Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson stop on the red carpet at the Scotiabank Giller Bank Prize gala in Toronto, Nov. 19, 2018. 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 CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson stop on the red carpet at the Scotiabank Giller Bank Prize gala in Toronto, Nov. 19, 2018. 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 CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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

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, andeven 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.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Instructor Brandt Trimble leads an outdoor spin class at RYDE RD. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Fitness facilities continue to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions

‘It’s really frustrating to be one of the targeted businesses’

Red Deer-Lacombe MP Blaine Calkins (Photo contributed)
Federal budget strangles job growth, says MP Blaine Calkins

‘It is most certainly not a balanced budget’

Kids at Lotsa’Tots West Day Care in Red Deer act out how a caterpillar moves with co-owner and instructor Shireen Sewcharran-Wiebe. Child care providers are hoping Alberta’s provincial government will help fund the national child care program announced this week. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Alberta day care providers hope Alberta will get onboard with national child care program

Some question whether the UCP’s ideology will stand in the way

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Jason Nixon, minister of Environment and Parks after being sworn into office, in Edmonton on Tuesday April 30, 2019. Town council from the largest municipality in Nixon's constituency is concerned over the province's consultation plans for open-pit coal mining in the Rocky Mountains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Town of Rocky Mountain House wants better coal consultation

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Alta. — Town council from the largest municipality in… Continue reading

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was in Red Deer on Friday to provide an update on the province's COVID-19 response in schools.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Alberta government aiming for more financial literacy learning in junior and senior high schools

Government providing grants to organizations who will help design financial literacy programming

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a television screen as he listens to United States President Joe Biden deliver a statement during a virtual joint statement following a virtual meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘We hope to help a little more’: Biden says he spoke to Trudeau about more vaccines

WASHINGTON — Canada can look forward to an unexpected shot in the… Continue reading

The Mission Correctional Institution in Mission, B.C. is pictured Tuesday, April 14, 2020. A new federal study found that people released from prison were much more likely than the general population to have trouble finding gainful employment, even over a decade after returning to society. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Ease employment hurdles for former prison inmates, federal study urges

OTTAWA — A new federal study found that people released from prison… Continue reading

Governor of the Bank of Canada Tiff Macklem holds a press conference at the Bank Of Canada in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Bank of Canada keeps rate on hold, sees brighter economic outlook

OTTAWA — The Bank of Canada is keeping its key interest rate… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. Tam says new information on COVID-19 and variants prompted the National Advisory Committee on Immunization to suddenly cancel its planned update on who should get the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
AstraZeneca advice from national panel delayed by new data on COVID-19 and variants

OTTAWA — Canada’s chief public health officer says new information on COVID-19… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a television screen as he listens to United States President Joe Biden deliver a statement during a virtual joint statement following a virtual meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pressured to adopt tougher emissions target for Biden climate summit

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under pressure to step up… Continue reading

Passengers from Air India flight 187 from New Delhi wait for their transportation to quarantine after arriving at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
ICU pressures mount as COVID fells younger people; Ottawa mulls India travel ban

TORONTO — Amid mounting pressures on critical care in hospitals and concerns… Continue reading

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on in Ottawa on Monday April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Three confidence votes to determine fate of minority Liberal government

OTTAWA — A pair of proposed changes to the federal budget put… Continue reading

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland talks with parents during a virtual discussion on child care in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Freeland is calling for patience and “flexibility” in response to questions about the government’s criteria for reopening the economy and border. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Freeland urges patience as business looks for answers on reopening border, economy

OTTAWA — Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is urging Canadian companies to… Continue reading

Most Read