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A Shore wildlife haven is a source of visual and musical inspiration

The Jersey Shore's sprawling Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, named for a popular Republican Congressman from Burlington County, will be showcased in a song and video 'songscape' project. Officials hope the effort will attract more visitors to the refuge in Atlantic and Ocean counties.

Ben Sollee plays his  cello on the Long Beach Island portion of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. He’s composing a ‘songscape’ about the refuge.
Ben Sollee plays his cello on the Long Beach Island portion of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. He’s composing a ‘songscape’ about the refuge.Read moreCHET SUSSLIN

The composer and cellist Ben Sollee stood in the sand at the southern tip of Long Beach Island and played what he heard.

"The ocean hangs out down here, and this is where the birds are," he said, adroitly bowing his weathered cello to demonstrate the pitch range of the sounds around him.

Sollee said he listens to the musical score "that's already there, in the landscape," and I stood quietly, hoping to hear what he was hearing as a steady wind and ripply waves rolled across Manahawkin Bay.

The 34-year-old musician had come to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge last week to participate in an artisanal project sponsored by Sustain ( The Connecticut nonprofit arranges for bands or solo musicians to create audio and video "songscapes" that showcase public lands and boost awareness of America's special places, including those close to home.

As someone who treasures music and nature, I'd say creating a songscape for the Forsythe wildlife refuge sounds like a wonderful idea.

I felt a jolt of spring just being in magnificent surroundings among a crew of creative, enthusiastic, and like-minded people.

"This is our fifth songscape project," said the musician Harrison Goodale, who cofounded Sustain with conservationist Betsy Mortensen three years ago.

Previous songscapes, including one crafted by his band Parsonsfield (they'll play Philly's Boot & Saddle on May 31), have celebrated public lands in Utah, Wyoming, Maine, and Connecticut.

"Part of our mission," Goodale said, "is to introduce people to these amazing places."

A respected professional who seems at home playing concert halls, bars, on NPR, or at the edge of Manahawkin Bay, Sollee was born, raised, and still lives in Kentucky, where he is raising a family of his own. He has traversed New Jersey while on tour and until last week had never set foot in Forsythe.

But he seemed free of that looking-down-the-nose expression even supposedly enlightened millennials — and pretty much everybody else who doesn't live in New Jersey — often display about the Garden State.

So with his mind, eyes, and ears wide open, Sollee will write an ode of sorts to the Forsythe's 47,000 acres of shoreline, salt marshes, and waterways. The refuge is made up of separate parcels of land in the 51 miles between Galloway Township in Atlantic County north to Holgate, on southernmost LBI in Ocean County.

"I've done a lot of location-based music writing, but this is an opportunity to dig a little deeper," said Sollee, who's also written music for film.

"I'm definitely in the gathering stage. I'm taking notes and I have a field recorder in my pocket," he said. "As a musician, I'm always trying to listen."

Sollee's longtime collaborator, the film producer and videographer Mallory Cunningham, said they are simply "out here in nature, absorbing what's around and, hopefully, being able to capture that in a way that other people can see it … and be inspired to come."

"There is no storyboard."

There is, however, an urgency to the project, because the Forsythe is an eclectic collection of places and spaces exquisitely sensitive to climate change.

"Given the rising sea levels, whatever we create visually and musically could be looked back on 15 to 20 years from now as a beautiful documentation of a place that's no longer accessible," Sollee said.

He came to the Forsythe thanks to an informal but robust network of young and not-so-young folks who create and/or appreciate American roots music. Among them: Roland Hagan, who hosts a concert series called "Folk Across the Street" at his West Creek, Ocean County, barn.

Hagan, the operations manager at the Rutgers University Marine Field Station  near Tuckerton, knows Goodale and told him about the university's working relationship with the refuge.

Sollee, his wife, Caitlin, and their children Oliver, 10, and Clara, 6 months, were able to stay at the research station's residential facility on the mainland.

"The idea was to get Ben out in this natural area where we work every day, and show him some of the changes we've seen in the last 30 years," Hagan said.

Among the changes: Sollee took a close look at the once verdant, now "ghost forests" of cedar along the Mullica River in the Port Republic area.

The upstream intrusion of salt water has killed the trees.

"Ghost forest is one of the terms we're trying to get Ben to use in his song," Hagan said.

As I tagged along last week, the weather made a boat trip to Little Beach Island inadvisable. Everyone rolled with it; after all, has there ever been a spring with less reliable skies?

Undaunted, Rutgers and refuge employees led Sollee, his son, a photographer, and me by car to Holgate, the federally designated wilderness area south of Beach Haven on LBI.

Because it's a prime nesting ground for the threatened piping plover and three other species of Shore birds, Holgate is closed to most humans between April 1 and Aug. 31 every year.

"We used to have a very significant line of mature dunes a half mile down this beach," said our guide Vinny Turner, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the steward of Forsythe.

The clingy fog softened but could not hide the stark, otherworldly beauty of Holgate, uninhabited except for plovers, terns, skimmers, and oyster catchers.

Sollee found a spot, faced west, and began to play the cello, humming softly, alert and listening.

"What's that really high bird-call sound?" he asked.

I didn't hear it. But he did.