Culture

Margaret Atwood Insists Birds Matter to Everyone—Whether They Realize It or Not

Birds inspire the acclaimed writer, poet, and conservation advocate—as seen in five avian-themed poems she shares with Audubon readers.

Margaret Atwood is on message. Not, mind you, about The Testaments, the acclaimed new book she’s promoting, a sequel to her most famous novel and Emmy award–winning TV series The Handmaid’s Tale.

In fact, Atwood does not seem all that interested in speaking about her writing, herself, or even her considerable passion for birding. Canada’s outspoken novelist, accomplished poet, and avian advocate extraordinaire has a talking point: how the birds themselves are doing. 

Editor's note: Scroll down to read several new avian-themed poems by Margaret Atwood, first published here. 

We’re on the phone while she’s on book tour, just before The Testaments wins the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction, and I ask her about how birds are used as symbols in literature, a tactic that she deploys often. A cursory answer, then the pivot: “Why don’t we talk about why birds are important,” she says. Later, this time with a chuckle punctuating her trademark wry monotone, she turns a question I have posed around with this: “That’s important from the point of view of people, but let’s talk about it as being important from the point of view of birds.” 

I’m finally getting the message, and Atwood is hoping many others are, too.

As she talks about climate change, insecticides, “catios” for outdoor cats, invasive rat eradication, and more, it’s clear that she cares deeply not only about avian health but also about our own. “You can’t consider birds in isolation from everything else. If you see them as symptoms, the worse things are for birds, the worse they’re going to be for us eventually,” she says. “If you follow birds, it allows you to get a pretty global view of what’s happening to the planet.”

In ancient times, augurs divined omens in the flights of birds, and Atwood keeps up this tradition. Much of her most well-known fiction envisions worlds that are dark, dystopian, or apocalyptic; she tells me that such tales can be read as “blueprints” of societal paths we might try to avoid. But the future is not all doom, she says, or at least it doesn’t have to be—bird populations can also reflect ecosystem and environmental recovery.

That’s happening on Pelee Island in Lake Erie, a key stopover for migrating birds where Atwood and her late partner Graeme Gibson have had a house for decades. On Pelee, in the early 2000s, they helped launch Springsong, a birding and literature festival, and establish a bird observatory. Bald Eagles, once decimated by DDT and illegal shooting, are making a comeback on the isle. “Once upon a time people would have shot them,” she says. “The attitude has really changed towards them, and that’s a message of a kind, too. People are waking up to the fact that nature is not limitless, and that our behavior as human beings can severely affect it.” 

Atwood, who grew up spending time in Canada’s woods, where her entomologist father worked, isn’t always so grave about her avian interests. Whether she’s mimicking the call of a loon before a packed audience or donning cat ears and a bird cape to give a keynote to the International Ornithological Congress (a reference to her 2016 graphic novel, Angel Catbird), animals bring out her playful side, too.

We also do eventually talk about her birding life. Of her father, a “crack birder,” she remembers: “He didn’t go hither and thither around the world watching birds, but he just knew all the birds in the area.” After she met Gibson—a novelist and passionate conservation leader who died in September—she says they did travel “hither and thither” and saw a variety of astonishing birds.

Because Gibson, in his Bedside Book of Birds, once wrote beautifully about how, much like composing poetry, “birdwatching can encourage a state of being close to rapture,” I feel clever asking Atwood if she can recall any such moments they shared together. But she’s not having the sentimental question, and I have to laugh as she shuts me down again: “You don’t stop in the middle of watching a bird and say, ‘Hey, are you having a rapturous moment? Yeah, gee, so am I.’ It’s not how life goes.” By now, I should have known: Atwood’s focus on birds doesn’t waver.

Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan. Photo: Branimir Gjetvaj

Feather

Margaret Atwood
One by handfuls the feathers fell.
Windsheer, sunbleach, owlwar,
some killer with a shotgun,

who can tell?
But I found them here on the quasi-lawn –
I don’t know whose torn skin –

a splayed calligraphy of plumes,
remains of a god that melted
too near the moon.

A high flyer once,
as we all were.
Every life is a failure

at the last hour,
the hour of dried blood.
But nothing, we like to think,

is wasted, so I picked up one from the slaughter,
sharpened and split the quill,
hunted for ink,

and drew this poem
with you, dead bird.
With your spent flight,

with your fading panic,
with your eye spiralling down,
with your night.

Crow Funeral

Margaret Atwood
Alert! Alert!
A crow has pecked the dirt
and lies in mud and grass,
eye slitted, slack
wing, curled claw,
heart inert.

Who did it? There’s no blood!
Where is the lethal shadow?
What poison, stone, or arrow?
We flap and shout:
Danger! Danger!
Raw! Raw!
But danger from what?

Come all ye crows!
Come gather in the trees
to mourn and rage!

Ruffle your sleek black feathers!
Chant our crow dirge,
both requiem and roar
of our baffled army!

Raw! Raw! From every angry bill!
O Death, silent foe,
invisible as a wormy smell –

War! War!
If we could only see you
we’d kill and kill.

Fatal Light Awareness

Margaret Atwood
A thrush crashed into my window:
one lovely voice the less
killed by glass as mirror –

a rich magician’s illusion of trees –
and by my laziness:
Why didn’t I hang the lattice?

Up there in the night air
among the highrises, music dies
as you fire up your fake sunrises:
your light is the birds’ last darkness.

All over everywhere
their feathers are falling –
warm, not like snow –
though melting away to nothing.

We are a dying symphony.
No bird knows this,
but us – we know

what our night magic does.
Our dark light magic.

Midway Island
Albatross Carcase

Margaret Atwood
Inside the barebones
ribs it’s all bright colour:
a tag a ribbon
a failed balloon
a strip of silver foil
a spring a wheel a coil

What should have been there
inside the sad bag
of wispy feathers,
inside the dead bird child?

It should have been the fuel
for wings, it should have been
upsoaring over a clean sea;
not this glittering mess,
this festering nestwork

Fear of Birds

Margaret Atwood
You said he was afraid of birds?
How could that be?
Someone so tall?

It wasn’t the augury.
Maybe the metal voices,
gold, silver, zinc.
A jingling, a scream, a scrape.
Or a dripping sound in the dry forest.
Tink. Tink. Tink. Tink.
Not to be confused with singing.

Or the close-up craziness of the eyes:
yellow, red, not cozy.
Inside that skull you’re not even a thought.

Wings of some sort. Like those of angels,
angels with claws.
Maybe that’s it.
A rustling, like thin paper.
Then feathers over the nose and mouth.
Muffled. A white smothering.

You said he was afraid of snow?
Much the same thing.


All poems, "Feather," "Fear of Birds," "Crow Funeral," "Fatal Light Awareness," and "Midway Island Albatross Carcase," © Margaret Atwood, 2019. 

 

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