Margaret Atwood Talks Bird Lore To Celebrate the ‘Bedside Book of Birds’

For many years, authors Margaret Atwood and her late associate Graeme Gibson have been an influence couple of Canadian literature. Regardless of his wide-ranging affect, Gibson struggled to promote publishers on an uncommon guide he envisioned—a large scrapbook of artwork and writings about birds in historical past and tradition. “He had the thought for The Bedside E book of Birds ten years earlier than the guide really acquired revealed,” says Atwood, the award-winning speculative fiction novelist, in addition to a birder, conservationist, and poet. 

The Bedside E book of Birds, ultimately launched in 2005, was Gibson’s love letter to the deep relationships between people and birds. Within the compendium, birds present hope, perception, and companionship but in addition portend sinister omens. Its contents span continents and centuries, from Aristotle and an Aztec eagle warrior to T.S. Eliot and Haruki Murakami. The guide was a success on the time, says Atwood, and now it is being reprinted by Penguin Random Home to be launched in shops on March 30. 

Gibson by no means misplaced his enjoyment of birds, she says, even as much as his demise in 2019 at age 85. Audubon spoke to Atwood, who wrote a brand new ahead to the guide, in regards to the story of this uncommon work and the couple’s shared birding life. 

Audubon: How did this distinctive guide come about? 

Margaret Atwood: Graeme was a convert to birdwatching when he was most likely about 36, and he grew to become very eager on it. He palled up with some knowledgeable birders and was very fascinated with taking teams to Cuba, which I believe has 25 endemics together with the Bee Hummingbird—the smallest hummingbird on the planet. We did [birding trips] for quite a lot of years, after which we grew to become related with BirdLife Worldwide. Throughout this time he was additionally gathering. He was gathering hen photos, hen tales, folks’s experiences with birds, and hen mythology. He had the thought for placing it right into a miscellany, which was a favourite Victorian sort of guide. A miscellany can embody something—a quote, a picture of a statue, a tidbit of a narrative, a bit of folklore, scientists’ writings, a journey journey, something. It was a means of elimination of what would go in and what needed to come out. The Bedside E book of Birds may have been about 5 instances as huge because it was. 

Audubon: Sure, there’s lots on this wealthy guide, overlaying the numerous ways in which people work together with birds. What are a few of these themes? 

Atwood: They cowl the vary. Not all experiences that individuals have had with birds have been optimistic, and never all of them have been optimistic for birds. In a single place within the guide, it is remarked that humanity gave the wings of birds to the angels however the claws to the devils. We’ve got had issues like Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. Some individuals are afraid of birds, let’s not low cost that. And a few birds had been seen as a component of doom. What number of crows are purported to be unhealthy? I believe it is three. And ravens have been related to battlefields. In some cultures, they’re known as ‘wolf birds’ as a result of they comply with wolves and need a few of no matter it’s the wolf goes to kill—and so they’re sensible sufficient to know that. As a result of they’ll’t open a carcass they’ll really assist wolves and people hunt. Overhead, they’ll see over hills, and they’re going to try this dip factor of their wings, like ‘this fashion, yoohoo, this fashion.’ 

Audubon: Within the new ahead you’ve got written with this reissue, you point out that you simply and Graeme dressed up because the Norse god Odin’s pair of ravens for a fancy dress occasion. I really like that. 

Atwood: Graeme picked Thought, and I picked Reminiscence. He didn’t have a superb reminiscence, whereas I did. 

Audubon: A few of the excerpts within the guide usually are not totally shocking—the Bible, Darwin, Greek mythology—however others are a lot lesser recognized. I used to be to see the combination of phrases and artwork that present how each Western and non-Western cultures relate to birds. How did he do analysis? 

Atwood: We did a number of touring in these years. And a few of the locations have been very huge on hen imagery. Certainly, there was usually folklore and mythology again by the years, and that is one of many issues I am additionally fascinated with. After all, after we have been touring and after we have been doing hen issues, we might ask folks wherever we have been: ‘Acquired any good hen tales?’

Audubon: Within the guide, Graeme discusses the concept that birdwatchers can generally get misplaced within the act of checking a hen off their listing, and even symbolically possessing a hen, as in the usage of the birding phrase, “what birds did you get?’

Atwood: Sure, although it’s higher than taking pictures them which is how folks used to gather birds.

Audubon: How did you two method birding then?

Atwood: We did do a visit listing for locations that we have been going, particularly if we have been with a gaggle of individuals. However we did not do a life listing. He was all the time extra fascinated with watching the birds’ habits than in checking it off the listing. However we perceive the gathering factor, too—it’s like stamp gathering in a approach. It’s a unique sort of pleasure.

Audubon: Have you ever been doing extra birdwatching on this final pandemic yr? 

Atwood: I’ve been doing a number of strolling, however not particularly with that in view. Whenever you’re birding, I believe it’s higher to be with different people who find themselves doing the identical factor. However I hope to have the ability to be with some like-minded folks, probably in Might. We threw collectively a Pelee Island Hen Observatory and Pelee Island Heritage Middle Springsong occasion on-line final yr, and we’re doing the identical this yr. It is going to be Might 8. 

Audubon: With the pandemic, this reissue is being revealed in a really completely different second than it was initially. Do you suppose the guide will hit otherwise now?  

Atwood: Effectively every little thing is hitting differently. I believe we have seen a giant uptick in folks’s appreciation for pure area. Pure areas have been locations that individuals may go into—and that weren’t their cellar—the place they may have some respiration area.

Audubon: In The Bedside E book of Birds, I used to be significantly moved by one piece, “Birds of the Western Entrance,” from a author named Saki, who died in World Battle I. He was writing about how the lives of birds went on amid all of the demise and destruction of the struggle. It jogged my memory a bit of little bit of this yr—how I believe folks have taken some solace within the lives of birds regardless of all of the demise and destruction now.

Atwood: Sure—not solely are birds stunning and cheerful, however they’re ongoing. Like within the well-known World Battle I poem In Flanders Area, one of many issues that individuals who have been within the trenches observed was that the meadowlarks have been nonetheless doing their factor regardless of the entire carnage that was occurring round them. 

This Q&A has been condensed and evenly edited for readability. 

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