In my second year of university, I lived with my best friend’s family. They have a collection of bird feeders in their backyard, visible from the kitchen window, and some days, when I would wash dishes at the sink, I would watch the birds come and go. The goldfinches, sparrows, and chickadees would take modest turns grabbing one seed, then two, then three – until they all suddenly darted away in every direction, often a large, black grackle taking their place. I enjoyed seeing the variety of birds that would appear at the feeders, but I also noticed some birds that showed up more consistently. One pair of cardinals were always together at the feeders and in the winter, the two red love birds were easily spotted against the white snow. In the spring, there was a pair of ducks that would come around and sit quietly together in small puddles in the yard.
A few years later, I was taking a walk with my friend through Victoria Park in Kitchener, Ontario, admiring a couple of swans floating down the river next to the path. ‘It’s the swans!’ my friend exclaimed. I had no idea what swans she was referring to, so she explained to me that there was a famous swan couple – Otis and Ophelia – that lived in both Stratford and Kitchener. They spend their winter “vacations” at a compound in Stratford and live in Victoria Park in Kitchener for the rest of the year. These swans have been a popular source of entertainment for locals and have several news articles written about them in the regional newspapers. Perhaps people are drawn to them because they are a symbol of love and mark the beginning of spring when they return to Victoria Park: two unproblematic swans floating side-by-side, choosing each other to spend their lives with.
Source: The Waterloo Record
Long-lasting, monogamous partnerships are actually common for many bird species. Many species are known to “mate for life”. For example, black vulture (Coragyps atratus) couples have a strong connection and they just enjoy hanging out together, even in non-breeding seasons. Several other species, like the Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and the endangered Whooping Crane (Grus americana), are known to spend their lives together and if one of the pair dies, the other will spend a period of time mourning before moving on. So, what is the secret to these birds’ sustained, monogamous love?
It seems Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson knew the secret. Atwood and Gibson shared a partnership that lasted through five decades of life. Can you imagine being with and loving a person for that long? Perhaps it just baffles me because I’m a young woman in my early twenties and it’s hard enough imagining myself being 50, let alone a relationship of mine. Atwood and Gibson seemed to have a way of love that lasted through the ups and downs of work, fame, aging, having a family – all in a changing world.
Both Atwood and Gibson were esteemed Canadian writers, but Atwood’s name seems to have been more frequently in the spotlight of Canadian literary news as her books reach a wide audience of readers. I am a late 90s baby and I grew up reading Atwood. I read her book Alias Grace in high school, and I remember finding her novels popping up in popular book lists or on the featured shelves at bookstores. I only started seeing Gibson’s works appearing in my world once I got a bit older, became an environmentalist, and began studying ecology. It was then that I realized the wisdom and great impact that his work gave this field.
Despite differences in their published works and recognition in different reading circles, Gibson was committed to his partner’s work. In an interview with The Telegraph, Atwood said the following: “He’s pretty good – he mostly just keeps out of the way. And I don’t show him my books before they’re in print. I recommend it. Supposing your spouse doesn’t like your work – then you’re in trouble.” Gibson’s support for her was always there, even if it was unseen by the public. As a young woman growing up in this world, it is refreshing to see this kind of balanced relationship, where the woman and man (at least, in heterosexual relationships) take on roles in their partnership that complement one another and do not put one behind the other. They are beside each other.
Atwood and Gibson also fought for a better world alongside one another. They both loved nature, and used their writing, actions, and voices to protect it. Gibson was a well-known conservationist and birder, and Atwood incorporated topics of environmental degradation, conservation, and climate change into her novels and poetry. Amidst the sometimes strange and undesirable dystopian worlds painted in Atwood’s books, there is always a seed of hope found in the stories. Kayleigh Dray, digital editor of Stylist magazine, writes that many of Atwood’s fans believe this hope to stem from her love with Gibson. Perhaps Atwood’s hope for the future began in her partnership with Gibson. Perhaps his commitment to birds and nature in his work sparked that hope in her stories, and together they believed in a future worth fighting for. Perhaps that shared hope, that shared vision of a better world, strengthened their love even more.
Atwood’s poetry book, Dearly, contains several poems about nature, climate change, and futurism, but also about aging, reminiscing, memories, loss, and change. One of these poems is titled “Dearly” in which the process of “fading” is discussed – presumably, a fading feeling she experienced in herself and her partner.
“Dearly beloved, gathered here together / in this closed drawer, / fading now, I miss you.” – Margaret Atwood, “Dearly”
The poem discusses the fading of several parts of life: the word “dearly” is old and fading; the black and white Polaroids in forgotten photo albums are fading; old memories and ways of life are fading; flowers are fading as summer turns to fall. It sounds sad in a way, but when I read this poem, it doesn’t feel like the sad musings of an aging, nostalgic woman to me. It feels full and warm – like a photo album bursting at the seams, full of memories of a life lived. Or a big, old tree slowly shedding its colourful leaves after a fruitful year of growth. The fading feels peaceful, as if the speaker in the poem is gracefully moving forward and embracing a new stage of life. But she is not fading alone, she fades alongside the person she loves.
“It’s an old word, fading now. / Dearly did I wish. / Dearly did I long for. / I loved him dearly.” – Margaret Atwood, “Dearly”
How lucky we would all be to fade with someone whom we’ve grown with, shared life with, and loved dearly through it all.
As a young woman with the majority of my love life ahead of me, the lesson that I take away from seeing glimpses of Atwood and Gibson’s love is that it takes more than love and happiness to be together for life (although those two elements are still important to have). Having a sustained connection with another person seems to take devotion, finding ways to put shared values into action, having interest and support for one another’s work and hobbies, and simply being there for one another. Being beside each other, like the cardinals at the bird feeder, like the ducks in the puddles in my friend’s backyard, like the swans in the pond at the park. Finding love in the person who is and has been right there next to you. The love that is vibrant, bright, colourful; rich, warm, soft; and seasoned, harmonious, and fading through time. In my life, that’s the love I’m going to learn from and that I hope to experience in this crazy, changing world. The love from the person I draw hope from, who sustains me, and who is right there, always, beside me.
“In my life, I’ve loved you more” -The Beatles, “In My Life”
Stay tuned for next week’s FOR THE LOVE OF NATURE piece – a collection of reviews of Atwood and Gibson’s works related to birds and environmental conservation.
And don’t forget to register for Nature Canada’s Pimlott Award Celebration happening on March 2, 2022, where Margaret Atwood and the late Graeme Gibson will be honoured and recognized as champions for birds and nature. Check it out here!