IN TUNE WITH THE BEAT OF NATURE
Ben Mirin is a one-of-a-kind musician, researcher and explorer who creates music from sounds he records in nature. As a wildlife DJ, he travels the world recording and making music that celebrates wildlife in order to inspire and teach more people about the natural world. He is co-creator and host of the show Wild Beats on National Geographic Kids and Nat Geo Wild, the 2016 Artist in Residence at the Bronx Zoo, and a Fellow at The Safina Center. He also volunteers as a bird-watching guide for inner city public schools through the New York Audubon Society.
EB: What turned you on to bird watching?
My mom bought me a book on penguins when I was about 3 or 4 and I couldn’t really read the thing, but I remember to this day flipping through the pages and looking at these pictures of birds. They can’t fly, but walk really funny and sound amazing and I started learning the penguin names and it just took off from there. She started taking me to the aquarium to see them live. My mom has this incredible ability to nurture curiosity. Everything she says to a child is teaching them something. And that is such a gift to have as a son, and I really owe her a lot for embracing that unusual interest in me. She would take me on all kinds of nature walks as a kid and I started just absorbing a lot of material. I would buy bird books and read them at night.
It was an unusual but enduring passion and it kind of went away for a little while when I went through high school and college, just because I had other things I tried, but it was always there, and I think, in my heart of hearts, if I ask myself what is my deepest passion and also in some ways my most natural set of skills, it’s as a birder. The ability to see things, hear things.
EB: And birds are all around us …
Yes, birds are all around us and my brain is wired to be attuned to them at all times.
EB: I know you went up to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. How do you see their research and your work affecting each other?
The Cornell Lab is like my mecca, and I want to thank them for all their support of my work. You’d be hard pressed to find people more skilled at recording wildlife anywhere in the world, and their Macaulay Library is the world’s largest repository of natural sound. Both of these things are incredible resources for people like me who want to engage the world through sound. The research happening there offers storytelling material, because we are gathering a tremendous amount of data. For many of the species that we record we know when and where and how they were recorded, what was happening behaviorally while these sounds were recorded – everything from the temperature and humidity to the altitude of the site adds to our understanding of what these sounds mean and how they take shape in certain contexts. For me as an artist it’s really exciting to be able to bring a place to life through sound, and the more information I have the better I can do my job.
For me as an artist it’s really exciting to be able to bring a place to life through sound. There is a natural harmony in the way sound works in the animal and human worlds.
NM: Do you think that birds actually have a musical ear and sense of harmony or it’s just a signal system for them, to which they obviously respond on a sensory level, but not necessarily with the appreciation we associate with music?
Well, we’re getting right into the thick of it here. I think there is an important scientific debate going on about the meanings we can ascribe to a bird’s song. The behavioral and functional everyday meanings are clear, but it’s always a risky business to impose human values and interpretations on the communications of other species. Part of what is both so fascinating and almost mystical about the animal world is that there are potentially other layers of significance beyond what humanity construes as important and meaningful.
NM: On a more philosophical level, what do you think you know about birds (or animals, non-human species in general) that we lay people don’t?
There is a natural harmony in the way sound works in the animal and human worlds. Whether you’re in nature or in the music studio, sound production follows many of the same rules. In order to make itself heard an individual instrument or a voice has to carve out a special place in that chorus, in that orchestra. When producers are mixing different recordings, we try to create that sense of a puzzle with different pieces fitting together but not overlapping. If you look at a sonogram of birds singing in a dawn chorus, many of the songs have their own spaces in the mix that don’t overlap. Sometimes, because nature likes to break rules, there are songs that transgress against that puzzle metaphor – they cross lines, cross boundaries, and that’s another fun way to understand how meaning in sound functions in the animal world. But again my philosophy is more along the lines of similarities between our music and their music and how music itself can be a bridge to the natural world.
NM: Where do you see yourself, in terms of your creative work, in five to ten years? How do you see it evolve and expand?
I really enjoy all different kinds of media and creating things. I don’t know exactly what that’s going to shape into over the next five years, but currently I’ve got a lot of things under my belt: a kid’s show, a lot of podcast episodes, written stories, certainly a lot of songs. So right now I really want to get into the field more with microphones, improve my recording techniques and just meet some of these characters that I’ve worked with musically because the more you meet them the better you can tell their story … In five to ten years it will be really fascinating to see what this new craft that I’ve created has produced – because again, this is just the culmination of two things I’ve done my whole life – beatboxing and bird watching. It’s just two sides of myself merged into one thing. It will be interesting to see whether I’ll become a wildlife filmmaker or a scientist. Both of those paths seem equally possible to me. I think it’s really about where I can make the most impact and find the most meaning for myself. Having a PhD in soundscape ecology sounds fun and exciting, but I’m also already creating a profession that no one’s ever done before, and that to me is very analogous to having a PhD, because you’re breaking new ground. I want to keep breaking new ground.
NM: You’re still young, but when you https://www.instagram.com/djecotone/ off you were really young. What gives a creative person at such a young age the confidence that he’s doing the right thing, something that will be accepted and liked by the audience… or, rather, the confidence to do your own thing, whether anybody likes it or not?
I want to respond to that with what I believe needs to change about that mentality. When I was little I didn’t choose to bird watch, I didn’t choose to go birding, I didn’t choose to beat box, I just did those things. There’s this notion that what we create in any field has to appeal to people and I think it’s important to reposition that by saying: what we do naturally appeals to people. You need to embrace who you are and what you love to have the most personal reward in your career and in life in general, and also to inspire others to do the same thing. It’s how you become your best self, and in turn give the most to those around you. The closer we all get to embracing who we are, and leveraging that to make a difference in the world, the better off we’ll all be.
I spent five years out of college wondering how to do this, how to find the perfect job, how to appeal to an audience, and at the end of the day I just said: I‘m sick of bouncing around I’m going to try this out because these are the things I’ve always loved and they haven’t gone away. I’ve even tried to ignore them and it’s not working, so let’s take this for a spin and see what happens.
You become your best self, and in turn give the most to those around you. I can tell you a thousand things I love about birds, but why I love those things I don’t know.
EB: Birds are powerful motivators for environmental awareness and appreciation of the natural world. What programs have you found that are the most exciting for the kids you teach?
Well, it’s hard for me to separate the excitement of the kids from my own excitement because I feel like a kid when I’m bird watching. I don’t want to lose that feeling. I don’t think anyone should. I think what we get the most excited about together is when we go on these bird watching trips – even if it’s around the block from the school.
I remember the last public school I went to, in Brooklyn. We found a house sparrow nest. Now, house sparrows by themselves can get a little tiresome after you’ve seen a hundred or two of them, but these guys were making a nest and there was an element of watching behavior, so I took maybe 5 different groups out that day to this nest. We hunkered down on the sidewalk and we could see them going in and out. It was just like watching a play and being able to take kids and tell them a little about the drama that is unfolding right in front of them. It’s the best part for me, because I think that’s more rewarding than the other dimensions of birding, like counting the numbers of species. Let’s see as many birds as we can, but let’s also take a minute and observe why they are so intricate and interesting, and how their world works.
EB: Can you tell which birds or specific programs that you’re doing excite kids the most?
I never know quite what’s going to excite kids the most, because some kids are hooked on birds, some kids love whales, some kids love turtles or penguins. And in all those cases there is something inexplicable about why this particular animal is so fascinating to a child. I still don’t exactly know why I love birds so much. I can tell you a thousand things I love about birds, but why I love those things I don’t know. And that’s why it’s so useful for me to continue expanding my work with new groups of animals because you expand the range of impact and the potential that you have as an educator, as a performer, as a creator. I want to inspire someone else to do two things: first, to engage with nature in some creative way, and second, to embrace what they’re naturally about, whether it’s birds or animals or not – this kind of gets back to the more philosophical argument of doing what it is that you like to do.
I’ve had people of all ages come up to me and comment on how happy I seem doing what I’m doing. If that’s what they take away, then great. I tell them: I’ve loved these things and I haven’t known why; I got sick of being two different people, so I combined my two base passions into one thing. That’s why I’m happy. Now you should go do that, too!
EB: Do you connect with adults in a similar way as you do with kids?
I always find as many connections with adults as I do with children, but the nature of those connections can be very different. Where some kids may not latch on to the principles of bioacoustics and how sound functions the same way in wild and human music, people my age, people older than I am will latch on to those elements. I think there is a certain hunger for scientific understanding of the world and a feeling of connection with the wild. Especially in New York City, where you might not think many people feel this urge, a lot of people are really open and excited to reconnect with nature in some way, and that is something that doesn’t know an age barrier.
EB: I understand your parents were psychiatrists. How did you get through that? How did they get through it?
We got through it fine, both my parents are psychiatrists and I think on some level they find me fascinating, whether clinically or otherwise. But more than anything, I grew up at a dinner table where what we talked about were stories (last names withheld obviously), and we would just come to understand how to connect to another person, and we were instilled very early on with a sense of value for that connection, and I think that fostered a degree of introspection within me. Turning inward on myself to examine who I was in a professional and personal context and asking myself those questions a lot was sometimes really torturous. As I graduated school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I moved through a lot of different potential career paths and I found that as long as I kept myself moving I would be ok. I found encouragement from my parents in asking how that chapter was a learning experience for me and what I could take from that into my next chapter. Being able to ask those questions and really think about what mattered to me, I think, helped me find this better state of mind and a career where everything is in tune with what I feel I should be doing.
EB: How do you find the connection between nature, educating people, inspiring them and motivating them contributes to conservation?
Wildlife sound can be a source of many things, whether it’s scientific knowledge, creative inspiration, or simply joy and relaxation. By tapping into it as a creative and storytelling medium, I’ve found that my work connects me to new audiences that have not been exposed to the idea of conservation, let alone the ethics and the movement. I hope to be an ambassador for the values and the knowledge that I’m gaining from the people that I feel very privileged to work with. Conservationists are really interesting people across all different kinds of industries, as it turns out, and I didn’t know this going in. My family doesn’t have any conservationists in it, and we all have an appreciation for what that means on some level, but inevitably there are stereotypes or generalizations that mask your understanding of what conservation can be.
I found for myself that conservation can mean music production, it can mean creating a television program, it can mean performing on stage. As you move between all these different paths, you get in touch with new people, you continue developing sound as a new storytelling medium, and ultimately you expand the ways that we connect to nature and the ways that we can encourage others to do the same.
Stereotypes or generalizations mask your understanding of what conservation can be.
Interviewed by Elise Boeger, conservationist and birder,
and Nik Makharadze, freelance writer.
All images on this page are from @djecotone on Instagram.
No part of this interview can be reproduced without citing Thinking Animals United.