Watson Stories

Going to the Ends of the Earth: Community Life in Remote Societies   printer  

Jonathan Meiburg, C’97

Countries visited:
Argentina, Falkland Islands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada

The aim of my project was to visit remote, isolated human communities and to document the humdrum details of everyday life there. I was particularly interested in the subtle ways that people’s perceptions of and attitudes toward the world changed when they were surrounded by wilderness, when self-sufficiency was a fact of life.

I spent time in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina; the Falkland Islands; the Aboriginal settlement of Kowanyama in Cape York, Australia; the Chatham Islands of New Zealand; and the Inuit village of Kimmirut in Baffin Island, Canada. My activities included working as a field assistant on a bird survey in the Falklands, clearing trails with a machete for the New Zealand Department of Conservation, waging war on gorsebushes with matches and an axe, organizing the photographic archives of the Kowanyama land management office, and accompanying Aboriginal hunters on foraging trips into the bush.

I went to study people, but I ended up being equally fascinated by the birds of these remote areas. It’s an interest I never would have predicted, but found hard to resist after walking through colonies of albatrosses and penguins in the Falklands, glimpsing blue-winged kookaburras and black cockatoos slipping into the forests of Cape York, discovering the nest of a snow bunting in a rock cleft in the Arctic. I had no idea that the natural world could be so bizarre and beautiful.

I have now finished a master's in geography from the University of Texas. My thesis focused on factors limiting the distribution of the striated caracaras, a very clever bird of prey that I first encountered in the Falklands. I’m planning to go on to a Ph.D., probably in biology. I’m also touring and recording with the bands Shearwater and Okkervil River. By the end of my Watson year, I’d pared down my bagged to two items: a daypack with my notebooks and camera inside, and a cheap guitar.

My advice for students applying for a Watson would be: Don’t be scared to suggest a project or place that seems off the wall (or even a little scary) if you think you can make a case for it. I was an English major at Sewanee, and I’d never left the country before the Watson year. The Watson fellows I’ve met who seem to have gained the most from the year were the ones who really pushed themselves physically and mentally.

Here’s one of my favorite stories from my Watson year, involving people and animals:

Lea Clough, a fisherman in the Chatham Islands, took me spotlighting one night for brushtail possums and wekas (flightless, chicken-like birds). Both species are introduced pests in the islands, though they’re protected in their native Australia and New Zealand. I was in the back of the truck with the rifle; Lea drove slowly along the gravel road, scanning every fencepost and brushpile. After a few minutes I’d started to get the hang of it and had brought down a couple of possums. It was easy; their eyes looked like glowing marbles in the glare of our headlights, and they conveniently froze when we approached. As we came over the top of a hill, I saw what looked to be a possum convention in a field near the road. I called to Lea to stop.

“Do you see the really big possums, the ones with the eyes a bit farther apart?” he said. “Yes,” I said, releasing the safety on the rifle and bringing it to my eye. “Don’t shoot them,” he said, laughing. “They’re sheep.”

7/18/2006, 11:22 AM