Although birds have pride of place (first) in the cryptic, three-word title, Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life is not a book with vivid portraits of birds, insightful observations of avian behavior, or detailed descriptions of birding experiences.
It is both more than this and less.
Birds Art Life is a memoir about a recovery year in the British-born Toronto author’s writing life. An acclaimed novelist (having penned 2007’s The Letter Opener and 2012’s Stray Love) and author of five illustrated children’s books, Maclear was at a serious loss for words after her father — her writing mentor — was felled by a series of debilitating strokes. She felt stymied as a writer.
Suffering from solitariness and "anticipatory grief," she decided that what she needed was "to be enraptured and feel I was still inspirable." She decided on an unusual plan of action; she convinced a musician to allow her to shadow him as he traipsed around Toronto photographing birds.
She needed to get outdoors and outside of herself.
The bird walks with her photographer companion do not seem to have produced a deep and abiding love of birds. They did, however, free up her imagination.
What resulted is a series of gentle ruminations on a wide variety of subjects, focused on the three words of her title — birds, art and life.
Urban birding in Toronto provoked the following observation: "I had learned… that beauty could exist in the most scarred, phenomenally impure places." She also discovered that birding "was not a rosy or cutesy practice," yet there was "something undeniably uplifting in catching glints of life, sharing sightings with strangers." Not terribly profound or original insights, but attractive and easy to agree with. And that’s the book’s undeniable charm.
Seeing an aviary of caged birds, Maclear reflects on freedom, captivity and people who confuse "the safety of a locked house with security." Her conclusion: "The line between freedom from fear and freedom from danger is not always easy to discern."
If this seems less than profound, it is not something that Maclear is afraid to admit. Daughter of award-winning Canadian journalist, documentary filmmaker, war correspondent and CBC CTV producer/director Michael Maclear, she deliberately eschews her father’s grand ambitions.
Kyo Maclear prefers the small, and in one of the most affecting sections of her book, she muses at length about the virtues and the problems of smallness.
Smallness is not necessarily the result of reduced ambitions or lowered expectations. As she says: "I try to make a case for artful compressions and the necessary intimacy of small-scale work where everything is not proportionately reduced."
But she admits the desire to do small things can be perceived as "a cop-out, a self-protective position or a form of pathological timidity and constriction." As with many meditations in the book, she leaves room for her readers to sort out their own answers to the contemplative points she raises.
Birds Art Life often reads like the unpolished diary of one year in the life of a literate and inquisitive person searching for reassurance and consolation. It’s full of curious lists — of common birds in decline, "spark birds" (birds that prompted people to become birders) and spark books, reasons why artists fear lulls, a song list of roamers, and great artists who were bird people. She does not give the impression that she has the same dedication as those on this last list.
Her list of "humans and avians praised for their smallness" includes the song thrush and the blackbird, two birds that are not particularly small or noteworthy. But to disagree is to quibble.
Birds Art Life is a charming book, as delicate as a warbler’s plumage. It may seem incomplete and insubstantial, but its modesty is its most attractive feature.
Gene Walz is the author of Happiness Is a Rare Bird: Living the Birding Life, just released by Turnstone Press.