But get Kirwan to talk a bit and you will discover, when the conversation turns to hobbies, that he is quietly distinct. His home in Blacksburg, Virginia, in the Appalachian mountains, though just a few hours' drive from campus, is culturally distant. Kirwan returns whenever he can. He misses the food and the way people talk. And he misses playing with his band, "The Loose Gap Loafers," winner of the eleventh Annual Maury River Fiddlers' Convention. Kirwan plays the fiddle. "Sometimes, when we're practicing our songs"--"Arkansas Traveler," "Forked Dear," "Whiskey Before Breakfast"--"we'll play for hours and hours, maybe twelve or thirteen, just stopping to eat."
At the age of eight, Kirwan learned to play in the Appalachian style of "Old Time," the precursor to country and blue grass. His father, who volunteered as a fire fighter just so he could play the fiddle in the fire-department band, introduced him to the instrument. "There weren't any other bands and he didn't know a lick about fire, but he wanted to play. He was always praying they'd never get a call."
Kirwan liked to practice in quiet places where no one could hear him. The woods around Blacksburg were a favorite. He hiked and played, all the while taking note, if only subconsciously, of the land around him. "I was taking a geology course at William & Mary. One day I realized how familiar I was with the area. So I made the Appalachians near my home my focus. I guess fiddling led me, in a way, to my academic pursuits."
Another hobby led Kirwan, in similar fashion, to pursue a master's degree in geomorphology: trapping muskrats. The unlikely source of his inspiration can be found anywhere there is water--ditches, ponds, lakes, rivers. Marshland, though, is the muskrat's habitat of choice, which is where Kirwan first discovered the joys of trapping them. "I learned from my cousin. He's a professional muskrat trapper. He's very good." Trapping, in turn, led Kirwan to his current field of study. "The marsh: How it formed. How it evolved. How it responds to changes in sea level."
Kirwan says people tend to look at him with amazement when he introduces muskrats into the conversation. "All I can talk about is what I like to do, and that isn't really normal around here." But he is happy to educate: "You have to feel around under the water for the tunnels. If the walls are smooth, it's probably in use, and you just stick a trap in there."
Does Kirwan eat his catch? "Oh yeah. My church has an annual fund-raiser and they serve a big muskrat dinner: $10, all the muskrat you can eat. It tastes good," he says. "Tastes like ... tastes like squirrel."
Mountain Music and Muskrats
Matt Kirwan, graduate student, Nicholas School
June 1, 2004