Raptor rapture: A Q&A with Jonathan Meiburg

A raptor in the Falkland Islands, the striated caracara, was a mystery to Charles Darwin. Jonathan Meiburg talks about solving the puzzle. 

Penguin Random House/Sean McCann
Jonathan Meiburg appears with his book, "A Most Remarkable Creature."

In his book, “A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey,” Jonathan Meiburg vividly brings to life not only a nearly shaman-like character – the striated caracara – but also the world that opens when you look at the raptor. It’s a riveting work of natural history, human exploration, and evolutionary detection. And this from an author whose day job includes leadership of the critically celebrated indie rock band Shearwater. Recently, in between preparing for his book’s virtual press tour and recording vocals for his band’s ninth album, Mr. Meiburg spoke with the Monitor.  

Q: Why the striated caracara?

They’re just so mysterious, so inexplicable, and so entertaining that you can’t help but fall in love with them. They just stride right up to you as if they have as much right to be here as you, and they start trying to see if you’ve got anything they could eat in your bag.

I had this weird feeling that they chose me somehow. And that led me to the MacGuffin of the book, which is [Charles] Darwin’s question, “What are these birds doing in the Falkland Islands?” I’ve banged my head against that question for almost 20 years.

Q: To answer that question, you take us not only to the Falklands, Tierra del Fuego, and Guyana, but also to unimaginable times in Earth’s history. Which period do you wish you actually could have seen?

If I could have seen the Americas at the time that people first entered them, oh my. It’d be like the Serengeti everywhere, but particularly in South America you’d see rodents the size of buffalo, giant ground sloths, and these giant sort of armored lawn mowers trundling across the plains called glyptodonts. And this isn’t some dim and distant millions of years ago [perhaps 20,000 years]. This is knocking on the door of recorded history.

Q: What would that have been like?

Well, we get a glimpse of that along the Rewa. [A good chunk of the book tells of Mr. Meiburg’s monthlong expedition up Guyana’s Rewa River into relatively untouched jungle.] The experience you have with the wildlife is bizarre. They just stare at you. They act like you’re some fellow citizen instead of something to be feared. I had grown up thinking that it was normal for wild animals to run away from you. It never occurred to me that that was something they had to learn how to do. When people walked into North America, that was the world they saw.

And this is how the world was not long ago. There is nothing special about the Rewa, nothing magical. It just happens to be not within our realm.

Q: If you could pick one thing for readers to take from the book, what would it be?

That we don’t know nearly as much about the world as we might think. And one of the greatest joys of being human is learning something new.

I think what prevents people from committing to a life of discovery is the sense that the world is known.

Q: Do your music-making and your writing affect each other?

They can’t not [affect each other]. But writing is much more linear. With writing, you kind of have to lay out the structure initially or else you can become easily lost. Whereas with music, it’s just a complete mystery. 

You’re shining the flashlight into a cavern whose dimensions you don’t know, and that’s tremendously exciting.

Q: What’s most fun about writing a book?

Being in the field with knowledgeable people who can help interpret what you’re seeing. There’s just nothing like it. On the Rewa there were discussions between Sean [McCann, a Canadian biologist,] and Jose [George, an Amerindian guide,] that made me want to cry with happiness as a writer. 

They were both so forthright and intelligent, but coming from such different places and absolutely unafraid of presenting themselves as who they are to one another. 

I couldn’t believe it was happening in front of me.

Q: What’s most fun about making a record?

The moments of discovery when you’re making a record and a song suddenly jumps to life – something just lights you up and you capture it. 

Q: You weave a biography of field naturalist and writer William Henry Hudson, and you write, “This was his greatest theme: that only by looking intently to the non-human world, with all the tools of science and art, can we see what we really are – and that we aren’t as alone as we feel.” Is that your philosophy?

That is sort of my mission statement.

If we step outside of ourselves even a little bit – outside of a world completely geared toward human concerns – the world becomes very different. 

These funny birds kind of tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, kid, pay attention. There’s more going on than just you monkeys.” 

And the process for me of paying that attention and just following the thread and following it and following it, until it finally revealed this story, was probably the most rewarding experience of my life.

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