NEW YORK – When Margaret Atwood would receive invitations over the years to literary events around the world, literature wasn't the only factor shaping her response. She also kept in mind the interests of her longtime partner and fellow Canadian author Graeme Gibson.
“Sometimes I would accept so we could go to the place and watch birds,” she says.
Gibson, who died in 2019 at age 85, was known well beyond the world of books. He was a prominent conservationist and ornithologist who helped found the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, served on the council of the World Wildlife Fund Canada and was honorary president of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society awarded him a gold medal in 2015.
Inevitably, his love for birds found its way into his writing.
“The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany," an illustrated compilation of folktales, poems, fiction and nonfiction that Gibson had assembled on his own, was originally published in 2005. A surprise bestseller at the time, it has been reissued with a new foreword from Atwood, who called birdwatching a pursuit she and Gibson enjoyed together.
“Though if birdwatching were a religion," added Atwood, who spent part of her childhood in the backwoods of Quebec, ”I'd have been the blase communicant who’d grown up in it and performed its rituals because that’s what our people do, and Graeme would have been the new convert, smitten with blinding light on the road to Damascus.”
“Every bird was a revelation to him,” she wrote. “A red-tailed hawk! Look at that! Nothing could be more magnificent.”
“The Bedside Book of Birds” is divided into nine sections — “habitats,” Gibson called them — that center on such themes as birds as omens, as revelations, avengers and mysteries. His sources ranged from Euripides and Marco Polo to a poem by Atwood (“Vultures”) and a brief passage from a June 1944 issue of Scientific American, which related the story of an Ohio women who used her ailing, feverish husband as an incubator for hens' eggs.
“She took 50 eggs, and wrapping each one in cotton batting, laid them alongside the body of her husband in the bed, he being unable to move a limb,” according to the magazine. “After three weeks she was rewarded with 46 lively young chickens.”
During a recent telephone interview, Atwood recalled Gibson's struggle to find a publisher for “The Bedside Book of Birds.” He had released several previous works, including the novels “Five Legs” and “Perpetual Motion,” but initially couldn't get anyone interested in a book that Atwood wryly describes as “an odd duck.”
Blame it on the '90s, she says.
“The 1990s, if you recall, was an odd decade. The Cold War had ended, the Berlin Wall had come down in 1989 and people were saying things like ‘the end of history.’ That was wrong, wrong, wrong,” Atwood said. “So the ‘90s was kind of the ‘Let’s go shopping' decade. Capitalism had won over communism. We noticed it in the publishing world, because when the Wall went down there was a rush for consumer pop culture."
By the mid-2000s, “climate change” was an increasingly common expression, former Vice President Al Gore was making his Academy Award-winning environmental documentary “An Inconvenient Truth," and concern was growing about the fate of wildlife. Gibson's book was acquired by Maya Mavjee at Doubleday Canada.
“I think we all immediately fell in love with the project, and Graeme’s enthusiasm was infectious,” Mavjee, now president and publisher for the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, told the AP. “Every part of the book is a glimpse into Graeme’s passions — nature, art, literature and of course birds. I think it caught on because it’s so utterly authentic, a true reflection of his obsession with all things birds.”
And, “with the uptick in the birdwatching market, the timing seemed perfect" for a reissue," she said.
Atwood says that Gibson's personal favorite among birds were ravens: “He loved ravens, as everybody should. They're very smart, and they have very long memories.”
In his book, Gibson also describes an unexpected bond with a parrot named Harold Wilson. He purchased the bird — illegally — in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1964, and brought him back to Toronto, where his vocal expressions were mostly limited to imitating a vacuum cleaner and barking “like two dogs at once.”
But Harold seemed increasingly lonely, and Gibson decided to give him to the Toronto Zoo. The zoo's director led Gibson, and Harold, to a “congenial cage,” shared with a parrot named Olive.
“I said my goodbyes and turned to leave. Then Harold did something that astonished me,” Gibson wrote. “For the very first time, and in exactly the voice my kids might have used, he called me ‘Daddy!' When I turned to look at him, he was leaning toward me expectantly. ‘Daddy,’ he repeated.”
“We think of our captive birds as pets," he concluded, “but perhaps we are their pets, as well.”
On March 30 at 7 p.m. EDT, Atwood will participate in an online benefit at the Pelee Island Bird Observatory.