An Interview with Martyn Stewart
Certain questions, particularly when put to the average Nosara resident, are entirely rhetorical. For example, ask a local how they feel about the sound of howler monkeys for an alarm clock, or the sight of a puppy playing in the sand at sunset, then the everwhelming majority of answers will range somewhere between “love it” and “best thing ever.” However, ask them whether they love that monkey shriek to a degree whereby they’d devote their entire life to recording it, or whether they love those puppies enough to risk life and limb attending Chinese dog meat festivals to protest the gruesome goings on, or endure being imprisoned in Japan accused of eco-terrorism for documenting the Taiji dolphin slaughter (think The Cove documentary), then the answers might be very different. Not however, the answers you recieve from Martyn Stewart.
Nosara resident, natural sound recordist, vegan, ardent socer fan, and much more, Martyn Stewart wears many diferent hats. However, his prime choice of headgear, which he has worn daily, and for decades during his trips to the wilds of Africa, Asia, Central America and beyond, is a set of headphones. In this interview Nosara.com sits down with Martyn to talk about environmentalism, thieving crocodiles, and the optimal technique for punching a mountain lion in the face.
Where are you from?
A little town in Scotland called Airdrie. The snobs in Airdrie will say thats just outside Edinburgh. The ruffians like me will say it’s just outside Glasgow.
When did you discover you had a passion for recording sound?
When I was a kid my late brother used to take me on outings through the countryside and we’d hang out in the hedgerows. He introduced me to amphibians, hoverflies, birds, badgers and everything else. I’d take a jam jar, punch a hole in the top, catch hoverflies and listen to the sounds they made. My brother was a superb guitarist who was in a band. When I was around 11 I stole one of his mics. My other brother had an old school AKAI tape recorder. I’d take these into the countryside and begin recording sounds. To buy more tape I had a paper round. At the age of 12 I began sending these recordings to the BBC. The first response came five years later when they asked if I had badger sounds, which I did.
Tell us about the evolution of your career path?
I was invited down to the Pebble Mill in Birmingham which is a major BBC production facility. They offered me an apprenticeship at the age of 18. I’d go and mess around with the equipment, make tea and sweep the floor. Then I went to the BBC college in Swindon to learn engineering. I also studied horticulture to learn more about the natural world, particularly the symbiosis between plants and animals. That was decades ago. Snce then I’ve recorded 70,000 hours of natural sounds over 50 years. If you played them continuously it’d take nearly four years to get through them. This includes about 3,500 species of birds. These sounds have appeared in over 150 feature films, countless documentaries and radio and TV programs.
What have been the most memorable moments of this career
There’s too many to mention. One that stands out is this. When I was about 11 my brother and I wrote a letter to David Attenborough complaining of the hypocrsiy that Prince Phillip, who was then chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, spent his vacations in India shooting tigers and other big game. Attenborough sent a personal reply thanking us and telling us that he was working on it. Decades later I ended up working with David Attenborough on The life of Birds TV show. I mentioned the letter I sent him. He didn’t remember but he laughed and said to me, “Ha, but we did it didn’t we,” referring to Prince Phillips quitting big game hunting due to public pressure. I’d say the most memorable thing overall is just having the chance and privelege to work in the industry that I do, and being part of a team that can bring brilliance to the screen. Has it changed the world? I don’t know, but I subscribe to the starfish theory. There’s a man walking along a beach covered in a million starfish that he’s trying to put back in the ocean. A guy walks over and asks “what are you doing. You can’t save all these starfish,” at which the guy picks up a starfish and replies, “no, but I can save this one.” That’s my working philosophy. If one person is inspired by my work then that’s more than enough reason to continue.
You’ve spent a lot of time around wild animals. Any close encounters that frightened you?
I had a mountain lion rip half my ear off in Big Bend national park in Texas. I was sitting on a stool. The microphones were around 300m away monitoring the sounds of the dawn chorus. This thing crept up behind me and took a swipe at my head. That cost me 160 stitches in the back of my head. It seemed like it lasted forever but it really was only about twenty seconds. I remembered the only chance you have against carnivorous mammals is put pressure between their outer cheeks so they bite down on their own inner cheek. I punched it in the face and it scarpered. The local ranger asked me what happened. I blamed my injuries on a fall because I didn’t want them to go after the cat, after all, the thing only wanted some breakfast.
Another time I was on the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya recording night sounds. I’d run a cable with all my mics along the riverbank. I went to check them and this huge crocodile came flying out the river. I jumped back obviously startled. The croc turned around and went back into the river, dragging all my cables, mics, and equipment with it. That was an expensive day.
If you were trapped on a desert island and could only take one sound recording with you which would you choose?
It would be a toss up between the crow, which is my favorite bird because it picks up human garbage wherever it goes, or the Eurasian skylark. I’d probably pick the Eurasian skylark because that was what got me into recording. I’d lie on my back in a cornfield and listen to their beautiful melodic sound. Listening to those things is like listening to classical music. Hearing it takes me back to my childhood, so that particular bird and its sound is pretty special to me.
You’re now a fairly well recognized animal rights activist and campaigner. How did this begin, and how did it evolve into where you are now?
It started with fox hunting which was huge among rich British idiots back then. That was the dawn of my activism. I also worked with Save the whales, in fact I was there at the start hanging out with the founders of this organization. This morphed into the International Whaling Commission, which essentially brought whales back from the brink of extinction by campaigning to have whaling banned.
You’re campaigining work has placed you into situations where you see first hand the cruelty being committed to animals. How do you deal with this on an emotional level? How do you morph this into fuel for your ongoing work?
To be honest I’m full of anger for the people that carry out this stuff. I channel those feelings into whatever positive action I can, like attending and protesting the Yulin dog meat festival in China, where I’m going to again in June this year. It’s very hard to deal with. There was a time when I’d return from campaigns and just lie down and talk to my dog. It was like the dog was the only creature who understands. Ha.
Since you started, have you seen a cultural shift in the way people view animals, be that beef cattle, tigers, or Indonesian Orangutans etc?
Humans are wierd. If you call a town meeting to inform people there’s a wild bear loose in the neighborhood, thirty guys will turn up literally frothing at the mouth to blow the thing out of existence. If you call a meeting to save a local swamp which serves as a vital natural habitat for many species, then you’d be lucky if five people turned up. There’s a lot of people who prefer to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the reality of the situation. The overall perspective on wildlife environmental preservation has changed for the better in the past few decades. It’s just a question of whether things are changing quick enough to make a difference.
Despite their personal views on the matter, the average Joe may feel it difficult to participate in a way that makes any sort of difference. What would you say to them?
Every single voice matters, because animals and the natural world don’t have a voice. That can be as simple as not walking out of a local minisuper with groceries in a plastic bag. Everybody has a part to play, and everything we do matters. Decades ago, my brother said something very simple to me which echoed throughout generations. He asked me how I could record animals, and then go home and eat them. One day, the gravitas of these simple words hit me for real. One day I just stopped eating animals. I have a grandhild who is 9. He’s never eaten an animal in his life. My daughter hasn’t eaten an animal for twenty years, and this is not because I’ve preached to them. It’s because influence, and the power of leading by example travels down through generations. Everyone has a part to play, and it’s amazing just how easy it is make the necessary changes in your life.
When did you first come to Costa Rica?
I first came in 1990 to record birds in Manuel Antonio and the Osa peninsula for The Life of Birds TV show. This was way before Costa Rica’s popularity took off. There was a lot more tropical rainforest making it easy to record indigenous bird species. I returned to the Atlantic coast in 2001 to record other species.
Why did you choose Nosara as your home?
I was living in the States. The night Trump became president I decided it was time to flee. I’d heard about Nosara from my wife who’d seen it on a TV program. She told me to check it out. I did. A month later we were on a flight here.
What are your plans here?
I’m building my house, and now I’m working on my recording studio. I plan to document the local species and environment. I have six audio recording units placed in different locations, recording dawn, dusk and through the night. This gives me base data on how much man made sound is encroaching on the natural world here. I want to protect what’s here. I find it futile to live in the States and try to preach to 350 million people not to decimate their own back yard. I’d rather be among people who respect what they have, and many people around here do respect it.
What do you identify as threats faced by the local wildlife here in Nosara, and Costa Rica as a whole?
It’s about human encroachment and in some ways I’m guilty of that too. That said, I think local real estate agents could work harder to convince buyers to do their best to maintain the natural space around them. There’s a lot of money coming here, and that’s a powerful force. That said, ironically, one of the big saving graces is some of the big money people that come here are buying huge tracts of land and wishing to keep it like that. Right now I’m part of a consortium of 7 people. We’re buying up as much land as we can to preserve it into perpetual conservation. We just bought 120 acres towards Ostional. We bought another tract by the biological reserve, and, we’re buying up some more.
Anything you’d like to add?
Yeah, I can’t wait for Liverpool to win the European cup on Saturday.
To find out more about Martyn’s work visit his website: naturesound.org/