written by Kyo Maclear
(Doubleday Canada, 2017)
Reviewed by Laura Locke
Birds Art Life (2017) by Kyo Maclear was such a book for me. Maclear is a Canadian novelist – The Letter Opener (2007) and Stray Love (2012) – who has also written five much-loved children’s books. One recent winter she found herself “at a loss for words”. Her father, the award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear, had suffered two recent strokes, when an MRI revealed an unruptured cerebral aneurysm. In helping to care for him, and as a busy wife and mother of two boys, she struggled with fretfulness, weariness, grief, and an inability to get on with her writing work. She writes, “…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.”
Maclear decided she needed to fall in love with something bigger than herself, something that would, in her words, “hold me and my wandering mind.” One night she and her singer/composer husband watched the rough cut of a documentary film he was scoring. Entitled 15 Reasons to Live, the film tackled the question through fifteen stories that explored what makes life worth living. One story featured a thirty-something musician, wallowing in creative depression, who took up urban bird-watching in the city of Toronto…and found it helped him feel “easy-hearted”. Maclear was intrigued.
She was further intrigued by the musician’s website, with its extensive and slightly odd collection of his bird photos. They were definitely not like the photos you might find on a glossy bird calendar, and showed a love for the struggling and imperfect. Maclear was emboldened to contact him, and asked to accompany him on a “bird walk”. Birds Art Life is a memoir of sorts about the year of friendship and bird-watching that follows. But it’s also much more than that.
Maclear seamlessly weaves stories and reflections on her own life into her discoveries about bird life and bird-watching. The book is also filled with captivating quotes from famous authors, artists and others, many which I found myself jotting down in my own journal – such as this one by Pete Seeger: “I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.”
As well, we are treated, page after page, to interesting photos and Maclear’s sweetly quirky drawings of everything from birds to shoes to chairs to eyebrows.
The resulting delightful cocktail is always deeply honest, often profound, and frequently very touching. She ruminates on her childhood as the daughter of two immigrants to Canada (a Japanese mother and British father), her marriage, her children, her work as a writer, her personality, her gifts and her limitations. She touches on themes such as smallness, regrets, freedom, aging, art, insecurities, endings, and beginnings – and many of her insights flow out of patiently waiting for and watching birds with her new friend/bird-watching guide.
One also can’t help but be impressed by the clarity of Maclear’s writing. I found myself earmarking page after page of her book, and often reading sections aloud, to myself or to anyone within hearing range. For example, near the end of the book Maclear lists some of the lessons she learned from her year of bird-watching, each one like a dew-drop of wisdom. Here’s a taste: “There are no big reasons to live. Just little reasons.” … “Birding is more than an activity. It’s a disposition. Keep your eyes and ears and mind open to beauty. Look for birds in unprecious places, beside fast-food restaurants and in mall parking lots.”… “Never carry more than you need.” … “Just a nice stroll through a park is enough. Walk everywhere in the city and you will find you don’t need to traipse up Everest or schlep to Kalamazoo to go places.”
Maclear’s enchanting book meanders like a stimulating and soul-nourishing conversation with a good friend, and is a reminder to all of us to tread lightly, keep watch, and celebrate the “small and significant”.