The Current

Margaret Atwood's late partner loved birds. In the pandemic, she sees how they help people feel less alone

Canadian author Margaret Atwood shared much with her late partner, the novelist Graeme Gibson, including a love of birds.

New edition of The Bedside Book of Birds, by Atwood's late partner Graeme Gibson, released this week

Margaret Atwood and her late partner, the novelist Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019. (Danny Catt)

Story Transcript

Canadian author Margaret Atwood went on many a bird watching adventure with her late partner, the writer Graeme Gibson, including the time she "almost froze" on a winter trip to find owls on Amherst Island, Ont.

"We spent an hour watching a thing in a field, that either was a snowy owl — or it was a gallon white plastic milk bottle," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"Just as we had decided that it was a white plastic milk bottle, it flew."

Gibson died in 2019, after a stroke. He has been diagnosed with dementia several years before. 

He is remembered as a celebrated novelist, a great champion of Canadian literature and a passionate conservationist with a special love for birds. Those worlds collided in The Bedside Book of Birds, a miscellany of writing about birds that combines fiction and poetry with scientific and historical writing, alongside lavish illustrations, and parts of Gibson's own memoir. 

Margaret Atwood tells story of late partner Graeme Gibson and his pet parrot

23 days ago
2:35
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood talks with The Current’s host Matt Galloway about her partner and fellow novelist Graeme Gibson. She shares a story about Gibson’s pet parrot, Harold Wilson, named after the former British prime minister. 2:35

The book was originally published in 2005; a second edition is being released Tuesday, with a new foreword by Atwood. 

Gibson came to birding later in life, after an encounter with a large bird in a Don Valley ravine in Toronto. The bird flew startlingly low, right over Gibson's head, prompting him to buy a guide and binoculars to figure out what it was.

"He found out it was a red-tailed hawk. And from that moment on, he was a birder, as we say, and he was indeed very passionate," Atwood said.

Some birders keep detailed records of the species they see, sometimes heading out to find a bird not yet ticked off their list. 

But Gibson was different, and "liked watching what birds did, not just identifying them," Atwood said.

"I think he found it a form of meditation," she said.

"Towards the end of his life, when he had forgotten the names of the birds, he said, 'Well, I no longer know the names of the birds, but that's all right because they don't know my name either.'"

A red-tailed hawk in B.C. in 2017. Gibson first came to bird watching after an encounter with a similar bird in Toronto. (Lynda Robson)

A freedom found in bird watching

In the book, Gibson wrote that "one of the rewards of birdwatching is the brief escape it affords from our ancient and compelling need to make Nature useful."

He described it as a "taste of freedom."

It's also an activity that has proved a comfort to some Canadians during the pandemic, a fact that Atwood puts down to people trying to find some surety in an uncertain world.

"I think it's been very calming to a lot of people to feel 'I'm not alone on the planet, and other creatures are doing OK,'" she said.

But when the pandemic ends, she hopes that reassurance found in the natural world will translate to a greater focus on climate change and helping endangered species.

"Birds are the canaries in the coal mine," she said, pointing to the example of India's vulture crisis through the 1990s and early 2000s.

Atwood and Gibson first got together in 1973. (margaretatwood.ca)

During those years, millions of vultures on the subcontinent were unwittingly poisoned by a drug, diclofenac, being administered to cattle (and in turn ingested by the vultures that fed on cattle carcasses). 

The drug killed the birds within days, and biologists believe that roughly 99 per cent of the country's three vulture species was wiped out. 

"All of a sudden there was a huge infestation of rats and wild dogs and rabies, and it cost the Indian government billions of dollars," Atwood said.

Officials banned the drug's veterinary use in 2006, and vulture populations have slowly recovered. 

"When the birds start vanishing, you know, there's something toxic around. And possibly we should be looking into what that is and doing something about our plastic and chemicals problem," Atwood said. 

Humans need to find ways to protect the wildlife we share the planet with, she warned. If we "wipe all life off Earth," we'll discover "we cannot actually survive without other life," she said.

LISTEN | Margaret Atwood recites her poem Vultures

The poem features in a new edition of The Bedside Book of Birds, by Atwood's late partner Graeme Gibson. 1:25

In 2003, the couple helped to found the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, a non-profit that tracks bird numbers as they migrate. The island sits in Lake Erie, offering a way station for hundreds of species as they cross the great lake, before they push on to Point Pelee National Park, and spread out into Ontario and beyond.

Gibson loved the area, and loved showing its abundance of bird life to visitors.

"Birders are very sharing in that way. If you have not seen a bunch of birds because you've never been to that place, they're very happy to show you around," Atwood said.

A history of ecstasy

Gibson once wrote that watching birds can induce a kind of ecstasy, which Atwood explained as a feeling of being "out of your own body and at one with this other life that you're watching."

"That experience can be had watching all kinds of animals and seeing what they do and seeing how they live, how are they conducting their time on this earth and for Graeme, it was birds," she said.

Gibson and Atwood in 2016. Atwood has written a new foreword to a new edition of Gibson's The Bedside Book of Birds, released this week. (Rohit Jain Paras/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen | Graeme Gibson interviews Margaret Atwood in 1972

Graeme Gibson interviews the acclaimed writer. 14:18

That human interest in avian life dates back thousands of years, with many cultures sharing stories of the universe hatching from an egg, or featuring mythical, "original birds."

"Even the Bible begins that way. 'The spirit broods upon the waters,'" she said.

"Well, what is broods? Broods is when you're hatching an egg." 

While she's not sure everyone would experience the level of ecstasy Gibson describes, she thinks watching birds makes you look at the world a different way, and "they certainly can make you feel very joyful."

"If birds were suddenly all of them to vanish from this earth, we would miss them," she said.

"We kind of take them for granted, but if they were gone, we would really miss them."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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