Margaret Atwood on how late husband Graeme Gibson traced humanity's avian obsession

·4 min read

If Margaret Atwood was a bird, she says she'd be a raven.

Other birds may have more vibrant plumage, but ravens are the intellectuals of the avian realm, the Canadian novelist says.

As her late husband Graeme Gibson's "The Bedside Book of Birds" shows, Atwood said ravens have always occupied a storied place in human mythology, particularly as harbingers of misfortune and death.

The Toronto-based author of "The Handmaid's Tale" doesn't presume to possess any such prophetic powers herself. But if the fates of fowl indeed presage our own, Atwood said these sentinel species are sending a clear warning about the environmental horrors that humanity has wrought.

"We have a lot more endangered species than we used to have, and even common species in some places are in decline," said Atwood, listing off hazards to birds such as habitat destruction, window strikes and being killed by cats.

"They're being poisoned by stuff in the environment. And if that stuff is in the environment, sooner or later, it's going to end up in us."

In a new foreword to "The Bedside Book of Birds," which is being reissued more than 15 years after its original publication, Atwood recounts when she and Gibson attended a costume party as Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn — thought and memory — who flew around the world gathering information for the Norse god, according to mythology.

Clad in black with beaks made out of construction paper, Gibson dressed up as thought, while Atwood represented memory. She said Gibson, who died in 2019 after a battle with dementia, decided he couldn't be memory because his own was unreliable.

Atwood said her and Gibson's shared passion for birdwatching shaped their lives together, although their approaches differed.

As the daughter of an entomologist, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the Canadian wilderness, where she picked up birding with the passive piety of someone raised in the "religion," she said.

By contrast, Gibson discovered birding later in life, embracing the hobby with the zeal of a "convert," Atwood said. An avid environmentalist, Gibson was a council member of World Wildlife Fund Canada and chairman of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, to which a portion of the profits from "The Bedside Book of Birds" will be donated.

The couple's devotion to birding followed them throughout their global travels. Along the way, said Atwood, Gibson amassed a sprawling collection of art, poetry, folk tales, fiction and non-fiction about birds, which he eventually compiled into "The Bedside Book of Birds."

At first, Gibson struggled to sell publishers on the avian miscellany, Atwood recalled. But the title became an unexpected hit after its initial 2005 release, because Gibson's eclectic curation broadened the book's appeal beyond a niche group of fowl fanatics.

"It isn't a bird guide. It's a compendium of the way people, human beings, have reacted to birds," said Atwood, 81.

"As far back as we can go in the human story, there have always been images of birds. There have always been mythologies about birds as soon as we began to make such mythologies."

In "The Bedside Book of Birds," Gibson traces our avian fascination across histories and cultures, drawing from sources including traditional Mayan texts, the writings of biologist Charles Darwin and Atwood's poetry.

Atwood believes our centuries-long obsession with birds may be motivated by envy of two qualities: the ability to sing melodiously and the power of flight.

Our age-old aspiration to conquer the sky placed birds in league with the divine, said Atwood.

"That is probably why we ascribed wings to angels," she said. "Generally, we've put the good place up and the bad place down. So birds could go up, just like God, and of course, we wanted that."

Birds were around for millions of years before humans came on the scene, and Atwood suspects our feathered friends will outlast us. The question is how long will we get to coexist together, she said.

"What our goal should be is to avoid short-term extinction within the next 100 years."

Birdwatching has taken off recently as a pandemic-friendly pastime to distract from the troubles of the world. And while Atwood insists she has no interest in "preaching the word" of the bird, she endorses the practice as "a form of meditation."

"It's hard to think about other things while you're doing that, because you're very focused on the immediate," she said. "If you have a problem or an anxiety, it's a very good way to get your mind off that and be in the moment."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press