A seminal work, Birds Art Life recounts Maclear's year-long adventure of discovering inspiration in the intricacies of birds, bird-searching and bird-watching in a big city.
The natural world has played muse to generations of poets, writers and artists alike, inspiring them to step away from their work, even for a short while, and observe its rhythmic phenomena. From the pastoral evocations of Wordsworth to Sylvia Plath's fascination with bees, to Monet's artistic renderings of his residential gardens, observing nature has influenced many a creative mind. When Kyo Maclear encounters a Toronto musician whose side hobby has taken him into the world of birding, curiosity drives Maclear to join him. What follows is a year-long journey of two artists tracking the minutiae of birds, chasing these oft-ignored small, soaring creatures through the bustle of an urban environment.
At once a philosophical meditation and an observational diary, Birds Art Life ponders the nature of creativity and the quest for a good and meaningful life, all the while celebrating the creative and liberating effects of keeping your eyes and ears wide open, and exploring what happens when you apply the core lessons of birding to other aspects of life. Moving from the granular to the grand, Maclear imparts a deeply profound lesson in learning to see the significance in all the small things in the world—especially those we take for granted in the noise of the cityscape. In one sense, this is a book about disconnection—how our passions can buckle under the demands and emotions of daily life—and about reconnection: how the act of seeking passion and beauty in small ways can lead us to discover our most satisfying life. On a deeper level, it takes up questions of how we are shaped and nurtured by our parallel passions, and how we might come to cherish both the world's pristine natural places and the blemished urban spaces where most of us live.
Beautiful, moving, and maybe just a touch zany, Birds Art Life is a gentle reminder to stop and listen to the birdsong every once in a while.
About the author
KYO MACLEAR was born in London and grew up in Toronto as the only child of a foreign correspondent. Her father reported on some significant world events, including recording the first interviews with American POWs in North Vietnam. While Stray Love is entirely a work of fiction, it is informed by her experiences living with her father. Her first novel, The Letter Opener (2007), was awarded the K.M. Hunter Artists Award and shortlisted for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Maclear is also an award-winning visual arts writer and the author of two children’s books: Spork (2010) and Virginia Wolf (2012). Visit her online at www.kyomaclear.ca.
- Short-listed, Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize
- Winner, Trillium Book Award
- Winner, Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design Â– Prose Non-Fiction
- Winner, Nautilus Gold Award
Excerpt: Birds Art Life (by (author) Kyo Maclear)
One winter, not so long ago, I met a musician who loved birds. This musician, who was then in his mid-thirties, had found he could not always cope with the pressures and disappointments of being an artist in a big city. He liked banging away on his piano like Fats Waller but performing and promoting himself made him feel anxious and depressed. Very occasionally his depression served him well and allowed him to write lonesome songs of love but most of the time it just ate at him. When he fell in love with birds and began to photograph them, his anxieties dissipated. The sound of birdsong reminded him to look outwards at the world.
That was the winter that started early. It snowed endlessly. I remember a radio host saying: “Global warming? Ha!” It was also the winter I found myself with a broken part. I didn’t know what it was that was broken, only that whatever widget had previously kept me on plan, running fluidly along, no longer worked as it should. I watched those around me who were still successfully carrying on, organizing meals and careers and children. I wanted to be reminded. I had lost the beat.
My father had recently suffered two strokes. Twice—when the leaves were still on the trees—he had fallen and been unable to get up. The second fall had been particularly frightening, accompanied by a dangerously high fever brought on by sepsis, and I wasn’t sure he would live. The MRI showed microbleeds, stemming from tiny ruptured blood vessels in my father’s brain.
The same MRI also revealed an unruptured cerebral aneurysm. An “incidental finding,” according to the neurologist, who explained, to our concerned faces, his decision to withhold surgery because of my father’s age.
During those autumn months, when my father’s situation was most uncertain, I felt at a loss for words. I did not speak about the beeping of monitors in generic hospital rooms and the rhythmic rattle of orderlies pushing soiled linen basins through the corridors. I did not deliver my thoughts on the cruelty of bed shortages (two days on a gurney in a corridor, a thin blanket to cover his hairless calves and pale feet), the smell of hospital food courts and the strange appeal of waiting room couches—slick vinyl, celery green, and deceptively soft. I did not speak of the relief of coming home late at night to a silent house and filling a tub with water, slipping under the bubbles and closing my eyes, the quiet soapy comfort of being cleaned instead of cleaning, of being a woman conditioned to soothe others, now soothed. I did not speak about the sense of incipient loss. I did not know how to think about illness that moved slowly and erratically but that could fell a person in an instant.
I experienced this wordlessness in my life but also on the page. In the moments I found to write, I often fell asleep. The act of wrangling words into sentences into paragraphs into stories made me weary. It seemed an overly complicated, dubious effort. My work now came with a recognition that my father, the person who had instilled in me a love of language, who had led me to the writing life, was losing words rapidly.
Even though the worst of the crisis passed quickly, I was afraid to go off duty. I feared that if I looked away, I would not be prepared for the loss to come and it would flatten me. I had inherited from my father (a former war reporter/professional pessimist) the belief that an expectancy of the worst could provide in its own way a ring of protection. We followed the creed of preventive anxiety.
It is possible too that I was experiencing something known as anticipatory grief, the mourning that occurs before a certain loss. Anticipatory. Expectatory. Trepidatory. This grief had a dampness. It did not drench or drown me but it hung in the air like a pallid cloud, thinning but never entirely vanishing. It followed me wherever I went and gradually I grew used to looking at the world through it.
I had always assumed grief was experienced purely as a sadness. My received images of grief came from art school and included portraits of keening women, mourners with heads bowed, hands to faces, weeping by candlelight. But anticipatory grief, I was surprised to learn, demanded a different image, a more alert posture. My job was to remain standing or sitting, monitoring all directions continually. Like the women who, according to legend, once paced the railed rooftop platforms of nineteenth-century North American coastal houses, watching the sea for incoming ships, hence earning those lookouts the name widow’s walk. I was on the lookout, scouring the horizon from every angle, for doom.
#1 National Bestseller
Winner of the 2018 Trillium Book Award
Winner of The Alcuin Society Award for Excellence in Book Design in Canada
Shortlisted for the 2017 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Gold Winner of 2017 Nautilus Award for Lyrical Prose
A Globe and Mail Best Book
A National Post Best Book
A CBC Best Book
A NOW Magazine Best Book
An Entropy Best Book
"Birds Art Life feels like a passionate defence of the things we so consistently overlook—the tiny, the invisible, the seemingly inconsequential, the precious. . . . The memoir's structure is a lot like a tidy cupboard brimming with beautiful objects—each one taken from a shelf, examined for a short time and returned, to allow another to reveal its wisdom. . . . I often found myself flipping backward, revisiting underlined passages, relishing the insight offered on everything from health and aging to introversion and extroversion, familial and romantic love to success and failure, courage and fear. Birds are indeed the narrative thread, but a love for them, or even an interest in them, is not necessary to appreciate what Maclear has accomplished. What it means to be human is the overarching subject, and readers will find a universality in Maclear's experiences, along with countless passages worthy of returning to time and time again." —The Globe and Mail
"A wondrous little book about 'being a little lost.'" —The New York Times
"An incandescent exploration of beauty, inspiration, art, family and freedom that seems to leave no topic out of its binocular scope." —Toronto Star
"In an age in which bombastic noise often triumphs over quiet contemplation, Maclear offers a lyrical ode to the beauty of smallness, of quiet, of seeing the unique in the ordinary." —Maclean's
"Every now and then you read a book that changes the way you see the world. For me, Birds Art Life is one such book. The writing is marvelously pure and honest and light. At the same time, magically, it is erudite, generous and brimming with meaning and event. It is a book I know I will return to again and again for inspiration and solace." —Barbara Gowdy, author of The White Bone and We So Seldom Look on Love
"A beautifully crafted memoir that elevates the ordinary with intelligence and humility." —Leslie Feist, musician
"Intricate and delicate as birdsong, Kyo Maclear's clear-eyed observations of the natural world and our place in it challenge the velocity of modern life. A year spent birding is a year spent in passionate introspection. As she discovers beauty in urban cityscape, she leads us to turn fresh eyes to our surroundings. Her beloved birds become messengers of both loss and hope." —Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way
"Original, charming, a little eccentric even. This book is a delight." —Nigel Slater, author of Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger
"The simple precision of Maclear's prose belies the depth, as if the book were the tip of the iceberg and what she has elided or omitted constitutes the rest. . . . Writers and others will find inspiration in the advice to stop and hear the birds." —Kirkus Reviews
"A literary jewel box. . . . [Maclear's] tiny gems of thought are borne of purposeful waiting, quietude and reflection. . . . Maclear's book is appealing in its appreciation of non-human nature in the midst of city life, agnosticism about the place of human activity in the midst of nature's rhythms and exploration of the relationship between captivity and freedom." —Publishers Weekly
"The beauty of her writing and playfulness with language leap forth. . . . These instances serve to remind readers that Maclear is not just an author who ponders the deeper meaning of existence and relationships, but also one who writes subversive children's books that have been highly praised as much for their buoyant text as for the author's willingness to take on unusual or sensitive subjects." —Quill & Quire
"[Kyo Maclear] likes noticing and thinking. Whenever her experience as birdwatcher offers her a lesson, she makes the most of it. The significance of small ambitions. The virtue of waiting. The importance of knowledge. The acceptance of brokenness. It seemed that by spending time with her writing, I had become more perceptive and thoughtful myself. Her courage and curiosity had turned out to be contagious." —Literary Review of Canada
"[Bird Art Life is a] strange, lovely, profound little book. . . . [Maclear's] prose here is direct and clear, each sentence carrying as much weight as a line in a picture book, or in a poem. . . . This book is a lovely song—a symphony." —The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
"Birds Art Life is a charming book, as delicate as a warbler's plumage. . . . Its modesty is its most attractive feature." —Winnipeg Free Press
"I can hardly put this down. . . . Yes, it's about birding. But so much more." —Charlotte Observer
"Maclear makes birding her inspiration for this tender meditation on grief, loss and creativity. . . . [With] her sometimes alarming honesty, she creates a gorgeous personal statement that has universal implications." —NOW