It would be impossible to celebrate the lives of two such magnificent authors without taking a look back at their work. This piece takes a look back at Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, one of her poems from Dearly, and Graeme Gibson’s The Bedside Book of Birds – An Avian Miscellany, celebrating and ReViewing the two author’s works.
The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood
Reviewed by Mimi Shaftoe
The first time I read Oryx and Crake, it was like putting on a reverse version of rose-coloured glasses; I couldn’t stop drawing dark dystopian comparisons between the world on the page and the real one. I finished the book while on a road trip with my family the summer after grade 10. I remember feeling existential as I stared out the window at the landscape of concrete, billboards, industrial buildings and strip malls, probably muttering something dramatic under my breath like “Look out the window, we are literally living in Oryx and Crake.” The proximity, the almost-real-ness, of the imagined future in which the MaddAddam trilogy is set is what enthralled me and left me aghast when I first read these books as a teenager, and is what I think makes these books so powerful.
The MaddAddam trilogy is set in a future that is way too close for comfort, in which human intervention has irrevocably transformed the natural world, and a man-made catastrophe has wiped out a huge segment of the earth’s population. The series tackles a wide range of interconnected themes, from environmental destruction and the relationship between humans and the natural world, to unrestrained capitalism and consumerism, to patriarchy and sexism. To me, the books embody the idea that “It’s not Climate Change, it’s Everything Change” (which also happens to be the title of an essay Atwood wrote). In other words, the ecological crisis is a result of deeply unjust and destructive systems we’ve built, which affect every part of our daily lives. And getting ourselves out of this mess will require deep societal transformation.
Margaret Atwood famously prefers to refer to her work as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than science fiction, because she looks at issues and problems that already exist in the real world and simply extrapolates them to imagine a possible future. She illuminates the ways in which we are already in crisis and creates an unsettling sense that we could be barreling head on into the dystopian world she writes about… or that we may already be living in it! It really doesn’t seem far-fetched at all to imagine, for example, the Church of PetrOleum, where oil is worshipped and the bible is interpreted to mean that it is our divine right and holy obligation to extract oil.
The world of the MaddAddam trilogy is dark, but it’s also satirical and darkly funny, and it offers glimmers of hope which suggest that no matter how dark things get there is always the possibility of human goodness. The most hopeful element in this series, to me, is what Atwood has to say about the power of stories. If the entire trilogy is an allegory about climate change and humanity’s relationship with nature, then Atwood is suggesting that the stories we tell play an important part of the solution. I love some of the hymns she wrote for her fictional religion the God’s Gardeners, like ‘The Earth Forgives’ (which she actually recorded and released as part of the book promotion!) and the environmentally conscious, hopeful alternative they try to build in the midst of the rest of her dystopian world.
Throughout the books, she explores the stories we tell ourselves to create meaning in our lives, and the way these stories shape the way we relate to the world and the people around us. And while Atwood speculates about a grim future in this series, she also makes it clear that no future is set in stone, everything depends on what we do now.
So, let’s tell ourselves the kinds of stories that repair our relationship with the planet, and help us envision and create a just future.
“We have a choice to make now. We can return to our former path of destruction of the natural world…or we can change direction and build nature-based and community-based recovery strategies.” – Margaret Atwood
“Improvisation on a First Line by Yeats” by Margaret Atwood
Reviewed by Ishani Dasgupta
I sometimes take for granted the love I have received in this world and I most definitely have not considered that those who I love might not know it.
Let me be clear, I consider myself an admirer of Mother Nature and all of the complex, wonderful, and nice aspects of the biosphere. I do, after all, work in the environmental space and at times find myself in a unique position to write about one climate related issue or another. However, I never considered if the planet I am working so hard to protect actually knew that I cared for it, until I read Margaret Atwood’s poem “Improvisation on a First Line by Yeats”.
Rather, I was acutely stunned by the fact that I have loved nature quite selfishly.
In Atwood’s poem, which is inspired (as the name suggests) following a line from W. B. Yeats’ Hound Voice, she details a trip to a barren and mountainous landscape. When arriving near the landscape, the speaker finds herself lost in a serious thought about the history of change that may have occurred due to human activities.
“Because we love bare hills and stunted trees / we head north when we can, / past taiga, tundra, rocky shoreline, ice.” – Margaret Atwood, “Improvisation on a First Line by Yeats”
The speaker laments on whether the earliest human settlers shared a deep connection with the land. Whether they chose to “partner” with the elements and other animals to progress or carved the spirit of the landscape into their hearts. Importantly, the speaker assumes that it was at this point of time, when the first fires were being forged and guarded, that the soul of nature thrived.
“Everything once had a soul, / even this clam, this pebble. / Each had a secret name. / Everything listened. / Everything was real” – Margaret Atwood, “Improvisation on a First Line by Yeats”
It is explained that nature at this point did not always love you and therefore human patrons treaded the world with caution and perhaps fear; perhaps worrying if the next great natural disaster would completely wipe their civilization out. Although, with this fear came a connection to the land that we could not dream to recreate in the present.
“Everything once had a soul” and “everything was real”, which meant that if you caused harm against the land you were on, you were hurting a conscious being. One with feelings and a spirit that could shake the centre that you grounded yourself on. How would it be to live in this time, when the very environment you lived in communicated to you on a daily basis and perhaps carried you through your life, as though it was a parent teaching and protecting its child?
“We long to pay that much attention. / But we’ve lost the knack… / All we hear in the wind’s plainsong / is the wind.” Margaret Atwood, “Improvisation on a First Line by Yeats”
And there it stands, as bleak as it can be stated: the greatest threat we have presented to nature is that “we have lost the knack” to pay it the close attention that we used to in the past.
I have been selfish with my love for nature. I loved it for its beauty, its complexity, and its purpose in my life. But have I truly loved it for its soul, its spirit, or the sacrifices it has made for me to live? Have I ever revered it and cared for it, as my ancestors did long before me?
Now, I can promise that I will try to raise my own attentiveness towards how I care for nature. I will love her as though she is my friend and my mother, as closely as I can to how they did in the past.
Hoping that one day I will finally understand that she has always, from the moment I was born to the and to the day I pass, loved me selflessly.
The Bedside Book of Birds – An Avian Miscellany by Graeme Gibson
Reviewed by Alex Goddard
Graeme Gibson’s The Bedside Book of Birds – An Avian Miscellany is a stunning collection of words and images expertly collected and curated to explore the longstanding relationship we have had with birds. As Gibson says, this book isn’t about birds themselves but about the varied and intimate relationship we have formed with them over the hundreds of millennia we have shared this earth. When reading this book, one of the immediate things that struck me was early in the book wherein Gibson describes that he came to birdwatching late in his life, not understanding it for a whole thirty seven years. I found this of particular interest as Gibson is someone who is synonymous with bird conservation in Canada and I would have assumed it to be a lifelong interest. I especially found this interesting as I myself can relate to these feelings shared by Gibson. Growing up in Barbados, we only have a few common species – blackbirds, doves, and sparrows, and while there are a few migratory birds, our wetlands are hard to reach and diminishing. As such, I had little interest in ornithology until I came to Canada, made friends with an avid birdwatcher, and began to go birdwatching with them. Now I take note of the birds around me much more, and enjoy birdwatching by myself from time to time. This was at the age of twenty three, and knowing that Gibson began his ornithological journey later in his life has been a huge source of inspiration to me, as it acted as a reminder that it really is never too late to pursue what you love, and certainly never too late to be the change you want to see.
The Bedside Book of Birds is a collection of factual accounts, poems, folklore, tales and myths divided into nine distinct sections, described by Gibson as different habitats – a wonderful way to divide the book. The majority of these sections are written by other authors, ranging from real experiences seen through Darwin’s accounts of tame birds in Voyage of the Beagle, to fictional pieces, such as an excerpt from Haurki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. From ancient text written by the Mayans about the plumed serpent, to Bible excerpts about doves representing holiness, this book contains excerpts dating all the way back to B.C.
The beginning of each new ‘habitat’ starts with a piece written by Gibson himself. These passages often offer a glimpse into Gibson’s life, experiences and thoughts as an ornithologist, and the ways birdwatching has evolved over the years. In these excerpts Gibson allows us to feel the same thrill he did when seeing some amazing birds, with accounts of the Gundlach Hawk in Cuba which only a handful have seen in the wild, to unknowingly profound discoveries, such as his encounter with the Black-backed Woodpecker. In these passages we also are offered a glimpse into Gibson’s thoughts on birdwatching, ones I found very interesting. Throughout these passages Gibson often speaks of why we birdwatch, and the ways that humans imbue their own traits into birds, allowing for us to feel connected with nature. In one excerpt, Gibson explains that birdwatching can encourage a state similar to that of rapture – causing the forgetfulness that allows individual consciousness to blend with something other than itself. It is excerpts like this that really convey the passion that Gibson felt about birds and birdwatching, and it is hard not to feel the same passion he does when reading such vividly written passages accompanied by the stunning imagery throughout the book. Gibson, of course, was a champion of bird conservation, and themes surrounding this are found within these introductory passages. These are explored through a guilt that Gibson seems to feel about birdwatching, touching on the ‘possessive’ nature of humans to feel as though they own these birds by naming and seeing them, as well as touching on old birding techniques of killing the bird prior to identification. Themes of extinction and conservation are also found within many of the other passages included, however I found it pertinent that the only work Gibson included that was of his own was an excerpt from his novel Perpetual Motion where Gibson describes the way the passenger pigeon was hunted to its extinction as it was just assumed that the millions of birds would return each year, and were an endless supply.
So little does Gibson crave the spotlight for himself that the editorial section of the book ends with a poem by Siegfried Sassoon, rather than choosing to end the book with a few of his own words. It is this desire to let other authors speak for the birds in the best way possible that truly shows Gibson’s love for the avian species and made it an exceptional read by allowing us to be struck by the same wonder and awe that he and the medley of authors were. The different habitats make the book easy to pick up and put down at any point, or to peck at – like a bird if you will. As a testament to his conservation efforts, the last pages of the book direct readers to different conservation organisations in their respective countries, as well as pointing out half of the after-tax royalties of sales are donated to the Pelee Island Bird Observatory. This book has something for anyone even remotely interested in our relationship with the avian species as it is hard not to find yourself feeling the same enthusiasm Gibson does as you flip through the beautifully written and illustrated tales throughout.
“It’s we who have made the cages. It’s we who must open them” – Graeme Gibson
Stay tuned for next week’s FOR THE LOVE OF NATURE piece.
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!
Alex has a background in Environmental Science holding an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies, and a Masters of Environment and Sustainability (MES) from Western University. Alex was born and raised in Barbados, a small island in the Caribbean, and has spent the past seven years attending school in Canada, while returning to Barbados for the summer and Christmas periods. Alex is passionate about the environment as he has been able to witness firsthand the effects of climate change on marine and tropical environments, and hopes to spread awareness about these issues.