Throughout the past couple of months, I’ve been reading Kyo Maclear’s memoir, Birds Art Life (Scribner, Jan. 3). It covers a year in her life, and as you might expect, is divided into seasons, beginning and ending with winter.
“That was the winter that started early,” she writes of the first one. “It snowed endlessly.”
It was also a time when Maclear found herself “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.” Her father had had two strokes, one of them nearly fatal, and the “sense of incipient loss” flattened Maclear and stopped her from being able to write. Her response was to take up bird-watching.
Maclear is new to me, though she has written two books for adults, The Letter Opener and Stray Love, and five illustrated books for children. Born in England, she moved to Toronto as a child (her father is the journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear). She’s also a visual artist, whose ink-and-brush sketches of birds and artists seem to alight on the page.
Birds Art Life came along at a time last summer when I was too busy to do much more than flag it for future reading, which meant it sat alluringly on my coffee table for months—somehow I knew I wanted to read it all the way through, and not in bits and pieces. It was November before I finally picked it up again and read the opening lines, about a musician whose depression fell away when he fell in love with birds: “He had discovered his joy was bird-shaped.”
Maclear chose birds because she, too, wanted an antidote to her father’s health crises, a distraction from the writers’ block. For her, birding—“the opposite of writing, a welcome and necessary flight from the awkward daily consciousness of making art”—allows her a breather: “The rest of my life was calmed for as long as I was standing in that river.”
But the book is about so much more. Each chapter essay explores a different theme, including:
- The frailty of humans and birds
- What it means to alter your course in life
- Smallness in art and life: “I don’t know when I began to prefer small things. Drawings of the small moment, nearly microscopic sculpture, compact stories, animated shorts, airy novellas, little gardens, economical studios, cozy dinner parties, small days of small demands that allow small increments of writing time.”
- Things that fill us with regret
- Growing up with a London-born father (a foreign correspondent) and a Japanese mother (a sumi-e artist)
- Her relationship with her father (“who likes things distant and serious, [who] thinks I write too close and peculiar”)
- Cages v. freedom
- Purposeful waiting
- The idea of “spark” birds—one that turned a person from being interested in birds to being a serious birder—which inspires Maclear to poll friends for books that “ignited” their love of reading
Each essay intimately blends home life, birding, literature and art, questioning how each aspect of life informs another. In the midst of what felt like one of the most unstable, threatening political climates I’ve ever known, these inquiries into how to balance vulnerability with strength, grief with hope, and anxiety with courage became a lodestar I turned to each day.
Not only was it comforting to escape into Maclear’s world to counteract election-year stress, but because the trouble she was having putting words down on paper mirrored my own, her book gave me hope. I had come to a point with writing where I couldn’t go any further, where the words I reached for sounded false and silly. Reading of her similar struggles with writing, I wondered if I needed, like Maclear, to go off the grid, find a way to write smaller.
“If I am guilty of hiding among tinier people in a tinier parallel world, it is because I am searching for other models of artistic success,” she writes. “The small is a figure of alternative possibility, proof that no matter how much the market tries to force consensus, there will always be those making art where the market isn’t looking.”
When Maclear reaches a hiatus in her birding activities—the end of spring migration—she explores this “lull” as it occurs in the lives of artists, noting that many fear that “creativity will flatline without constant practice. Confidence will wane, muscles will grow flaccid,” and that what began as a break might turn into a break-down. “What starts off as a lull will become a rut. The muse will flee.”
Her book reassures us that a breather needn’t be fatal. In one chapter headed On altering your course, sliding between disciplines, and leaving the door open for the unknown, Maclear riffs off “side loves” that inspire and feed our artistic lives: Bob Dylan’s welding, Sylvia Plath’s beekeeping, Emily Dickinson’s gardening, John Cage’s mushroom hunting—“intentional roaming” that results in what Maclear calls “fence-jumping knowledge.”
When I finished the book, it was mid-December. In one of her last essays, Maclear offers a list of what the bird-watcher/musician had taught her, and concludes that there is “no one person who can give you a map for living.” Instead, she suggests we make our own, with help from the dozens of writers, musicians, painters and bird-lovers quoted here, from Pete Seeger to Sei Shonagon to Rosa Luxembourg to famed New York City birder Starr Saphir.
“What he really taught me,” Maclear says, in a nearly perfect description of her own book, “was that the best teachers are not up on a guru throne, doling out shiny answers. They are there in the muck beside you: stepping forward, falling down, muddling through, and enlivening the questions.”
You can read some of Maclear’s recent blog posts and find out more about her children’s books here.
You can also go here, to read more about Birds Art Life.