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For the Birds: Jonathan Meiburg of the Rock Band Shearwater is a Serious Ornithologist

He is a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who has spent weeks, sometimes months, camping in far-flung corners of the world (the Falkland Islands, the Galapagos Islands and other remote habitats) while involved in academic-based bird studies.

Musically, even the name of his Austin, Tex.-based band, Shearwater, exhibits an avian influence (shearwaters are long-winged seabirds), and the group's music and lyrical themes are often influenced by the natural world…

Jonathan MeiburgToday's interesting outdoor person: Jonathan Meiburg, born in Baltimore and holder of a Master's degree in geography from the University of Texas, is the principal creative force behind Shearwater, a deep-thinking, 5-member rock group which on Tuesday (Feb. 14) releases Animal Joy, its eighth career studio recording, its first for Seattle's Sub Pop Records.

This 2008 profile in Scientific American magazine details the earnest enthusiasm Meiburg expresses for ornithology, and this album preview from NPR (with song samples) describes Shearwater as "a bold, majestic band with big conceptual ambitions." With the band in the early stages of an extended tour (the group plays Friday in Philadelphia, Saturday in Washington, D.C. and Sunday in Carrboro, N.C.), Meiburg, an REI member, discussed his relationship with music and the outdoors with The REI Blog:

REI: At what point in life did you detect an interest in nature and the outdoors? Why does it appeal to you?

Jonathan Meiburg: My first 2 memories are of animals: an alligator basking in the sun by the USS North Carolina in Wilmington, and a daddy-long-legs scurrying over dead leaves at a battlefield park in Maryland.

Jonathan MeiburgIt's odd to me that these memories connect the natural world with scenes of war—and I'm sure that couldn't have registered when I was 3 years old—but when I think about them now, I can't help but see the beginning of my fascination with the dissonance between the world that we've created for ourselves and the world from which we emerged.

It's become hard to really feel the pre-human planet anywhere these days—though I've been places that seem like relics of that world—and I think I'm not alone in feeling an intense longing for it, its plants and animals, its landscapes, its tall trees and clear water.

As a child, I spent hours playing in the woods behind my house in North Carolina, a strip of swampy bottomland between our suburban house and the interstate, and I loved imagining that it was all there was, just one long stretch of forest extending forever, covering over the shopping malls, over my school, over the parking lots and cars and subdivisions.  

I also remember finding a scary hut that some of older boys in the neighborhood built in a dark stand of skinny pines, where they'd stashed magazines under a panel in the floor and painted a swastika on the wall.

REI: Do you have any outdoor pursuits beyond camping? 

JM: Hiking's my favorite, though I don't do as much as I'd like since I spend a lot of my time in a tour van. 

Last year I spent a couple of weeks hiking in southeastern Utah and loved it. We were between tours, and our record label held a festival in Las Vegas, so I booked my ticket early and drove straight from the airport to Zion, where I hiked the Narrows on my own, and then on to Grand Staircase. There's so much beautiful, wild country out there; I'm going to go back as soon as I can. 

REI: What is the longest span you've ever spent camping or in primitive conditions? Ever encounter any unusual or extreme conditions?

JM: I went to grad school to study biogeography and ornithology, so I got to take some really wild field trips.

Bird printI spent 2 months camping with 2 other researchers in the Galapagos once, which was eerie and strange; we had a lot of trouble with rats, and walking on the lava fields tore up my boots (and my legs).

But the animals there behaved as if we'd stepped through a door into the Dreamtime—mockingbirds would actually land on you if you stayed perfectly still, sea lion pups slept in our kitchen tent, and we caught Galapagos Hawks with a loop of clothesline draped from a pole. You just lowered it over their heads as they watched.

It was weird to realize that this must have been what the whole world was like, that animals had to learn to be afraid of us. I wrote a lot of our record Palo Santo out there; it's named for a spindly, sweet-smelling tree that grows on the islands and pushes its roots into cracks in the lava.

REI: Of all the creatures on display in the natural world, what attracts you principally to birds?

JM: I think birds are balanced nicely between the cozy familiarity of other mammals—it's not too hard to imagine what life is like for your dog, for instance—and the otherness of reptiles or insects, whose experience of the world is so different from ours that they can seem totally alien.

Birds are warm-blooded, beautiful, intelligent, emotionally expressive and, compared to us, ancient. What's not to love? They show us an entirely different way of being. They seem very much in our world, but not entirely of it.

Note: Use the links shown here to listen to audio clips of bird life on the Falkland Islands recorded by Meiburg and, if your computer is equipped to play Quicktime files, view a collection of videos Meiburg filmed on the Falklands in 2006 while studying birds there.

REI: How does your fondness for nature and for birds influence your creative expression?  Is it evidenced on Animal Joy?

JM: I always wish I had a better answer to this question. I guess I think the music speaks for itself, in some ways. I definitely feel like the time I've been lucky enough to spend in wild, remote places has charged and recharged my creative batteries; they're much more inspiring than cities, to me.

Performing in ShearwaterIn my music I'm usually trying to create sonic landscapes of depth and contrast, where there's a great deal happening at once and beauty is made stronger by tempering it with harshness or ugliness.

Animal Joy is meant to evoke some of the moments in life where you feel your blood runs fastest and closest to the surface, for good or for ill. For me, that's when it's easiest to identify with the rest of the animal world, to see myself as part of it. Sometimes that's exhilarating, but sometimes it's frightening.  

REI:  OK, outdoor gear question: What's your favorite piece of gear, the essential item you could not do without?

JM: If I can't count my binoculars, maybe my Therm-A-Rest? It's great to be able to sleep comfortably on wet gravel.

REI: What's the favorite place you've ever camped or explored?

Jonathan in Grand Staircase-Escalante NMJM: Outside the U.S., I'd say the island of Steeple Jason in the Falklands; it's basically 2 huge peaks rising out of the south Atlantic, and it's home to massive colonies of Black-Browed Albatrosses and Rockhopper Penguins, as well as my favorite bird of prey, the Striated Caracara. It's like another planet out there.  Inside the U.S., I think I'd say Death Hollow out in Grand Staircase, between Boulder and Escalante.

REI:  What's a place you've long yearned to visit but is still on your to-see list?

JM: The Roraima plateau on the border of Guyana and Venezuela, or the border region between Surinam, French Guyana and Brazil in the Tumucumaque mountains. A man can dream!

REI:  When you're on tour, do you ever manage to squeeze in a little outdoor time?

JM: Rarely. We play pretty much every day, and we have to go where the people are; touring can be an unrelentingly urban experience.  Once a tour ends, I head for the hills as fast as I can.

REI: Thanks, Jonathan. Best wishes for the record and the tour.

Photos courtesy of Jonathan Meiburg and Sub Pop Records.

Posted on at 12:02 PM

Tagged: Shearwater, birds, camping, music, ornithology and today's interesting outdoor person

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