Not Easy Playing Green

Not Easy Playing Green

Traditional musicians on sustainability.
Episode Trailer

What’s up with one fiddle player, passing down old tunes to another fiddler… or one podcaster, talking about centuries-old Irish lore? How do these acts pollinate and feed a dedicated, deeply connected community (in-person, and online)? Are they sustainable and renewable?

Tap in to conversations on conservation with Liz Knowles about environmental advocacy; Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna about their musical show that pays tribute (and donates profits) to coral reef ecosystems; and beekeeper Ottavio Forte, whose bees will appear on a forthcoming album of bee-themed music. 


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Aubrey Atwater, Ed Schilling, John Bunch, Lynn Hayes, Finn Agenbroad, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Randy Krajniak, Jon Duvick, and Suezen Brown.

Episode 44 – Not Easy Playing Green: traditional musicians on sustainability
This Irish Music Stories episode aired  August 11, 2020

– Transcript edited by John Ploch –

Speakers, in order of appearance

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Liz Knowles: Kentucky-born Irish fiddler who has performed with dance shows and many acclaimed ensembles
>> Dana Lyn: Brooklyn-based musician (violinist/fiddler, violist, pianist, bass player) who performs in a wide range of genres
>> Kyle Sanna: Guitarist, composer, and producer focusing on traditional Irish music, jazz, and improvised music
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Ottavio Forte: retired engineer and active beekeeper in Belmont, Massachusetts
>> Brian O’Donovan: Cork native who works in public broadcasting and music production. 


>> Shannon:  I’m Shannon Heaton, and this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it. 

[ Music: “Trundle’s, Paddy Fahey’s,” from Making Time
Artist: Liz Knowles ]

Like how one fiddle player, passing down old tunes to another fiddler—or how one podcaster, talking about centuries-old Irish lore—how these acts are sustainable and renewable and symbiotic. They pollinate and they feed a small, deeply-connected community, whether online or in person.

>> Liz Knowles: You know, I think of traditional music as being the ultimate sustainable because it lives in the hands of the people that it lives in, and it gets passed on from the hands of the people that it’s been living in. And so, it is the embodiment of that human connection.

>> Shannon: That’s fiddle player Liz Knowles. Before Covid-19 ground most music touring to a dead halt, she and fellow fiddler Laura Risk launched STAC—the Sustainable Touring Arts Coalition. One of its central aims was to increase awareness of carbon footprint within the touring arts industry.

This really resonated with me. I’ve travelled throughout North America, Europe and Asia to share my music. Good intentions, right?  Share this beautiful Irish traditional music (and the STORIES behind it) with folks in a variety of places. But I’ve had to carry myself and my family through lots of airplanes and hotels to do it.

[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

With Covid canceling most festivals and concert series for an unforeseeable amount of time, STAC has ironically succeeded in its mission to reduce carbon footprint with many of us adapting to work and school online; and with all the canceled trips, ceremonies, and in-person events and projects. Major interstates were empty—for weeks. Planes were grounded.

And the trees, and birds, and animals, and bees, and marine creatures all got a break. 

[ Music: “Strawberry Blossom / Mulhaire’s,” from The Coral Suite EP
Artists: Dana Lyn & Kyle Sanna ]

But activity is picking back up. Because Covid numbers are down in some places. But mostly because business is suffering. And people are impatient. 

So, the topic of sustainable travel is not moot. Not now. And not in a year, or in four years from now, or whenever we get back out there.

In this episode, I’ll revisit my earlier conversation with Liz Knowles about her environmental advocacy. I’ll talk to Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna about their musical show that pays tribute (and donates profits) to coral reef ecosystems. I’ll talk to beekeeper Ottavio Forte, whose honeybees I recorded for a forthcoming album of bee-themed music. And I’ll go way back in time to the sixth century to offer some historical perspective on activism.

* * * * * *

On February 11th this year, New Hampshire held a Democratic presidential primary. Joe Biden got 8% of the vote, far behind Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobouchar.

On that same day, Chinese authorities began imposing lockdowns to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Parasite took best picture at the Oscars.

And presidential adviser Roger Stone was found guilty on seven charges of lying to Congress and obstructing justice, on behalf of his former boss.

1500 years earlier, on February 11th, a young woman named Gobnait fled her home in County Clare and headed to Galway, to the Aran Islands. There, legend has it, an angel appeared to her and told her to continue her journey, to keep moving until she found nine white deer grazing.

She travelled all along the west coast of Ireland. On the way, she founded churches in Waterford and Kerry.

And when she came to County Cork, just outside the village of Baile Bhuirne she came upon nine deer in the woods.

So, there she settled. She worked with her brother Abbán to build a convent. And there she served as abbess, healer, and beekeeper.

Gobnait (which is the Irish form of Deborah) is credited with saving the people of Ballyvourney from the Bubonic plague. She is remembered for her general care of the sick. And to this day, in the church yard at Ballyvourney, there are discarded crutches from people who believed they were cured by Gobnait answering their prayers. 

The best part of the St. Gobnait lore are the stories of the bees. How she cared for them—and how they protected her.

Once she drove off a bandit by sending a swarm of bees after him. 

Then she made him return all the cattle that he’d stolen.

Another time she let her bees loose from their hives, and they attacked invaders. Piles of men fled the convent grounds. All because of Gobnait’s bees.

And there’s the story of how her beehive turned into a bronze helmet and the bees themselves turned into soldiers.

Fantastical?  Maybe. But that bronze helmet was handed down through many generations as an amulet for protection, good luck, and good health. 

(I wouldn’t mind a turn with it right about now…)

Or maybe Gobnait’s bell could show up and do some good?  When this local chief set out to build a fort near Gobnait’s convent, her beehive turned into a bell. She threw the bell at the chief’s building, knocked it down and then the chief tried to rebuild the next day. Again, Gobnait smashed it with her bee bell. 

Eventually the chief gave up.

Gobnait cared for the bees. And they protected her. Her Apian Army.

[ Music: “Apian Army,” from Perfect Maze
Artist: Shannon Heaton and bees/strings ]

I recorded this small infantry of modern bees, in the backyard of Belmont, Massachusetts beekeeper Ottavio Forte. You’ll meet him, and his bees a later on in the episode.

Just a few months before I met Ottavio’s bees, I heard Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna perform their stunning “Coral Suite”. 

[ Music: “D Chimes,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

The show celebrates the extraordinary biodiversity of coral reefs and that calls attention to the urgent need for their protection.

[ Music: “D Big Build,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

 We spoke before Covid 19. Since then, marine life HAS gotten a bit of a respite: many marine creatures have had a small chance to recover from all the over-fishing and cruise shipping.

And less travel has meant fewer planet-warming gases, so climate change and ocean acidification has slowed slightly.

But of course, once travel picks back up and more people start driving in to work, we could climb back to pre-pandemic pollution.

Also, during global lockdown, important conservation research has been on hold. Coral-reef propagation and underwater clean-ups have been paused and more people are fishing illegally and ignoring quotas (because there’s currently decreased law enforcement at sea.)

Advocacy and education is still relevant. And education takes lots of forms. Like Dana and Kyle’s show that I saw last year in Somerville, Massachusetts, with Dana on fiddle and Kyle on guitar, in the Backroom of the Burren Pub, surrounded by an underwater landscape.

>> Dana: There are, um, projections behind us, we also have these light boxes that we set up around us. They’re part of our set and, um, they have corals drawn onto them. The concept is that we’re sitting in a reef with these light boxes. And all the projections are animal-based, so it’s like they’re swimming around us. I think that, um, people come with us in that particular journey.

>> Kyle: I like it that there is something else that people can focus on. They can look, they can, they can watch us and be engaged in that, if they want. Um, and the visuals are, are very atmospheric. They’re not like you’re watching uh, uh, a movie where you need to really pay attention to, to what’s happening—to understand things.

So, you can just get, um, lost in this environment that we’ve imposed on the space. You know, when you see when audiences enter the room that they’re looking around and being like, okay, this is not a regular Irish concert. This, they’ve transformed this room already and we have all of these light boxes set up. And having these visual elements, I think abstracts it a little bit more and people can really get lost in like the, the emotion of, of these tunes and, and, ah, and the beauty and they can stand for much more than, than what people would associate them with.

[ Music: “Silver Slipper / Aqualude,” from The Coral Suite EP
Artists: Dana Lyn & Kyle Sanna ]

>> Shannon: And do you find that you also engage with these images as you perform? 

>> Dana: Well, it’s, it’s a little hard to answer that I think, because we’ve spent so much time with them. I mean, I still love seeing Big Whale come across the screen. It still makes me laugh. So I, I don’t feel like I’m engaging so much, it’s just that they’re just there.

>> Kyle: I think it helps in the improvisations. I feel like in those moments when we’re, like, we know that that’s happening, and people and the audience can be engaged with it and we can too. And, to me it gives them extra freedom in those, in those open sections.

>> Dana: Yeah, yeah, definitely. It feels very directed—and the storytelling is very clear. You know, through the, my years of being a musician and playing different kinds of music and being on stage for different reasons, I have asked myself always like, what am I doing here? And what is my intention and why am I here and not somebody else?  It’s like no one else is going to tell it this way. Only us. Like, no one, no one’s gonna, you know, take this particular tact. So.

>> Shannon: In addition to the Coral Suite, Dana and Kyle also have a show called “The Great Arc”, about disappearing animal species. 

[ Music: “Wisteria,” from Via Portland
Artist/Composer: O’Jizo ]

>> Shannon: And, why tell the story of biodiversity and how that is dwindling?

>> Dana: Because it matters to everybody.

>> Kyle: Yeah. And it matters to us. And we got on this track because we had been already, um, very much concerned about environmental issues. We were both reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction”, which was all about, uh, extinction, and how we’re now in a mass extinction, moment. There have been five of these—one or two of them have, have nearly extinguished life altogether. But, that’s where we came up with that concept of, “Oh, maybe we can design a part, sets of tunes around this concept of extinction.”  You know, I think about these specific animals; whether endangered or, or extinct and then also the general concept of extinction and use those to create art form for this.

>> Shannon: So, what’s it like to engage in this conversation through music?

>> Kyle: I mean all, it’s kind of the only way, not the only way but the best way that we can engage with these topics. Um, ‘cause this is what we do and this is what we’re good at. I mean, I, when I was in my twenties, I did a bunch of, uh, activism work and some of the things that I was doing, I just wasn’t very good at honestly. So yeah, the heart was there, but the skills weren’t aligned with that. 

This feels like a good match. This is a project that is ours, you know, and we’re playing traditional music, but, but we’ve, uh, we’ve made it ours. And the more that it’s narrowed into: we play Irish music with a visual component around these stories of environmental fragility. The more that that feels like, okay, this is, this is good, this is how we can make this project work.

[ Music: “The Humours Of Trim (AKA Rolling Wave),” from Traditional Music On Fiddle, Banjo & Harp
Artist: Micheal O’Ruanaigh ]

>> Dana: I feel like it’s very natural. I never really did a lot of activism. I did my share of marches. I was almost a science major in college. 

>> Kyle: Yeah, me too.

>> Dana: Yeah. I also feel like this is where my contribution to the, the cultural map or the human map is, as a musician and a thinker. It doesn’t feel like it’s a struggle because, I mean, I’ll often sit around and talk about animals anyway.

>> Shannon: So how much of this is a musical project and how much of it is a mission? 

>> Kyle: It’s about the music, I mean this is a musical project that we’ve, just developed into something that encompasses larger themes in the music, but essentially, it’s about the music.

>> Shannon: In your “Coral Reef Suite”, do you have actual ocean-like sounds that you’re trying to get in there? 

>> Dana: There’s, there’s things that are inspired by, basically, you know, aside from the nuts and bolts of the tune, a lot of it’s inspired by that. The way we play things and, you know, we do use some electronic effects. That are also used to paint that picture. 

>> Kyle: But the sound sources are all just acoustic guitar and acoustic violin. And I, I think a lot of those things…you know, it’s up to the listener. Like some of them are, are kind of oblique; and yeah, it’s not like we’re trying to, um, sound paint waves or something like that.

>> Dana: Yeah

>> Kyle: Not trying to be too literal.

>> Dana: You’ll see.

>> Shannon:  I did—and you can see some of the show too. Dana Lyn and Kyle Sana have clips on their site and they also have merch for sale to benefit advocacy groups.

>> Shannon: So, playing music with a mission…can it change the world, can it change attitudes, can it help? 

>> Dana: Yeah. Why could… why not?  If, if you’re walking around, like, you’re thinking the world is fine, then “No.”  But like, I think if people are open to it, you know, it’s just like watching a film and being moved—or a play or anything. There are the pieces of art that make you think. They never answer the question, but it’s part of what has to happen. You know…

Like, the most concrete thing we can do probably is give money to the NRDC 

>> Kyle and Dana: Natural Resources Defense Council. 

>> Dana: It’s a concrete thing.

>> Shannon: I suppose building community is a concrete thing. 

>> Dana: Yeah. 

>> Shannon: And then sharing ideas with that community of things that you think can really make a difference.

>> Dana: Like there’s certain things that I would like to avoid saying. Even though I think those things in my heart of hearts, I do want to like, say that every time I get on stage.

Shannon: What do you want to say? 

>> Dana: It’s better for the environment if you just stop eating meat. 

>> Shannon: What else? 


>> Shannon: Don’t buy so much crap and then end up throwing it out.

>> Dana: That’s going to be just in a landfill. Of course, you know, that doesn’t apply to our CD! Haha, that’s a joke … and also just be nicer to, be nice to your neighbor and to just think considerately. Just live your life with some more consideration. 

>> Shannon:  I’ve been graced with a lot of consideration. And I’ve met wonderful people on my travels around the world. And lots of good people have offered me kindness. Hospitality. And water — in plastic bottles.

* * * * * *

Fiddle players Liz Knowles and Laura Risk have also traveled tons. And they decided to examine some of the waste surrounding their travels with the formation of the Sustainable Touring Arts Coalition—back when we were all still touring.

[ Music: “Sir Ulick Burke,” from Making Time
Artist: Liz Knowles ]

Here’s Liz, speaking to me last year in beautiful Bar Harbor, Maine.

>> Liz: Laura Rick is a great, um, Scottish fiddle player, uh, lives in Montreal—and I’ve known Laura for oh, God, more than two decades. And, uh, we were teaching at Swannanoa Gathering, which is in Asheville, North Carolina—outside of Asheville. One of the, uh, dances that I did with Laura, we were also joined by another fiddle player, also named Laura, she does a lot of work in terms of sustainability; I think she has a business called “Cultivating Resilience.”  And so what her business is, is to help communities and businesses find sustainable practices; and ah, I’m assuming she helps them put them into practice, suggest things, that kind of thing.

>> Shannon:  So, Liz and Laura start talking to other Laura about what THEY could do to help make music touring more sustainable.

>> Liz: We thought, here we are, we’re musicians. You know, if you want to talk about carbon footprint, we’re not doing so great. We travel a lot. We fly a lot, we eat out a lot. We stay in hotels a lot. We consume a lot of packaged foods on the road. So all of these things kind of add up to … if you’re a, if you’re a conscientious person, and you want to do something about it, what do you do?

So, Laura and I got to chatting and just said, “Why don’t we start something that starts that conversation?” In and among musicians, but also within the entire industry. So that means, you know, the service industry of hotels, transportation, um, to agents, promoters, venue owners, audiences. And so that’s where it started. 

[ Music: “Maidin Fhomhair,” from Live At Mona’s
Artist: Eamon O’Leary and Dana Lyn ]

>> Shannon: STAC started by addressing the big three: Travel, Plastic, and Food.

>> Liz: Uh, just the carbon footprint of flying, um, driving, ah, the non-recyclable and non-reusable plastic. We just want to basically say stop using it. Um, and the third thing is food. 

>> Shannon: Here at the Acadia Trad Music Week, I get to see some of your advocacy put into practice. 

>> Liz: I know, I was very excited when, ah, Jen (one of the directors of this), ah, had put it in the information for all the faculty and staff that they were trying to abide by STAC standards. And that is what Acadia is doing. They do not provide any plastic water bottles. Backstage, they’ve been giving us, uh, those beautiful silver, um, containers with ice water in it and they’re refilling them and washing them. And so, I haven’t seen a single water bottle this week, and I think much like the seatbelt thing, I think once people get used to doing it, it feels natural. 

[ Music: “Meaning of Life,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: On your blog, you did a bit of a audit of yourself, for one tour, 

>> Liz: I found it funny and I, you know, I, when I decided to do it on that trip, because it was very short and I knew that I could do it and I thought, you know, let me just see how this goes. And see what the challenges are. And just also see what my habits are. And it was really interesting the just, kind of conundrums, and um, and just stupid things that I did. I mean, just dumb things that I did and I, it just had to laugh at myself. But it also, um, some of it also brought up the challenges, of like, of actually trying to be that conscious person and refuse things when it’s given, you know. When you’re in a hotel for multiple days—even when you put the sign on the door to say don’t wash my towels, sometimes they come in and wash it anyway and they replace. So even with the best intentions, sometimes these systems don’t work. And I think, um, that’s one of the challenges. I think as a traveling musician, to not only make the choice to do something like carry a water bottle, but then you’ve got to remember to bring it with you. Then you’ve got to remember to fill it. Then you’ve got to remember to pack it. It’s hard, it’s challenging, it’s not an easy thing, it’s a hab…, you have to develop the habit, but also it comes with some added thinking, that is a little extra. It’s extra for us on the road. And if you’re a musician, and you know what I’m talking about, it’s like, you have a lot to think about. So, it’s, it is an added thing. Um, but I think we can make change. 

>> Shannon: Yeah, you gotta be organized. 

>> Liz: You do have to be organized.

[ Music: “Tuhy’s Frolics / Rakes of Cashel,” from Making Time
Artist: Liz Knowles ]

>> Shannon: So, knowing that maybe you weren’t gonna hit the mark a hundred percent, what was the goal? Zero waste? 

>> Liz:  No, really the goal for that little audit was to just see how I did. I mean, it was really kinda my first time, um, really specifically looking at every behavior. So, I just wanted to see every little thing during the day that popped up, like, eating at the airport. I was … ah, one of the things I wrote about in that audit was, here I am, I have to eat at the airport. I wanted to get, you know, ah, ah, a few things of just kind of, I’m trying to eat natural foods, right? So, I wanted to get a thing of almonds. I went to the shop to see the, you know, not only are the almonds in the airport, just stupid expensive because they’re expensive to make, but they come in a plastic container. So, if you wanted to eat that food, which is a natural food as opposed to a bag of potato chips, you’re still getting the plastic container. So, it was really trying to point out all of the little things. If you were to really go full force and say, I’m not going to engage with any plastic, I’m not going to engage with any food that’s not local. You are kind of really in trouble in an airport. Where have you been at an airport where, where it’s locally sourced food, right? It comes on a truck. It comes from somewhere and it’s usually very far away from where the airport is. So, you know, having plastic water bottles in an emergency situation for FEMA, for example, if they’re going into a hurricane—you got to bring water in and maybe it’s not possible to bring it in in aluminum containers to get to people. So, it’s not as if we’re talking about getting rid of all of it on the planet. But what we’re talking about is the mindless stuff.

>> Shannon: Right. So at a festival …

>> Liz: Yeah.

>> Shannon: …festivals could hand out bananas. They come in their own packaging.
>> Liz: Yeah, 

>> Shannon: Festivals can have a huge bulk, um, bin of almonds. 

>> Liz: Yes. 

>> Shannon: And you could have compostable bowls.

>> Liz: Yes, and some festivals are doing it and I, I spoke at the Folk Alliance in Montreal this year on a panel; and on the panel with me was a woman from Canada who runs a festival where they have a compost pile. They have a huge tent that’s the food tent where it is made, where the food is made—the food is made right there. You’re given a plate—they’ve even organized the festival, the layout of the festival so that those people who are the volunteers that are making that food, um, and washing those dishes, that tent is right by the main stage so that they get to enjoy the whole festival. So as payment for their washing dishes, um, they get to watch the big acts on the big stage and do their work there. So, it’s, she’s really done an amazing job to make everybody happy and be sustainable. Then there’s this big pit every year that they dig, all of the food that’s compostable goes in there. They close it up and next year they do another pit. So, it’s this perfectly sustainable, um, they have composting toilets, they have, you know, I mean, she’s, she’s doing it.

>> Shannon: Sounds pretty great—it’s the Hillside festival in Guelph Ontario. Hopefully it’ll be back before too long in real-life action under the inspired direction of Marie Zimmerman.

But even if all festivals were this eco conscious, getting musicians from one perfectly sustainable festival to the next might involve 1000 miles of Interstate, which is wear and tear on the planet… and on the occupants of the cars or the airplane cabins, or the bicycles.

[ Music: “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” from Dance
Artist: Lissa Schneckenburger ]

Fiddle player Lissa Schneckenburger and bass player Corey DiMario planned a short BIKE-able tour—a big loop from their home in Brattleboro VT, to Greenfield Mass., to three towns in New Hampshire and then home again. It didn’t span thousands of miles and it lasted only a week. But it was a bold and exhausting experiment on low-impact music travel. Lissa wrote extensively about the experience on Liz and Laura’s blog ( about the challenges that she, her husband and their young son faced as they biked and organized food and managed their family all day and then got up on stages at night. It’s a pretty tall order. Here’s Liz again:

>> Liz: I think it’s hard to be a musician traveling the way we do without thinking about sustainability in terms of our own physicality. I mean, let’s face it, it’s not easy to do what we do when, if you travel a lot, you are eating, you know, whatever is available. You’re having to forage, if you’re trying to eat consciously, if you’re trying to sleep consciously, if you’re trying to be health conscious at all, it’s hard to do that on the road. It’s, it’s getting a little easier, but it’s not, it’s not always easy. So, sustainability in terms of our own personal stuff is, I think, a lifelong issue. 

[ Music: “Gur Mise Tha fo mhulad,” from Making Time
Artist: Liz Knowles ]

>> Shannon: Global and personal sustainability—these are lifelong considerations. And even though we touring musicians have had a seismic shift, with all our work cancelled until—when. Sometime in 2021, 2022?  As disheartening and disastrous as that is, I don’t think that now is the time to STOP talking about responsible, viable, grateful travel. By continuing to engage in conversation and consideration, when things do come back, maybe I can respond with more grace.

>> Liz: I’m, I’m going to say this even though I feel that it sounds terribly cheesy, but I feel that as I get older, and some of this is age, I do actually believe that some of this comes from, um, STAC and from developing this with Laura and the conversations that we’ve had. I feel more and more grateful for the travel that I make. I feel more and more grateful for holding this instrument that again, is going to live beyond me, hopefully, in somebody else’s hands. I feel just utterly grateful to be playing this music, to be, uh, having a career, doing what I do, teaching, performing, and be sitting on that stage talking to people and giving of this music to people. And the sustainable aspect of it makes me even more grateful, because I realize how precious it is and I realize also how much it costs. Literally costs, but also just from a sustainable point of view, what it costs the earth to do that. Um, I feel, uh, just a lot more grateful when I’m on a stage than I think I ever have before. Because I know what it takes to have gotten there, both personally and just the physicality of actually getting to these places and doing the, doing this thing that we do.

I read a Bruce Chatwin book. It was the book he did on Aborigines, “The Songlines”. And in that book, he was describing a, um, trek where it involved bringing, um, uh, tribal people with them to help them carry all their gear. But, uh, they also had horses and they were traveling by horses, and they were traveling quite fast for the tribal people, meaning that the tribal people were used to, uh, traveling only by foot. And at one point the entire tribal population that was traveling with them sat down and said, basically, we’re not going any further. And when they were questioned as to why they didn’t go any further, the tribal people said, because we’re waiting for our souls to catch up with us.

And so, it’s a pretty amazing thing when you think about a life of traveling by plane. You’re constantly leapfrogging your soul somewhere and you’re, you know in terms of personal sustainability, but also just the world sustainability, um, these are really kind of important issues, and they’re just fascinating to me just in terms of a, of a way of thinking about how we live.

If I’m going to continue to teach this music, if I’m going to continue to bring this music to the rest of the world, wherever it is that I travel, I must get on a plane. I must eat food in somewhere else. I must take my body and take it somewhere. So, you know, um, being here at this camp and seeing all of these other wonderful musicians on the staff, that’s a necessity. So how do we, um, continue to make that a priority while at the same time being sustainable in terms of the planet?

>> Shannon: As Liz Knowles and Laura Risk posted on the STAC page, with Covid 19, the aim of reducing carbon footprint of touring musicians has temporarily been accomplished.

The collateral damage has been the livelihood and the in-personal musical communion of traditional musicians. But with some pretty successful virtual camps…. and with more online events… maybe we’ll continue some of the most fulfilling virtual options instead of resuming full-time travels.


[ Music: “Hometown Lullaby,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

For now, in this summer of 2020, most Irish musicians are relegated to ONLY sharing music online. We’re navigating ways to share these great old tunes virtually.

[ Music: “The Gypsy Queen,” from Raven
Artists: John Williams & Dean Magraw ]

And it’s tricky. In some ways, it’s not ideal. And in other…. well, in lots of ways, it’s just so great that the tunes are still here. And that we are pulling together and staying connected, nevertheless. We are not alone. I am not alone. You are not alone. And doing something as simple as enjoying Irish music together, is a powerful act of connection. Of community. No matter where you are. So, thank you for making the effort to tune into a show about Irish music and before we visit Ottavio’s honeybees, here’s my son Nigel to thank this month’s sponsors.

>> Nigel: Thank you to Aubrey Atwater, Ed Schilling, John Bunch, Lynn Hayes, Finn Agenbroad, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Randy Krajniak, Jon Duvick, and Suezen Brown.

>> Shannon: Thank you. If you can kick in, just head to Because it takes a village. Or in St. Gobnait’s case, an ARMY, to build stuff worth sharing and passing on.

* * * * * * *

200,000 individuals working together can accomplish great things. Like Ottavio Forte’s team in Belmont Massachusetts:

>> Shannon: Ottavio Forte is a very musical name!
>> Ottavio:  Yes, it is, but that’s the extent of my …
>> Shannon: That’s the extent of your music?
>> Ottavio: …of my musical knowledge!

[ Music: “Heartstrings Theme,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: So, you have four hives here?

>> Ottavio: I have four hives. Each hive, as I said, is probably around 50,000, maybe more, bees. Ah, they’re doing very well this year. I’ve collected a lot of honey—I made 192 pounds of honey. There’s still a lots of honey in there, but I’m not collecting it because the bees need like 80 pounds of honey to survive the winter. Bees do not hibernate, so they need to be, they need to eat during the winter to stay warm. It’s very pleasant, the summertime, the summer is very short—you have to keep on top of the activities in the beehive, mange it weekly—look at them to see what’s going on.

>> Ottavio: OK, let’s go do it.

>> Shannon: Let’s go do it, we’re going to see the bees.

[ Music: “The Noodle Vendor,” from Perfect Maze
Artists: bees, and strings ]

>> Shannon: Ten months ago, I got to see Ottavio on one of his weekly inspections. I went to record the bees and then I wrote a bunch of music around the sound of the bees. They were very cooperative when I went to visit them.

>> Shannon:  Should I put something on?
>> Ottavio: You wanna wear this?
>> Shannon:  Sure. Okay, I’m putting on this netting over the top of me. It looks like a vegetable bag with an attached hood. Okay, you’re wearing big gloves—I’m gonna stand not too close. Taking the top off now (sounds of bees) and slowly, “Oh my!”
>> Ottavio:  There they are. The queen can be any place she wants to. But usually, it’s someplace in the middle.
>> Shannon:  There are a lot of them!
>> Ottavio: You can hear them?


>> Shannon:  How long you been keeping these guys?
>> Otavio: About 30 years. There was a swarm, right on the corner here. And it reminded me when I was a kid when my father tried to keep bees and that’s what got me started.
>> Shannon: I mean, it’s pretty important right now, huh?
>> Ottavio: Ah yah, well that’s right, the hobby is getting more and more popular. First because there is more leisure time these days than there used to be. And, the bees are here to stay.
>> Shannon:  I hope so.
>> Ottavio:  You know, we need, we need food. We eat three meals a day. And all the food we eat comes from the farm, okay and the bees are a resource for farming. All right?  There’s no exception. 

>> Shannon:  No exception. We need bees for pollination. So they can fly around, gather nectar, and knock little grains of pollen from blossom to blossom so food can grow.

[ Music: “Aoibhinn Crónán,” from Deadly Buzz
Artists: Mick O’Brien & Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh ]

>> Shannon:  We really need bees. And not just honeybees. Many types of wild bees are even more efficient pollinators. Which is why my family doesn’t really use a lawn mower and why we let the dandelions come up—for the bees. 

>> Ottavio:  So, we need bees, we need food every day.
>> Shannon: But aren’t they in a bad way right now?
>> Ottavio: Ah yeah, they are, they are being stressed with various diseases.

>> Shannon:  There’s colony collapse disorder, when most worker bees just disappear… or there are other bacteria and fungi… or parasites, pests, and so much exposure to pesticides. These all harm bees.

>> Ottavio:  The, ah, queen bees are not as good as they used to be; and they could be dying every year. Ah, the things like herbicides and pesticides that are abundant, especially in the, in the city environment, where people put herbicides to keep the lawns perfect. And bees don’t like that.
>> Shannon:  So, do you think they’ll be okay? The bees, in the next few years?
>> Ottavio:  There was a moratorium for a couple of years. Against the, uh, farmers using pesticides. And uh, now Europe has mostly banned the use of, uh, pesticides. United States is behind, uh the trend. But eventually something will be done to protect the bees.

>> Shannon:  Well, U.S. regulations may or may not shift back to stricter environmental protections. We can vote, and in the meantime, maybe bees are faring okay during COVID-19 lockdowns. With less car exhaust and pollution, bees can smell floral scents more easily and that means they’re pollinating more. And fewer bees are being hit by cars—apparently, that wipes out a lot of bees every year.

And in our backyard in Medford, Massachusetts, we are seeing and hearing many more birds…. and butterflies… and bees. 

[ Music: “Bow for Rama,” (composed by Shannon Heaton) from Perfect Maze
Artists: bees, and strings ]

It’s a cool sound. Though our kid doesn’t LOVE the sound of buzzing bees.

>> Ottavio:  The best thing when a bee comes to you, stay put. DON’T MOVE. Because if you fight her (it’s always a her), if you fight her she will, think she thinks she is being attacked and she fights back. And you’re gonna get a sting. She dies within an hour or so and you might get a lumpy finger for a while. But everything goes away. But she’s dead, because, uh, she loses her stinger in your skin. The stinger, the stinger is part of her body and so she doesn’t have part of her body and she dies in a short time.

>> Shannon:  Bees are beautiful. They have a unique rhythm. They’re wild and they’re ancient and they’re often feared, and misunderstood. 

[ Music: “Beeswing,” (composed by Richard Thompson) from Land Of Fish And Seals
Artist: Keith Murphy ]

>> Ottavio:  There’s a video on Belmont television, which I made a few years ago, a year ago, called “Beekeeping in Belmont”. It’s designed for beekeepers; it’s designed for neighbors they hate bees. 
>> Shannon:  But like this is a problem, too, right? We have first pesticides that are harmful to bees. But maybe there’s a lot of misinformation and fear around bees.
>> Ottavio:  Yes, and that is why, that is why I made the video, the video is an educational video. And then last winter I gave a course in beekeeping—an eight-week course. And the graduation here, the 8th, the 8th class was here with parties. Italian style!
>> Shannon: Laughing “Great!”

>> Shannon:  Italian-style parties. Parties for the bees. We will have in-person parties again. Society will resume. And when it does, I hope that I’ll move around a little better. A little softer. A little more gratefully. With more respect and awareness of everyone and all the flora and fauna around me.

[ Music: “Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies,” from The Western Star
Artist: Eric Merrill ]

The Roman poet Virgil wrote extensively about bees. In the Aeneid, he imagines this ideal society: a group looking out for the wellbeing of the collective. Sustaining inconvenience for a greater good. 

And in The Georgics, his epic poem about running a farm (which was published around 29 BC), Virgil dedicated the entire fourth section to beekeeping. I asked Boston producer Brian O’Donovan to recite a small piece for us:

[ Music: “Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies,” from The Western Star
Artist: Eric Merrill ]

>> Brian O’Donovan:
… on bees is bestowed some share in the soul divine,

Some draughts of the airs of heaven, for that God moves everywhere

Through earth, the expanses of sea, and the limitless depths of air.

But they live, and they fly

To the ranks of starland and enter the high-reared halls of the sky.

>> Shannon: Maybe the nectar of traditional music is also boundless.

Here’s Liz Knowles again:

>> Liz:  You know, I think of traditional music as being the ultimate sustainable. We play this old music, this music that dates from long before we were born. Um, and if we’re accessing the well of that music from players that have lived long before us, as well as the players that live now. What you’re doing is taking that human experience from then and you’re bringing it and you’re living it now, and you’re hopefully passing it onto the next generation. 

I mean, don’t, don’t you think of yourself as being kind of a guardian of whatever music it is that you learned throughout your life? And when you pass it on, when you make a CD, when you teach someone, when you perform, you’re handing it off. Whether it’s an experience for somebody or it’s a bit of education or something for posterity. You’re unearthing of songs and tunes from the experiences in the musical experiences you’ve had, or that you’ve chosen to listen to in terms of archival recordings or otherwise. You’re, you’re a guardian for that in your lifetime and it will continue on beyond you. And you know, thinking of the earth and where we live in the same way, I think is very important.

>> Shannon:  Here’s to being guardians of the tunes, of the earth, and of one another. Now and post-Covid 19.  Here’s to lighter, courteous, grateful living. 

[ Music: Intro to “The Beehive,” (composed by Sarah Allen) from Rubai
Artist: Flook ]

Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you to my incredible guests. Thank you to Matt Heaton for the production music; to Nigel Heaton for acknowledging our sponsors; to Brian O’Donovan for the Virgil poem; to Sally Tucker for the transcriptions. And thank you to this month’s supporters. If you can kick in, PLEASE head to Irish Music 

I hope you’ll come back next month for more Irish Music Stories!


>> Shannon:  Should I put on gloves?!?
>> Ottavio: Ah no, you don’t have to.
>> Shannon:  You’re wearing big gloves. I’m going to stand not too close…

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Kentucky-born Irish fiddler who has performed with dance shows and many acclaimed ensembles

Dana Lyn


 Brooklyn-based musician (violinist/fiddler, violist, pianist, bass player) who performs in a wide range of genres

Guitarist, composer, and producer focusing on traditional Irish music, jazz, and improvised music

Ottavio Forte


Retired engineer and active beekeeper in Belmont, Massachusetts

Cork native who works in public broadcasting and music production

The Heaton List