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Storytellers: Jonathan Meiburg

by Adam Sobsey

The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. Everyone in this series is a storyteller, even if they may not always think of themselves in that way. Each storyteller has something unique to share. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.

About Jonathan Meiburg

Musician and writer best known as the leader of the indie rock band Shearwater

Jonathan Meiburg is a musician and writer best known as the leader of the indie rock band Shearwater, whose “rich, emotive style,” as one music writer described it, has made Shearwater one of the most distinctive and acclaimed bands of its milieu. Prior to that, he was in the band Okkervil River, from which Shearwater originally sprang as a side project before maturing into a fully fledged musical act of its own. Meiburg also became a debut author last year with the publication of A Most Remarkable Creature, an NPR Best Book of the Year, which was issued in paperback in February. He is already at work on a new book about Antarctica. Meanwhile, Shearwater’s first album in six years, The Great Awakening, will be out on June 10.


Editor’s Note: A Most Remarkable Creature is itself most remarkable. Its subject is the caracara, a raptor found mostly in South America, but the book is about much more than birds. Meiburg’s is also a lively travelogue; a condensed but rich biography of the naturalist and writer William Henry Hudson; and a lucid, at times very intimate portrait of some little-known native South American cultures and places. The book as a whole is a prodigiously researched, authentically lived, and fully animated work. It brings multiple worlds to light.

An illuminating way to understand Meiburg’s approach to writing about the caracara might be through the lens of one of Shearwater’s most remarkable recordings, which is a departure from Meiburg’s original compositions. In 2016, Shearwater (named, discreetly, for a species of bird) recorded and released a song-by-song, sound-for-sound cover of David Bowie’s entire 1979 album Lodger. Just as the caracara is generally overlooked among the birds of prey, with nowhere near the prominence of the eagle or hawk, Lodger tends to be neglected in Bowie’s catalog despite being the essential concluding third of his celebrated “Berlin Trilogy.” Yet the LP — which is admittedly a bit of an odd bird, if you’ll excuse the pun — stands on its own as a compelling collection of songs: some radio-ready, others quite peculiar, and nearly all transmitting an untrammeled, unsettled, and even, at times, unhinged creative vivacity.

Meiburg and Shearwater were already toying with the idea of making their own version of Lodger when Bowie died suddenly in 2016. After that, the project was urgently crowdfunded, and the band set to work learning the songs. “It turned out to be trickier (and more fun) to play than I’d imagined,” Meiburg discovered. “And as we peeled back the songs’ sonic layers, they revealed clever and coherent structures under the surface of their desperation and bewilderment.” Given the speed with which they made their version of Lodger, Shearwater’s painstaking fidelity to the original album is quite impressive — and also more than a little obsessive. Why not just throw it together and take a few close-enough-for-rock-and-roll liberties?

“Because it’s not just that the songs are special or that Bowie’s so special,” Meiburg told Adapt in a recent interview. “The entire sonic world of [Bowie’s original] recording of Lodger is really special. And so you can’t reconstruct the songs without trying to reconstruct that whole sonic world.”

Without missing a beat, Meiburg jumps tracks and starts talking about A Most Remarkable Creature: “In the same way, with the story of the caracaras, I could just tell you what their ranges are and what the birds look like. But larger questions [arise]: Why are they like this? Why are they here? Suddenly it just deepens almost unimaginably and you’re peering over the edge into 60 million years of time.”

The instant he connects his work on Bowie to his work on caracaras, it becomes clear that Meiburg’s stature as both a musical eminence and an ornithological writer is not as unlikely as it seems. In fact, it’s all very much in character. He is wired to dive deep into any hidden subject that captures his attention, be it a bird or an album, and come up with lungfuls of fresh air. It’s no surprise that as an interviewee he is willing to go off at all kinds of intriguing, intersecting angles and explore the corners they form.


You’re best known for your work as a musician with Shearwater. How did you come to study caracaras — essentially pivoting from the arts to the sciences?

This was a story that came to me over a very long time. I was an English major in college, and then I went on the [Thomas J.] Watson Fellowship in 1997 to study the daily life of remote communities around the world. I had a chance meeting with these birds in the Falkland Islands. And the more I picked at their story, the more I probed it, the more it opened. And eventually I felt like I’d found this secret door. I opened it, and there was this immense world inside it. And then it just grew from there. 

When I came back [to the US], I really wanted to know more about the natural world, but it was going to be really hard for me to get into a biology graduate program with an English degree. So I studied geography in graduate school. I did it partly because geography was a way for me to step in through the side door. It’s sort of at the intersection of the sciences and the arts. Technically it’s an art; you get an MA degree. I studied mostly biogeography: why living things are in the places where they are, which has become more and more and more urgent as climate change has shifted. So I feel really lucky that I chose geography.


How did the book grow into its shape and structure, which interweaves the natural history material with the biography of William Henry Hudson and your own adventures in South America on the trail of the caracara — with all kinds of meetings with interesting people and far-flung places throughout, plus some fascinating concluding proposals about how to keep the caracara from further endangerment?

I wanted to structure the book in such a way that you are led into this maze in the same way that I was. And only at the end of it do you start to really see where you’ve been; only then does it start to add up. I thought if I could just keep it entertaining enough along the way, and keep feeding you these breadcrumbs, that eventually you’d exit at the same place that I did.


I feel like it's a common mistake these days to make the book all about the author — which is not necessarily bad, but if you're going to use the author as a character, you want to use the character sparingly.


So you function as our guide as well as our storyteller.

I didn’t want to appear more in the book than I had to. I feel like it’s a common mistake these days to make the book all about the author — which is not necessarily bad, but if you’re going to use the author as a character, you want to use the character sparingly.

You give more space and attention to William Henry Hudson than you do to yourself. You not only trace his life, from South America as a child through his longtime fascination with caracaras, all the way to his literary fame in England and finally Cornwall as an old man. You also delve into his emotional life, so he becomes an almost tender figure, a sort of lonely bird himself.

I used him a little bit as a surrogate. There’s this moment [early in A Most Remarkable Creature] when [British ornithologist] Robin Woods hands me this book by Hudson and says, you’ll like him, he’s very emotional. I read just about everything Hudson ever wrote, and I kept finding these passages and moments that resonated with my experience of trying to understand what the caracaras had to tell me. Hudson grants them an agency that you don’t often see in any descriptions of animals, especially in writing from his time. There were so many places where I either agreed with him or loved the way that he put something. I could see a parallel between him and the birds, or between him and me.

In the proposal for my book, I put in a line, something like: “Hudson deserves a longer look.” My editor, Jonathan Segal, said, “I think you should look further there.” Then I started reading more about Hudson, piecing together who this person was, getting into the contours of his life. But mostly I just read him. In the first full draft I wrote, he started to overwhelm the whole book. In the editing process, I had to shave some. I actually cut out entire chapters. 

And was cutting it something your editor was pushing you towards, or did you just decide on your own?

Actually, two people who weren’t my editor suggested that, one of whom was Maria Eckhart, the widow of [writer and naturalist] Peter Matthiessen. She read it and said, [English accent:] “I know you’re in love with him, but really it’s too much.” [laughter]

There’s a great deal of love in the way you write about the caracaras themselves, and so much affection in your depiction of the four men with whom you traveled up the remote Rewa river in Guyana searching for red-throated caracaras. You build a relationship with them while you’re on the river. That whole midsection of the book is a kind of Heart of Darkness journey, and it has tremendous narrative grip.

And just at the point where you feel like you can't absorb another couple million years [of evolutionary history], suddenly the book goes on a camping trip.


Another thing that’s interesting about it is how it hearkens back to the purpose of your original Watson Fellowship: spending time with people from a culture very different and far from yours.

I’ve been surprised how few reviews have mentioned it — because I went to some pains to put it in everywhere — that this is also a book about the really underreported experience of native people in the Americas. Birds are the avatars that get us into the story, but it’s not a book just about birds. In fact, there have been some comments from people who wanted it to be all about birds, who are actually quite frustrated by it. And if what you want is a bird guide, you’ll be sorely disappointed. I don’t tell you the average clutch size or the nesting phenology or the molt sequence — you know, these details that matter a lot to people who really drill down on birds.


This is also a book about the really underreported experience of native people in the Americas. Birds are the avatars that get us into the story, but it's not a book just about birds.


It’s a book totally devoted to knowing everything about this one bird that is also not about birds at all.

My hope is that at the end of the book, you might look around and think: “Wait, you could have written this book about anything!” If these charismatic, funny, smart, attractive birds of prey have had so little information available about them, what else might be true? What else wasn’t known about? It’s easy in the internet age to think that everything is known. We tend to think of the world we live in as this very static thing, but we’ve barely scratched the surface. We don’t understand the world. When you start trying to think about where you really are, it becomes a very cosmic question very quickly. Where are you in space? Where are you in time? Where are you in the history of life on earth? There are stories that have nothing to do with humans whatsoever that are just as interesting. Solipsism is blindness. It just is. I’m going to die one day. I can’t prevent that. So I might as well not worry about it and spend the time that I have trying to appreciate where I actually am.

Some stories have such gravity to them that you just get sucked in, and then suddenly you’re there with everybody else, all looking through the same telescope at the same thing. If you can glimpse things that have been overlooked, or looked at but not publicized, and bring them back to the surface world and say, actually, there’s more down here than we thought, that feels like a worthy endeavor.

Toward the end of the book, you take a couple of imaginative leaps that express the possibility of hope for the survival of the caracara despite the various threats to its habitats. After appreciating how adaptable the striated caracara is, you propose introducing it into urban areas like London.

My tongue is in my cheek a little bit there when I’m saying that kind of thing, but I’m just offering this up as just an alternate way of thinking about this for this particular species. We tend to think that animals have a set of preferences that they have to abide by, and if you lift them out of the habitat they’ve evolved in, they’ll just keel over. But some species are more adaptable than others. And this group is especially adaptable.They seem like they’ve got pretty good odds of being able to survive almost whatever we throw at them.

Why don't we proceed, when we're looking at other living things, from the ways that we’re similar, as opposed to trying to identify all the ways that were different?


Another way in which caracaras are like humans.

Frans de Waal, in that wonderful book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, says, why don’t we proceed, when we’re looking at other living things, from the ways that we’re similar, as opposed to trying to identify all the ways that were different?

You have to try to stay just this side of the event horizon, so that you’re looking at the black hole but you're not being pulled in.

That’s very optimistic, and very humane.

The other day I was reading a Hannah Arendt essay about visiting Germany in 1949 or 1950, and about what she thinks the future of Germany is going to be. She’s brilliant, and also very world-weary and pessimistic. And you read her and she’s very convincing until you step back and look around and realize, Wait, that’s not what happened to Germany at all. She was entirely wrong. There’s this very seductive appeal of pessimism. It has a gravity that’s very difficult to escape from. And I don’t shy away from that; I don’t want to have a big blind spot. But the challenge is another question of perspective. You have to try to stay just this side of the event horizon, so that you’re looking at the black hole but you’re not being pulled in.

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