Rutgers, Refuge, Sustain: Partners in Music and Nature Preservation

Cellist Ben Sollee Immerses in ‘Songscape’ for Mullica River-Great Bay Estuary
May 02, 2018
Photo by: Rutger Hagan

If wilderness were a song, what might it sound like?

That’s a question for the Kentucky-based indie mixed-genre cellist extraordinaire Ben Sollee, known in certain circles for his Tiny Desk Concert on NPR Music, his TEDx Talks and, now, for his creative stake in the welfare of the Mullica River-Great Bay Estuary, located in the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. He spent a few intensive days of study in the area last week for the purpose of channeling what he heard and felt into a new original song to raise awareness and money for the refuge.

The 34-year-old singer-songwriter-composer is acclaimed for his blending of R&B roots, classical training and bluegrass and folk influences – as well as for his advocacy for meaningful causes, e.g. his totally self-supported Ditch the Van tours.

He brought his music and his wife and kids to Little Egg Harbor last week, in a collaboration orchestrated by Harrison Goodale, co-founder of the Connecticut-based nonprofit organization Sustain, which creates music and nature partnerships to bring greater exposure to both; to promote sustainable practices within the music industry; and to foster appreciation for protected public lands through inspired songwriting, via an ongoing project called Songscape.

Goodale first met Roland Hagan, a lab researcher and coordinator of operations at Rutgers University Marine Field Station, in 2012 at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York. Later that year, Hagan invited him and his band to perform at Hagan’s Folk Across the Street barn concert in West Creek. “They drove 17 hours from Nashville, blew an alternator in the van, showed up an hour late and performed for about five hours before crashing in my basement,” Hagan recalled. Goodale himself lives in Fort Collins, Colo., and tours with the western Massachusetts-based folk-rock band Parsonsfield, which will perform again at Folk Across the Street this September.

Goodale’s girlfriend, and Sustain co-founder, Betsey Mortensen, has a conservation background. They formed Sustain in 2015 and have since put together five Songscape trips – in Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Connecticut’s Great Mountain Forest, in Wyoming’s Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, at Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, in Forsythe. A fifth is planned for Cameron Pass in Fort Collins this summer. The trips are one part writing retreat for the artist, one part public campaign that uses a band’s social and cultural capital for outreach.

At the same time, Goodale had become a fan of Sollee’s music, and eventually it all came together. Bringing Sollee to the Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge just “kinda made sense,” Goodale said.

“When you listen to mainstream music, it’s hard to hear a ‘place,’” Sollee explained. So many genres have come together to form today’s popular music that the origins have been diluted out. At this point in his career he is trying to tap into the sounds of a particular place and honor them in song.

On a misty Tuesday night, the field station was crammed full of music and nature enthusiasts eager to share food, conversation and song. Sollee and his family would spend three nights in the dorm, and days out in the field, gathering audio and video. Proceeds from the resultant song will benefit the Friends of Forsythe organization.

“We’re always trying to reach people in a different way,” Refuge Manager Virginia Rettig explained.

Sollee grew up in the outdoors, on his grandfather’s farm, listening to nature. In his household full of R&B musicians, he learned about Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and Phoebe Snow. He got introduced to the cello the way many kids in public school do, “at the instrument petting zoo.” Later he drew inspiration from artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to Ani Difranco, Nina Simone to Paul Simon, Pete Seeger and his Clearwater movement. He admired the model of songwriter-as-activist and followed suit.

In 2008 he released his first album, Learning to Bend, and in 2009 he did his first Ditch the Van tour. His album Dear Companion, released in 2010, brought awareness to the destruction caused by mountaintop removal strip-mining practices in Appalachia.

As his goal is to reach the most people, he looks for personal ways to connect with people through song, he said. In another capacity he composes scores for television and film. He recently scored a film called “Beauty Mark,” that is due out soon and has shown well on the festival circuit. The score work balances out his live career, he said.

Throughout his music are the memories and echoes of sounds he has collected and reinterpreted – here a set of parabolic discs, there his infant daughter’s squeal.

Part of his creative process during his visit would require hearing from the people who gave the experience its flavor.

“Everyone here has contributed to this in some way,” Hagan told the crowd gathered in the conference room of the field station.

Seated in a corner of the records archive, Sollee invited stories from the audience and told a few of his own. One was that his traveling cello’s name is Kay. They met in 2005 on eBay when he was looking for a “stunt cello” to accompany him on tour. She’s made of plywood, drives like a Porsche and rides like a truck, he said. Together they have hiked the Great Wall of China and the Pacific Crest Trail, and covered 5,000 miles on a bicycle.

Incubating new music about pristine natural places has an even broader impact when it inspires people to travel to see more of the world.

People in Montana don’t know about Forsythe, Goodale pointed out. The message: “Come here, visit it, see it, enjoy it. If you don’t know about these places and come visit them, they’ll disappear.” Moreover, Sustain’s mission has taken on a new urgency, Goodale explained, now that public lands have come under attack from the current president’s administration. As a wildlife refuge, Forsythe isn’t as visible as, say, a national park. It’s more fragile and needs more protection.

“Forsythe in Art” is an initiative that began last fall with an exhibit by plein air painter Alice Cook, using art to convey the refuge’s messages. As a music lover, Rettig said she saw in Sustain an invaluable opportunity and a unique way to share nature and engage with the public.

Ben Sollee Immerses in ‘Songscape’ for Mullica River
Cellist Ben Sollee Immerses in ‘Songscape’ for Mullica River-Great Bay Estuary (Video by: Victoria Ford)
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