“I found myself with a broken part,” Kyo Maclear writes in the introduction to her luminous memoir, Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation. During a year of dealing with her father’s illness and other challenges, Maclear found herself unmoored. “I had lost the beat,” she writes. Struggling with her responsibilities to her father, husband and sons, she found herself with no words: a troubling state of affairs for a writer. Searching for a way to relocate herself in the everyday, Maclear met a musician whose passion was urban birdwatching. Birds Art Life chronicles the year they spent watching birds in and around her home city of Toronto.
I picked up Birds Art Life at Idlewild Books in New York City’s West Village: it’s a travel bookstore, but this isn’t a typical travel memoir. Maclear muses on the “near-unwatchable intimacy” of the faces of strangers, then goes off into a delightful digression about eyebrows (complete with thumbnail sketches of Audrey Hepburn and others). She writes about her father, a retired war correspondent, and her mother, whose fears both clash with and mirror her own. She writes about her “roomy marriage,” at once grateful for the space she and her husband have allowed one another and worried that they have “bred lonesome children.” But ultimately, Maclear is able to celebrate the contradictions of her marriage and family life: “the fight, the humor, the mess, the faith.”
During her year of urban birdwatching, Maclear learns to name many species: some familiar (chickadees, cardinals, ducks, geese, wrens, pigeons), some new to her (dunlins, whimbrels, red-necked grebes). She learned to slow down, to enter time as an observer rather than as someone trying to shape the future. “The birds tell me not to worry,” she writes in the book’s epilogue. “They tell me it’s all right to be belittled by the bigness of the world. There are some belittlements and diminishments that make you stronger, kinder.”
Melancholy and beautiful, Maclear’s book is about birds, yes, but it also brims with insights on bravery, noticing the small things, and creating a world where birds (and humans) can thrive.
Have you read Birds Art Life? We’d love to hear what you think — please share in the comments below. Thanks!
Link to buy Birds Art Life at your local independent bookstore (we love them!) or at Indiebound by clicking here.