Birdwatching with Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize-winning author is a lifelong conservationist and birder — no wonder all manner of winged creatures flit through her works

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Margaret Atwood is walking through one of the UK’s oldest nature reserves when she stops to admire the bright red berries on some guelder roses. Can she eat them, she ponders? For a moment, I wonder if I’m about to witness the poisoning of one of the world’s most acclaimed novelists, before she is advised against it by our guide. Atwood, undaunted, smells the berries instead: “I’ve eaten everything that’s edible in my area — water-lily roots, mushrooms, stems, dandelions famous for making wine, seeds, crayfish, squirrels, snake — snake is quite good”.

This curious spirit, love of nature and attention to detail are key attributes for the successful birdwatcher — and cornerstones of Atwood’s own literary career. The murky morning is brightening with autumnal sunshine as I stroll with the Booker Prize-winning author of 58 books through Wicken Fen nature reserve in Ely, Cambridgeshire. Suddenly Atwood points at the sky.

“If you look up there you will see a kestrel,” she says. “And there’s another kestrel . . . oh, it caught something.”

The author has long been involved in ornithology and nature conservation. “I’ve been birdwatching on and off for 70 years — since I was six,” explains Atwood, who was born in Ottawa in 1939 and spent part of her childhood in the Canadian wilderness, where her father was a forest entomologist.

Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969. “I was writing in childhood and then abandoned that and went into drawing and came back into writing when I was about 15 or 16. But I was also very good at science and my parents would have preferred that I went into science.”

Birdwatching has taken Atwood to some far-flung places, including Madagascar, the High Arctic and Cuba. “You can really start birdwatching in your backyard, and from there the sky’s the limit — it’s one way that people like to travel as it can take you off the beaten path.” She shares her passion with her husband Graeme Gibson, author of The Bedside Book of Birds, and together they are joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club, part of Bird Life International, partnered with the RSPB. Bird conservation is part of their lives, says Atwood.

“The latest iteration of it is my book Angel Catbird, which is done with a parallel conservation programme run by Nature Canada about keeping your cat safe and saving bird lives.” The graphic novel features a flying superhero and soared to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

Birds and winged creatures also flutter throughout several Atwood novels, the perfect accompaniment to her themes of freedom and imprisonment. Her latest book, Hag-Seed, is a compelling retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Prospero calls Ariel ‘my bird’ in The Tempest itself and also ‘my chick’, so that imagery is already there,” she says, looking at me with robin-egg blue eyes. In her updated version, more modern references, such as to Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire”, continue the avian theme.

© Christopher Nunn

Sun sparkles off the water ahead of us. “It’s beautiful light here, it’s gorgeous,” comments Atwood, as we peer through binoculars. Her writing, too, displays a great sensitivity to the play of light and shadow. Illuminating darkness is a recurring theme and Hag-Seed is filled with grief: “When we first see Prospero in the play he’s very wounded and hurt. He’s been horribly betrayed and abandoned, and he knows it’s partly his fault — that had he been paying attention this wouldn’t have happened.”

Paying attention is crucial in both literature and birdwatching. “What you’re looking for is identifying marks — colour, size — so the details are important because often something will look quite a lot like something else but there will be one distinguishing detail.”

Atwood recommends bringing along a guidebook: “In the bird guide there will usually be an arrow pointing to the distinguishing feature. It can get confusing as they will change their plumage according to what season it is.” Her eye for detail becomes evident when, en route to the nature reserve, she spots our next bird of the day. “There’s a heron right there, a big one,” she points out — and it’s alive, unlike the dead heron in her novel Surfacing. “Yes, it’s absolutely alive.”

© Christopher Nunn
© Christopher Nunn

Later, the sound of geese gathers around us. Listening — as well as observing — is a core birdwatching skill. “Sound is an important component because sometimes you can’t actually see the bird but you can hear it,” says Atwood. “Birdwatching is widely practised because the bar for entry is very low. Kids can do it. And you can do birding by ear. You can do it and be colour blind; you’re listening to the sounds and looking at the patterns. There are, in fact, some blind birdwatchers who do it entirely by sound.”

In the fen, Atwood is in her element, spotting blackberries, nettles, wild rose hips as well as sparrows, kestrels and herons. But she is aware of how fragile it all is. Her dystopias, from The Handmaid’s Tale to her MaddAddam trilogy, powerfully explore both environmental and human catastrophe — and the great havoc and damage wreaked by characters’ carelessness. Those dystopias seem increasingly timely. “Alas, that’s true,” she agrees. Exploitation has long been a feature of the relationship between humans and birds. “If you restore a sea-bird colony you will increase the amount of fish. And restoring trees along the waterline vastly increases the amount of fish. Countries which have large fisheries like this one should really be paying a lot of attention to that — it’s in their economic interest to do so.”


© Christopher Nunn
© Christopher Nunn
At the Wicken nature reserve, Margaret Atwood and Anita Sethi encounter kestrels, herons, sparrows and a dragonfly © Christopher Nunn

Awareness of the relationship between humans and nature is crucial. “Nature is inside you. You just breathed some of it in.” For Atwood, loving one’s neighbour means loving the air in their lungs: “You have to love their oxygen, therefore you have to love what makes their oxygen. The natural world isn’t apart from us.” She continues: “Outdoor education is really coming back for children, as we did not actually evolve to live in an enclosed box and they learn better when they’re outside because it interests them — and we always learn better what interests us.”

As we keep walking, Atwood spots something else with wings. “There’s a dragonfly — possibly a dead dragonfly or maybe a cold dragonfly.” She kneels down. “It’s alive,” she says as it flutters on to her palm. This prompts Atwood, who is wearing a red scarf patterned with butterflies, to discuss the history of winged things throughout literature. “We probably got our idea of angels from the Greeks, who were doing things like ‘The Winged Victory [of Samothrace]’.”

Before Atwood flits off to her next engagement, I ask about the variety of forms, from poetry to graphic novels, in which she has — with bird-like agility — made her mark. She swiftly dismantles the boundaries between genres in the same way she does the division between humans and nature. “I don’t even think of it being separate from anything — it’s where we live.” Like a fen? “Just about. That actually is where we live. We may think we live in a condo but we actually live in the wide world.”

‘Hag-Seed’ is published by Hogarth, £16.99

Photographs: Christopher Nunn

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