The Love­birds

On se­cluded Pelee Is­land, Mar­garet At­wood and Graeme Gib­son have built a sanc­tu­ary for their feathered friends

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Grant Mun­roe

Step out­side. Be­hind the cars and con­struc­tion, the lawn­mow­ers and dogs, you’ll likely hear the chirps, coos, war­bles, whis­tles, peeps, cries, and trills of bird­song. It’s mu­sic so com­mon that we of­ten reg­is­ter it only in its ex­tremes: the con­crete si­lence of empty in­dus­trial parks, the green sym­phony of north­ern wood­lands. Mostly, birds are just there, peek­ing, tweet­ing, then dart­ing off. But to a sur­pris­ingly large group of North Amer­i­cans — al­most forty-eight mil­lion, by one count — they’ve be­come ob­jects of par­tic­u­lar affection. Among the most fa­mous of this tribe are Mar­garet At­wood and Graeme Gib­son, a mated pair of au­thors.

In May, at the height of spring mi­gra­tion, I met the cou­ple, whose shared love of bird­watch­ing and con­ser­va­tion spans the bet­ter part of their forty-six-year part­ner­ship, at a café on On­tario’s Pelee Is­land — the south­ern­most pop­u­lated point in Canada, sit­u­ated in the western basin of Lake Erie. The seventy-seven-year-old At­wood, face shaded un­der a wide-brimmed hat, shared a sand­wich with Gib­son, who wore a fid­dler’s cap and brown cardi­gan. They were on the is­land for the six­teenth an­nual Spring­song Week­end — a fundraiser partly founded by At­wood and Gib­son in 2002 to sup­port the her­itage cen­tre on Pelee (rhymes with pee­wee) — and to bird­watch with the friends they host there for vis­its each spring.

Over a lunch made noisy by birds and lo­cal hu­man res­i­dents that winged through the café’s out­door pa­tio, the two spoke of how they’d been in­tro­duced to the hobby. At­wood, who grew up on a lake, came to an aware­ness of wildlife early. For Gib­son, it was more of a sud­den haz­ing: one day in the 1960s, while on a walk, he was buzzed by a red-tailed hawk. “Sud­denly, this bloody big bird went right over my head,” he told me, “and I thought, what the hell was that?” So he bought binoc­u­lars and a Peter­son Field Guide to Birds of North Amer­ica, found the crea­ture again, and soon be­came en­am­ored of his dis­cov­ery.

“The hawk was Graeme’s ‘trig­ger bird,’” At­wood said, us­ing a term for whichever species first brings a fu­ture birder to the pastime.

Gib­son, who re­tired from novel writ­ing in 1996, has a less vis­i­ble pub­lic pro­file than At­wood, but his pas­sion for na­ture is as no­table. Af­ter the hawk in­ci­dent, with what he calls “the zeal of a con­vert,” he be­came in­ter­ested in texts that il­lus­trate

hu­man­ity’s an­cient re­la­tion­ship with avian life. The re­sult was his 2005 mis­cel­lany, The Bed­side Book of Birds — a won­der cab­i­net of a book. Over 370 pages, Gib­son of­fers ex­cerpts from me­dieval bes­tiaries (on par­rots, cranes, and the myth­i­cal cal­adrius), trav­el­ogues by Bruce Chatwin (on al­ba­tross), Cuban folk tales (roost­ers), fic­tion by Franz Kafka (on vul­tures — ob­vi­ously). There are po­ems by Edna St. Vincent Mil­lay, Oku­mura Masanobu, and Mar­garet At­wood her­self (swans, cuck­oos, and vul­tures again), and nu­mer­ous other works — in­clud­ing etch­ings, sculp­tures, il­lu­mi­na­tions, paint­ings, and sketches of birds from nearly ev­ery pe­riod and cul­ture. In his in­tro­duc­tion to one of the clos­ing chap­ters, Gib­son writes that bird­watch­ing “can en­cour­age a state of be­ing close to rap­ture — the for­get­ful­ness that blends the in­di­vid­ual con­scious­ness with some­thing other than it­self.”

In 2003, At­wood and Gib­son helped found the Pelee Is­land Bird Ob­ser­va­tory. The non-profit serves as a node within the Cana­dian Mi­gra­tion Mon­i­tor­ing Net­work, a chain of ob­ser­va­tion sta­tions that gather data on pass­ing avi­fauna. “PI BO’S chief mis­sion,” said At­wood, “is count­ing birds. Hence our slo­gan: We count birds be­cause birds count.” Without ac­cu­rate num­bers, she said, it’s im­pos­si­ble to know what’s hap­pen­ing across the dis­tances many species travel — and such in­for­ma­tion can of­fer sci­en­tists in­sight into eco­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal changes. Gib­son noted that the is­land lies at the con­flu­ence of the At­lantic and Mis­sis­sippi mi­gra­tion routes. As many as half of Canada’s more than 400 rec­og­nized bird species can be seen there each spring. Just north on the main­land, at Point Pelee Na­tional Park, thou­sands of hu­mans travel from around the world to wit­ness red-necked grebes, yel­low-breasted chats, and pro­thono­tary war­blers, among oth­ers, “drop down” to rest be­fore re­sum­ing their jour­neys.

In­ter­est in bird­watch­ing has grown since the cou­ple took it up; it’s among the few vin­tage hob­bies whose ad­her­ents are gain­ing in num­ber. Among them, in the par­lance of the pastime, are “lis­ters,” who travel far afield to add species to their so­called life lists; “patch­work­ers,” who fo­cus on birds of a spe­cific re­gion; and or­nithol­o­gists. The rise in pop­u­lar­ity might be due to the grow­ing num­ber of re­tir­ing baby boomers — but a sur­pris­ingly wide swath of so­ci­ety is in on the trend. Whether be­cause of the hobby’s low buy-in cost, its touted abil­ity to de­velop mind­ful­ness, or its po­ten­tial to act as a pal­lia­tive for a gen­er­a­tion numbed by high-den­sity down­town liv­ing, re­ports of binoc­u­lar tot­ing twenty-some­things are up. This Oc­to­ber, Canada’s Grey­stone Books will pub­lish Bernd Brun­ner’s Bird­ma­nia: A Re­mark­able Pas­sion for Birds. The work of­fers an over­view of hu­man­ity’s re­la­tion­ship with birds, but gives em­pha­sis to the con­ser­va­tion­ists, con artists, and ec­centrics who made birds the fo­cus of their lives — a sort of bed­side book of bird­ers.

Ear­lier this sum­mer, At­wood launched the third graphic novel in her An­gel Cat­bird se­ries, a zany, colour­ful work of benev­o­lent pro­pa­ganda she cre­ated in col­lab­o­ra­tion with il­lus­tra­tor John­nie Christ­mas. Its mes­sages: (1) birds are im­por­tant for our en­vi­ron­ment, but (2) they die in alarm­ing num­bers, and ( 3) many of those deaths are caused by do­mes­tic house cats, so (4) please keep your cats in­doors. Other fa­mous lit­er­ary cou­ples have shared pas­times — Vladimir Nabokov col­lected but­ter­flies to the de­light of his wife, Vera; Sylvia Plath took up bee­keep­ing with Ted Hughes — but few have been as well-paired for the ac­tivism that of­ten at­tends bird­watch­ing: At­wood’s in­ter­est, which seems cooler and slightly ironic, tem­pers Gib­son’s gre­gar­i­ous fa­nati­cism. Rather than rail against cat own­ers, as some do, they have adopted a bal­anced col­lab­o­ra­tive an­gle: driven yet com­pas­sion­ate, cut with hu­mour, grounded in science, ef­fected through ap­peals to emo­tion and in­tel­lect.

As the con­ver­sa­tion turned to other lo­cal ini­tia­tives the cou­ple sup­ports — in­clud­ing one of the is­land’s first cer­ti­fied or­ganic farms and the Pelee Is­land Book House, a newly opened writ­ers’ re­treat — the ques­tion of seclu­sion arose. Given the soli­tary de­mands of her vo­ca­tion, few would have be­grudged At­wood a com­plete with­drawal from the is­land’s com­mu­nity. In­stead, she chose in­volve­ment.

“It’s not me,” she said. “Graeme can’t help him­self.”

“Well, they’ve been good to us,” Gib­son said, “the peo­ple here.”

Like re­mote com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try, Pelee has a rep­u­ta­tion for pro­tect­ing its own. The is­landers en­cour­age bird­watch­ing, but not celebrity sight­ing. Sto­ries abound of tourists be­ing com­i­cally mis­di­rected: ask for At­wood, and you might end up on the far side of the is­land at Dick’s Ma­rina — long aban­doned, now a mid­den of planks and bro­ken slips.

While we fin­ished our cof­fees, our talk turned to the friends who visit. Birds still come, but the “old gang” that gath­ers to greet them is thin­ning. Shaugh­nessy Co­hen, one of their first hosts on Pelee, col­lapsed of a cere­bral hem­or­rhage dur­ing a live ses­sion of Par­lia­ment in 1998. Two oth­ers died re­cently, in­clud­ing his­to­rian Ram­say Cook. Gib­son is eighty-four. Weeks be­fore I met him, he de­cided to skip ma­jor knee surgery. “I have de­men­tia,” he said, con­firm­ing what The New Yorker re­ported in a long pro­file of At­wood this past spring, “and so I thought I’d fo­cus on that.” It’s not so bad, re­ally. Early in the day, he can look at birds, he told me, touch­ing his knee. “Then, af­ter two beers, I can walk home.”

Just as Key West was for Ernest Hem­ing­way, the is­land is a refuge of sorts for At­wood — an es­cape from a world that has never wanted her more than it does now. A me­dia-savvy elder, her opin­ions on world pol­i­tics, the en­vi­ron­ment, and so­cial is­sues are ger­mane and quotable. Her work, too, is reach­ing a greater au­di­ence, es­pe­cially among a younger gen­er­a­tion. At­wood’s tweet­ing — of­ten hu­mor­ous, oc­ca­sion­ally ex­press­ing fears of ris­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism — has at­tracted more than 1.5mil­lion fol­low­ers. Hulu’s adap­ta­tion of The Hand­maid’s Tale was re­cently re­newed for a sec­ond sea­son; the CBC will be air­ing a minis­eries based on her 1996 novel, Alias Grace, start­ing Septem­ber 25. Even amid the static of pop cul­ture and news cy­cles, it’s be­come nearly im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore her voice.

Would an out­sider have known this based on the at­ten­tion of the lo­cals who stopped by the café for but­ter tarts and cof­fee? Likely not; all passed without paus­ing. A few long glances, maybe. But no one both­ered the cou­ple. She gath­ered their nap­kins and plates.

A mo­ment af­ter the server left, At­wood peered over my shoul­der. “We see you,” she said in a sing-song voice. “We know what you want.” Gib­son fol­lowed her gaze and raised his brows in sur­prise. I ex­pected a tourist. But it was only a com­mon grackle, Quis­calus quis­cula, black and iri­des­cent blue. It turned its head quite cu­ri­ously, as those bright birds will, and flew away.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.