August of 2017 marks a special milestone for Music For Wild Places - for the first time ever, we will be collaborating on a music/wilderness journey internationally. And for the first time ever, we will be part of a journey that not only seeks to bring music and wilderness together for the sake of the experience, but also for a globally important political and conservational milestone. Here's the story:
In 2015, Chinese officials announced a plan to create a formal National Park System. There are many so-called wilderness and scenic parks in the vast country, but until recently they were left to cash-strapped local governments to manage. They were unsubsidized and run for profit. Scenic/wilderness designations turned disastrous in many cases, becoming more of an economic stimulus to bring in tourism and cash in on concessions. But China is giving the world reason to believe that this is different, and motivated by a genuine desire to protect and conserve wilderness for its own inherent value. They are also, remarkably, modeling the proposed system on America's National Parks, and are turning to western input for guidance.
One such Westerner is Travis Winn. I went to college with Travis, and even back then he was obsessed with two things: kayaking and Mandarin Chinese. Now an eloquent and experienced river-runner, accomplished kayaker, and fluent Mandarin-speaker, Travis has been actively involved with China's rivers for the past decade. After doing one of the last descents of the now-dammed section of the Yangtze, he named his company Last Descents River Expeditions and began guiding trips on several threatened rivers in Western China. More of his backstory unfolds in this beautiful short video:
Today, China is moving forward with their National Park System. The first park to be officially created will be called The Headwaters of the Three Rivers, in the Tibetan Plateau. Last Descents has played a key role in demonstrating the value of outdoor recreation in this beautiful and sensitive area. By guiding trips and creating a successful, respectful and sustainable business, they have exposed the local and national governments to the idea that people need this wilderness AS a wilderness, and that there's value in that, economic and otherwise. The local government, miraculously, is in full support of Travis' efforts in the area, and he has become a significant contributor to the National Park planning and imagining phase.
During the roll-out of the park this August, Last Descents will collaborate with the local Tibetan government, Music For Wild Places, American roots band Front Country, and local Tibetan musicians to put on a music festival and 9-day float trip of the Daqu river (headwaters of the Mekong). Trip Jennings (National Geographic, Banff Mountain Film Festival Award-Winner) will be shooting film, stills, and audio. This trip will demonstrate and celebrate the cross-cultural power of wilderness, by bringing American and Tibetan musicians together for a shared cause. Both will be on the river to perform and create music, without even the ability to speak to one another. Music is both a universal language and a place-based cultural expression, and so these musicians from opposite sides of the globe, singing songs in a wild river canyon about the same human struggles perfectly demonstrates the power of preserving both wilderness and culture.
In Travis' words:
"We love this place not just for its natural geography, but also for it’s human geography. We love the people here. We are inspired by their stories, by their love of the landscape, their respect for life, their awareness of their place in the natural world. And the last thing we want is for their lives and the cultural fabric they’ve created to be turned upside down by an influx of well intentioned (and some not so well intentioned) tourists.
And so what do we do? We believe in the power of wild rivers to inspire change. We believe in the power of music to inspire change. We believe in the power of local culture to inspire change. So what do we do?
We throw a river trip to celebrate local culture. Specifically, we throw a river trip that celebrates the music of the grassland. Music that for hundreds if not thousands of years literally sprung out of nomads creating an oral record of their relationship with their natural environment. And we invite people from around the world to come together to celebrate the preservation of this area, by singing the songs of their own areas back home. We come together across cultures to celebrate the same thing - the human connection with wild places."
I've been to China a handful of times before with Abigail Washburn on state-dept-sponsored music diplomacy trips. I've seen firsthand the power of music to bring people together, even and perhaps especially, when there are external forces pushing them apart. These forces, usually economic and political, are certainly in play in the Tibetan Autonomous Region where we are headed. The problem of how to meet vastly different human needs with increasingly limited natural resources, without losing the ability to connect spiritually with wild places is nowhere more apparent. Our shared message on this trip will be one of protecting wild places for the wellbeing of the human spirit.
The music created as part of this trip will form the sound track to the opening of a new National Park, a new era in Chinese environmental and cultural conservation, and a new cultural exchange between East and West.