Margaret Atwood is a writer and the honorary chair of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory. Her new book of poetry, Dearly, will be published in November.
These days, folks my age are getting scolded by younger family members.
“You went into a store?” they exclaim in horror. How shameful to have an elderly parent succumb to COVID-19 due to unchecked reckless behaviour.
Confession: I’ve done worse than shopping.
A few days ago, I was standing on the dining room table, aiming my camera down at the display of objects somewhere near my feet. When I heard my younger family members returning, I scrambled down as quickly as I could: Imagine if I got caught! Worse, imagine if I toppled off! “What were you doing up there, risking your neck?” I’d be asked sternly as my family scraped me off the floor.
It wasn’t table dancing, I’d explain. I was taking pictures of auction items for the bird fundraising event I help organize on Pelee Island every year. Only we can’t do it in person, and desperate times require desperate measures. Everyone’s scrambling. Some are chained to Zoom, blear-eyed and dizzy. Others climb onto tables. I’m doing both.
Robertson Davies used to quip, “No good deed goes unpunished,” and so it is with charitable endeavours. You have a helpful idea, and then before you can blink you’re up to your neck in the molasses. Who knew an online gala would be so much freaking, mind-numbing work? Who knew you’d need to learn a lot of unfamiliar tech stuff – the blur function, the mute button, how not to livestream the underside of your chin? Luckily, some very competent people are up to their necks in the molasses with me: otherwise I’d already be preserved in amber, like a 10 million-year-old beetle.
Why Pelee Island? This tiny speck of geology is rich in cultural history, Carolinian plant life and rare species; it’s also a major stopover on the flyway that extends up the middle of the continent and crosses Lake Erie. It has two provincial parks and more than 10 per cent of its land is now preserved by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. It’s a paradise for bicyclists: It’s flat and has no eight-lane highways. Migrating birds gather on the Ohio shore, then make the hop across the lake, pausing on Pelee Island to feed and rest before making the final crossing.
Through birdwatching, my partner Graeme Gibson and I bought a house on Pelee in 1987. Nineteen years ago, with co-conspirator Ron Tiessen – islander, specialist in Ancient Greek and grape-growing, and founder of the Pelee Island Heritage Centre – we created SpringSong, a mid-May celebration of birds and books. The idea was to bridge the gap between those who wanted to preserve the rare whatnot and those who wanted to run over it, fearing that the government would penalize them if the rare whatnot was nesting on their property. The event would bring early-season cash flow to the island, we speculated; and so it did.
There was a 24-hour species-counting Green Bird Race, followed by a banquet with a guest author for the benefit of those who didn’t want to crouch in swamps in hopes of seeing the rare Lesser Piece of Spotted Plastic. The Rubber Chicken Choir, conducted by self – perhaps the worst quasi-musical event you will ever witness – also became a fixture. Don’t ask how.
But this year, due to the virus, we had to cancel. What would happen to the Heritage Centre without it? Not to mention the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, the other island organization we’ve been supporting. Emergency! Hence my table-clambering.
We’ve tried to recreate all the features of the live event, including the door prizes, the food – the writer Merilyn Simonds has pulled together a luscious cook-along menu with recipes from our authors – and the silent auction. There’s a trip with the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, a community-based initiative that’s feeding 8,000 people cut off by COVID-19 from available markets. Jazz star Molly Johnson, opera diva Measha Brueggergosman, the Rheostatics, nine-year-old Lemara Raiyia of the Maasai, and other guests have contributed their talents from the seclusion of their home territories; and the singalong Rubber Chicken Choir will appear. It sings only one number: Old MacDonald. The rubber chickens do the chorus. Grab a chicken and join in!
“Why bother with any of this nature stuff?” you may ask. Many don’t see the point. The vast majority of charitable giving goes to people-centred things – health, the arts, social-justice initiatives – leaving the rest, approximately 3 per cent, for other species, half of them cats and dogs. This isn’t much to safeguard the increasingly fragile living ecosystem that’s the ground of our being and the condition of our survival.
There’s been an uptick in giving recently, as news of the climate crisis has sunk in. And now, millions of people have turned to birdwatching – in their backyards, in safe spaces, or via nest cams – as a solace and refuge. People, they’re discovering, are not the only fascinating beings on our planet.
What parts of the pre-COVID world do we wish to return to when this plague is over? What parts do we want to enhance? The future will be fairer, we trust. Unless we want to cook to death, it will need to be greener. And surely birds will be in it. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” We need lots of hope right now.
The Pelee Island Bird Observatory online gala takes place on Facebook Live on May 9 at 7 p.m. EST. For more information, visit www.pibo.ca.
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