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.
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Jonathan Gelbard, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist & Host, The Nature of Music podcast