew out of environmentalism. I was…in school like a lot of young people are these days…studying environmental science and I was really obviously excited about the things I learned, but also frustrated by the limitations. One of the things that I really connected with through those environmental science classes was this issue of agriculture’s impacts on the environment. And in particular, one of the examples that a lot of environmental science classes teach students is about eutrophication, which is when excess nutrients from a farm or ranch or any kind of place really go into a pond or a lake or an ocean and there’s too many nutrients. They cause a bloom of algae and other plants and then those plants die and create dead zones and create other kinds of problems. I realized so distinctly how much agriculture can contribute to these problems, and I felt like ‘here’s my opportunity’.”

Hellman reveals that it was a guest lecture about rangeland management by UC Berkeley Professor, Lynn Huntsinger, that inspired their interest in ranching:

I was just so inspired by these ranchers who were taking this land that had oftentimes been degraded and just being hands-on with these natural solutions to improve the ecosystem around them. And so that’s really how I got interested in farming and ranching. And I think, like I said, the connection to horses really gave me an ‘in’ to that world. Because I’d been around horses, I’d been herding cows over the years, it really gave me an opportunity to feel like I could contribute to the ranching community with my environmental lens.”

On the music side of Episode 7, Hellman first shares the song, “In the Hospital Room” (from Ismay’s 2020 album, Songs of Sonoma Mountain). It’s a moving tune about poet and permaculture guru, Patrick Houck, who put together all of the magnificent gardens on their family’s ranch. Explains Hellman:

He influenced me in terms of trying to pursue a life here, and he was very supportive of my music as well.” A few years back, he had a stroke on the ranch and passed away shortly later, doing the work that he loved – the song is a tribute to him, “about the nature of consciousness and whether somebody is still present in their body when you know that their mind has gone elsewhere.”

The interview then explores the origins of the track, “A Song from a River” (from the 2018 EP, Songs from a River) – a tale of a horseback journey along the Klamath River. Hellman reminisces that:

when I was in school…I got interested in environmentalism and ranching, but I also got interested in traditional ecological knowledge and just really the intersection of people and nature in ways that ran counter to the traditional conservation ideas of my culture – at least that kind of said ‘people and nature need to be separated’. I was just fascinated by stories that said the opposite…
Up on the Klamath River, there’s a lot of tremendous work with traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous land management and fire as a positive force. And so I was really drawn to that area because of those stories. And subsequently learned a lot from the people there through all of their work with land management…
I wanted to go up there because I was just looking for my life’s purpose like any person does. Especially at the age I was – I was in my early 20’s. And I had left college – I didn’t graduate – and I was trying to figure out what I was good for you know, like music, riding horses, traveling, what was I there for? And so I decided to do that trip along the Klamath River.”

What did Hellman learn during that journey? What exciting developments are on the verge of restoring the Klamath River’s salmon runs, and how is the Karuk Tribe taking a leadership role in restoring the region’s natural fire cycles (including via a climate change adaptation plan that holds the potential to help land managers across the Pacific states reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires)? How is Hellman’s family monitoring progress as they conduct watershed restoration projects that benefit their ranch's soil health, water quality, biodiversity AND livestock production?

To hear the rest of the interview, including Ismay’s soulful cover of “Pretty Bird” by Hazel Dickens and their captivating original, “A Song in Praise of Sonoma Mountain”, click here to listen to Episode 7 of The Nature of Music podcast. You can also listen on apps ranging from Apple Podcasts to Google Podcasts and Spotify.

Stay tuned for the next monthly episode, coming in March, 2021. As we secure more funding for this program, our goal is to increase episode frequency to bi-weekly and eventually to weekly.

Click here to donate to The Nature of Music’s 2021 GoFundMe Charity campaign!

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With Gratitude,

Jonathan Gelbard, Ph.D.

Conservation Scientist & Host, The Nature of Music podcast

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The music industry sustainability leader shares the story behind REVERB (including Bonnie Raitt’s role in its origins), talks about REVERB’s work reducing the climate and environmental impacts of concert tours, and tells a moving tale of two trips to Latin America that inspired participants (including members of Guster, Dave Matthews Band, Maroon 5, KT Tunstall and others) to combat the devastating impacts of illegal logging.

Please click here to make a concert ticket-level donation that supports REVERB & The Nature of Music’s work providing you with something positive to enjoy during these crazy times.

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Conservation Value Institute today released Episode 6 of The Nature of Music Podcast, a conversation with Guster guitarist and REVERB co-founder, Adam Gardner.

I first met Gardner in 2009, when he was a speaker at the ROTHBURY Festival’s “Think Tank”, which I had the honor of producing and directing. It has been a pleasure to follow REVERB’s growing track record of success stories greening concert tours and empowering fans to take environmental and social justice actions. Inspired by Peter Shapiro’s praise of REVERB’s work in Episode 5, I reached out to Gardner for a long-overdue catch up. My goal was to share with YOU – our amazing listeners – more about the work that Shapiro spoke so highly of.

In a conversation that could have lasted for hours – ideally over a campfire and beer – we immediately dove into current events surrounding the historic wildfires that have charred millions of acres of forest, shrubland, grassland and human communities across the American West over the past month. With a Mediterranean climate characterized by cool wet winters and warm dry summers, the west coast historically experienced frequent low-intensity fires. In fact, tribes up and down the Pacific Coast used cycles of controlled burns to manage the natural resources that sustained their communities. As UC Berkeley historians, Kent Lightfoot and Otis Parrish (2009), write in their fascinating account of California Indians and Their Environment, California’s Coastal Miwok tribe utilized fire as a tool to favor plants they used as food and fiber:

Native people implemented prescribed burns that augmented the diversity of landscapes by helping to create a patchwork of heterogeneous habitats containing plants at different stages of succession. Fires fostered the growth of plants used for food and in the creation of perishable material culture. Managed burns also produced new forage that attracted game birds and mammals. The proliferation of economic plant and animal resources in discrete patches across local territories allowed Indian communities to implement harvesting strategies that involved the bulk collection of food, cordage, basketry material, and other kinds of raw materials. Gathering goods en mass and then stockpiling them at winter villages not only sustained people during the lean times of the year, but was instrumental in supporting the profusion of small-scale polities (villages) that dotted the landscape of Northern California.”

As a result of (1) colonists oppressing tribes and preventing them from continuing their traditional burning practices, and (2) fire suppression that largely continues to this day (though prescribed burning is slowly on the rise), massive amounts of dry fuels have built up. Forests have also become unnaturally crowded with smaller trees, increasing the risk of catastrophic fire. At the same time, the climate crisis is making the region hotter and drier – shortening the wet season, prolonging the summer drought, and increasing infestations of tree-killing insects like bark beetles. The resulting mega-fires, which have charred millions of acres this record-setting year alone, inspired Gardner and I to dive into REVERB’s work reducing the concert industry’s climate-disrupting pollution.

REVERB’s unCHANGEit campaign, for example, is offsetting the emissions of fan travel to concerts and of touring bands, themselves, by investing in projects that reduce heat trapping pollution. Gardner conveyed how Dave Matthews Band invested the funds they raised via their unCHANGEit campaign into converting low-income housing in their hometown (Charlottesville, VA) to solar electricity.

Next, the conversation explored REVERB’s origin story, which Gardner traced to the passions of his wife, Co-Director, Lauren Sullivan, a long-time environmental activist (including a stint with Rainforest Action Network). He shared the story of how the pair was impressed by Bonnie Raitt’s environmental work, which inspired the idea to take her eco-activist efforts out into the music industry more broadly – to a diverse array of bands and fans. Their goals resonated with Raitt’s manager, Kathy Kane, who supported and mentored their work through Raitt’s Aria Foundation.

“We enjoyed their mentorship so deeply,” said Gardner, “that we stayed there until it got too big, where I think Kathy said, ‘you know, I do have an artist to manage here, this is getting to be too much’, so we had to fly the nest, and we did. But really, I greatly credit Bonnie and her manager, Kathy – I’ve always considered Bonnie Raitt kind of the godmother…of the modern environmental movement within music, where she used the tour as a living breathing example of how we can all take actions to limit our impact negatively on the environment and increase our impact positively on the movement.”

Another Episode 6 highlight covered REVERB’s food sustainability work, including its Quarantine Kitchen video series, which features interviews with guests ranging from members of Guster, the Bare Naked ladies, and Dave Matthews Band to Billie Eilish’s mother, Maggie Baird. I noted that the definition of “sustainable” recipes in the show usually focuses on the type of food – such as vegan and vegetarian – rather than how it was produced (whether it was produced on credibly sustainable or regenerative farms characterized by low or even positive environmental and climate impacts). This prompted us to ponder how REVERB might expand the scope of its farm programs from supporting local food that reduces the transport emissions of production (and promotes community supported agriculture/CSAs) to organic and regenerative food that curtails the climate and environmental impacts of agriculture, generating valuable benefits for ecosystems, public health, and farm businesses alike. As Project Drawdown describes the benefits of regenerative practices like cover crops, no-till and diversifying crop rotations:

“Together, these practices increase carbon-rich soil organic matter. The result: vital microbes proliferate, roots go deeper, nutrient uptake improves, water retention increases, plants are more pest resistant, and soil fertility compounds. Farms are seeing soil carbon levels rise from a baseline of 1 to 2 percent up to 5 to 8 percent over ten or more years, which can add up to 25 to 60 tons of carbon per acre.
It is estimated that at least 50 percent of the carbon in the earth’s soils has been released into the atmosphere over the past centuries. Bringing that carbon back home through regenerative agriculture is one of the greatest opportunities to address human and climate health, along with the financial well-being of farmers.”

“Yeah, for sure,” Gardner replied about the prospect of REVERB stepping up its efforts to support organic and regenerative agriculture, “and let’s throw in BiPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) and female-led farms as well. That’s where we want to see that going.”

After taking a break for a song (Guster’s stellar cover of “Nothing But Flowers” by The Talking Heads), the conversation turned to REVERB’s “No More Blood Wood” campaign, which is harnessing the power of music to end illegal logging. This work is important because nearly half of all rainforest destruction is a result of illegal logging, when trees are essentially stolen from national parks and other protected areas (usually by corrupt cabals controlled by organized crime). As part of this campaign, Maroon 5 joined Guster and the Environmental Investigation Agency on a trip to the rainforests of Guatemala. On a second trip, members of Dave Matthews Band, Maroon 5, Guster, KT Tunstall, and Kanuka Y El Tigre traveled to the Madre de Dios Region of Peru to live with and learn from indigenous community leaders about their life and death struggles with illegal logging. I asked Gardner to share stories from these trips — including what he learned and what listeners can do to be a part of the solution to illegal logging.

To hear Gardner’s impassioned response – including how illegal logging reminds him of “blood diamonds” and how he testified before Congress to support the U.S. Lacy Act, which combats illegal logging – click here to listen to Episode 6 of The Nature of Music podcast. You can also listen on podcast apps such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

If you enjoy this episode, please consider joining with other listeners and making a concert ticket-level donation to support REVERB and Conservation Value Institute’s work producing Episode 6 of the The Nature of Music podcast. Our new non-profit program wouldn’t exist without the generous support of listeners like you.

With Gratitude,

Jonathan Gelbard

Conservation Scientist & Host, The Nature of Music Podcast

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The renowned concert and festival promoter – a passionate supporter of sustainability and environmental activism – shares the backstory about how he became interested in environmental causes, talks about how he’s greened his venues, and reveals some of the musicians whose environmental actions inspire him.

Please here to make a concert ticket-level donation that supports The Nature of Music’s work providing listeners like you with something positive to enjoy during these crazy times.

Conservation Value Institute today released Episode 5 of The Nature of Music Podcast, a conversation with renowned concert and festival promoter, Peter Shapiro.

Between 2007 and 2009, I worked with Shapiro as San Francisco Sustainability Producer and then National Sustainability Producer of Green Apple Festival, which was America’s largest Earth Day event at the time. In partnership with Earth Day Network and the Discovery Channel’s Planet Green, we produced major outdoor concerts that included sustainable product marketplaces, clean energy and transport exhibits, speeches by environmental leaders, and volunteer actions that showcased the valuable benefits of climate crisis and “green economy” solutions. Shapiro was a ton of fun to work with – sometimes calling me late at night with ideas of how to make the events more educational and inspiring for fans. He’s a remarkable businessman with a huge heart – and yes he does strike me as a modern day Bill Graham.

During our conversation, we first explored the origins of Peter’s environmental passions, which he traced back to his days owning the legendary New York City live music club, Wetlands Preserve. “Wetlands”, as fans called it, was a music venue AND a center of environmental activism famous for its weekly political gatherings. Known as Eco-Saloon sessions, participants discussed issues ranging from pollution and wildlife conservation to rainforest destruction.

“I didn’t have an early vision, to be honest,” Shapiro said. “I ended up taking over Wetlands after I graduated college…it was started in 1989 by (original owner) Larry Bloch, God Bless him, he’s upstairs, he had the vision.”

“Through a random series of acts”, Shapiro continued later in the story, “I met Larry Bloch when he was after like 6-7 years of creating this home for activists – he did it – and I met him at a time when he wanted to pass it on in like early ’96 end of ’95. I was a film kid, I had made these films on the Grateful Dead, on the road, on tour, so I saw how important that scene was, and Wetlands was the home of that scene in New York...we met and he basically gave me Wetlands – he made it possible, I paid him over time – and in exchange, I committed to continue the activism center and the sustainability efforts they were pushing…so I got turned on by him to combining activism and music in the venue. It wasn’t like it was in my DNA. But what was in my DNA was like, ‘this is important to have a place like this and I want to help continue it’, I told him. And he gave me the keys.”

Speaking about his favorite environmentally oriented songs and lyrics, Shapiro mentioned Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (noting how he uses the song during a series of children’s’ concerts that he’s been producing), and Jack Johnson’s, “The Three R’s”.

In response to a question from a surprising fan, the energetic promoter told the 2015 story of how he experienced the magical rainbow that mesmerized fans at the Grateful Dead's 50th Anniversary shows in Santa Clara, California. To this day, says Shapiro, he is still stopped by fans who want to know if the rainbow was real.

A second fan asked for Shapiro’s advice on how to influence venues that aren’t yet sustainability-focused to adopt greener practices. The Brooklyn Bowl owner talked about how much easier it is to green a venue today than it was during his Wetlands days – due to advances in both access to and quality of green products. “Now today…the products do exist, and you can find them online. If you’re a venue owner, and you want to run a (green) venue, you can find…from the toilet paper…to the cleaning material for the bathroom – the spray…to the rubber on your stage – we got recycled truck tires for our stage…and I can keep going. Things ARE available. And you can just find it yourself. If you’re willing to do the research, if you’re willing to put the time in…if you’re willing to…make the commitment, make the investment, you know, you can find it, you can do it…By the way, just in the ‘90’s at Wetlands, we wanted to do it, we couldn’t find it. The internet wasn’t there - the ability to find it - much harder. So that’s one positive, I guess, that’s evolved over the last 25 years.”

Shapiro cited use of energy efficient LED lighting as being among the practices that provide the greatest business benefits. “At first it was LED is great, but it’s just like fluorescent bright, you know what I mean? That was at first. But now they’ve got these LED fixtures that can also provide the aesthetic. You used to have to sacrifice aesthetic for the functionality (energy efficiency), but not today…The LED lights can be created with a golden hue…which you just couldn’t do a decade or 15 years ago.”

Another question by sustainability consultant, Beverly Modell, asked Shapiro to share examples of musicians whose environmental actions have inspired him. He pointed to the tour-greening, education and advocacy work of Jack Johnson, as well as the band Guster, whose guitarist, Adam Gardner, founded the music industry sustainability organization, Reverb.

A particularly interesting exchange explored how the lessons society is learning from the COVID19 Pandemic might apply to efforts to solve the climate crisis. I noted that climate scientists are talking about the similarities between COVID-denial and climate-denial (and emphasized how the solutions to BOTH crises offer society valuable economic, health and other benefits). Shapiro replied by pointing out that now it is the people who at first called COVID “fake news” who are dying – and how sometimes that’s sadly what it takes to inspire the types of broad societal changes needed to solve both crises.

Click here to listen to Episode 5 of The Nature of Music, which is also available on podcast apps ranging from Apple Podcasts to Spotify.

And please consider making a concert ticket-level donation to The Nature of Music podcast, which wouldn’t exist without the generous support of listeners like you.

With Gratitude,

Jonathan Gelbard

Conservation Scientist & Host of The Nature of Music

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