Margaret Atwood and Me

Photo by Shelley Banks
Photo by Shelley Banks

Okay so that title is a shameless attempt at self-promotion. And to be honest, there were a dozen or so other people with us, including fellow writer Shelley Banks who also takes great photographs like the one here.  Still, I was so fortunate to be invited to spend two days with Atwood and her partner, fellow writer and decorated conservationist, Graeme Gibson touring Grasslands National Park and the PFRA community pastures in Southwest Saskatchewan. The pair, along with other representatives of BirdLife International were invited by the group Public Pasture-Public Interest, an affiliation of ranchers, conservationists, First Nations people, scientists and naturalists hoping to convince governments to keep the community pastures under some form of public management. They believe it’s the only way to save the ranchers who graze their cattle on them and the 32 species at risk that call them home.  The issue is a complicated one, and I won’t say too much more about it because I’m doing some magazine work regarding this aspect of the tour.

What I can say is Atwood and company came to Saskatchewan to learn. They were gracious, asked many questions, and listened with real interest to the answers. What was most gratifying to me as a writer, was watching ideas bloom in Margaret Atwood’s face, and how she shaped them into analogies that would appeal to a broader audience. For example, when the cattlemen who spoke to us explained they were expected to put together business plans with complete strangers, and to do so with incomplete information, and within only a few months, her on-the-spot response:

“Ranchers have been given a Cinderella plot: the wicked stepmother says, ‘sure you can go to the party, but first you must complete these impossible tasks in two hours’. And the only reason Cinderella is able to do that is, one, she’s got a fairy godmother and, two, she’s got a lot of friendly mice and birds to help her. (she smiles) Without human help on this, the ranchers can’t do it.”

Or, in response to fears that binders of research outlining the ecological health of the pastures will simply gather dust on a shelf somewhere,  while the professional pasture managers have been handed pink slips:

“Why are we throwing away the medical records of the land and taking away the land doctors?”

She’s very good at this.

At the Harvest Moon Café in downtown Val Marie (population 350), Atwood explained the relationship between writing and activism.

Graeme Gibson and Margaret Atwood, Grasslands National Park Photo: Anne Lazurko
Graeme Gibson and Margaret Atwood, Grasslands National Park
Photo: Anne Lazurko

“I think writers can be activists because we don’t have a job. We can’t be fired. I can be disregarded — no sorry I can’t have a meeting with you because I’m washing my hair and will be washing my hair into the foreseeable future — but they can’t send me a notice saying your employment is terminated. Others are afraid to speak out whether they work for government or somebody else whose political opinion they might run afoul of. That’s how it works and why totalitarian governments line up artists and shoot them. They would much rather discredit you than listen.”

“What they don’t understand,” she adds with a slow smile and mischief in her eyes, “is that I’m under the protection of the great pumpkin so it’s likely to backfire.”

I dare say, she’s probably right.

It was a real pleasure to meet both Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson and, at the end of it all, to have Atwood’s blessing upon my novel Dollybird  (Coteau Books, fall 2013).

“Good luck with the novel,” she said.

Doesn’t get much better than that.

Thanks to Trevor Herriot, co-chair of PPPI for the invitation. More on the interesting people of the southwest in future. Stay tuned.

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