Saturday, April 08, 2017

Birds Art Life

Birds Art Life: a Year of Observation / Kyo Maclear  
Toronto: Doubleday, c2017.
272 p.

Kyo Maclear was feeling disconnected, overwhelmed. Anxious about her own career and purpose, her stress is compounded by her father's terminal illness. As a writer, she was looking for something to engage with, something that would give her a sense of purpose, a project. She found it when she discovered a local musician who was equally a dedicated urban birder. She decided to follow him around for a year and see what she could learn. 

And this small book consisting of her thoughts and meditations around this project was the result. It's a memoir of the "one year in a life" sort, so many of which exist now. But this is not an eager, do as much as you can in a year and become a better person kind of book. It's dreamy, it's circular and fragmentary. Maclear learns to really see birds; by which, she really learns to see the small particularities of the world, to identify and name what exists around her, grounding herself in a place - even if it's an urban place in which she hadn't expected to find so much natural life.

She also finds that the habit of birding brings a state of mind that might be called meditative, or mindful. The birders she encounters think nothing of sitting perfectly still for hours, in order to spot one particular bird or get just the right photo. The expanses of time in which they sit, visibly doing 'nothing', amaze her; it's so different from the habit of guilt about not being continually productive that she has been suffering from. This slowing of the pace of life is soothing, allowing her to rest, to reflect, and to write again. 

Of course, as she slows and learns to observe birds, her observations in other parts of life grow sharper as well. She relays stories about her family - her husband, sons and father - and remembers her early life. All this in brief and poetic 'chapters', really more like sections rather than neatly tied up chapters, more like the pace of thought. Perhaps it's better thought of as an extended essay. 

I've read some of Maclear's adult fiction (ie: The Letter Opener) as well as being a big fan of her children's books, and this book is something different again. It has the hallmarks of dreaminess and introspection that I've enjoyed in her other work, though; I found it just as satisfying as her novels. 


Further Reading

Readers of Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk may find some similarities in the theme of fathers, birds, and finding solace in the small things of the natural world. Mary Oliver's recent collection of essays, Upstream, similarly hints that the solution to life's expectations and anxieties lies in observing the natural world.


  1. It sounds as if you enjoyed this book, Melwyk. Lovely review!

    1. It was a thoughtful and peaceful read, even with the challenges she was facing.


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