Archive for the ‘Nature writing’ Category

birds-art-life-9781501154201_hrThroughout 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.

Kyo Maclear

Kyo Maclear

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.”

finchWhen 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.


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Looking for some reading suggestions for the new year? My list of recommended Southern books for 2016 just came out Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I thought I’d post it here and add some extras that aren’t Southern or that I didn’t know about at press time. At the end is a brief list of favorite books from 2015. For both lists, I’ve linked you to excerpts or reviews if available.

Here they are in order of publication dates:


Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015, Kevin Young

This substantial collection draws from all nine of Young’s previously published books, from his 1995 debut, “Most Way Home,” to last year’s “Book of Hours.” For those unfamiliar with the Atlanta poet, Blue Laws is a welcome introduction; fans will appreciate the special “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from uncollected, unpublished poems. (Knopf)


The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth, Karen Branan

Veteran journalist Branan pieces together one of the grisliest crimes in Georgia’s history: the 1912 lynching in Hamilton of four blacks — including the wife of one of the accused — for the shooting death of the county sheriff’s nephew. Branan, the sheriff’s great granddaughter, interweaves the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Southern racism with the deeply personal story of her family. (Atria Books)


A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, Kevin Hazzard

Hazzard spent a decade as an EMT in Atlanta, making daily and nightly runs into city’s meanest streets and eventually joining Grady Hospital EMS as a medic. Writing with moribund humor and an expertise born of attending “the dead and the dying, the drunk, the crazy, the angry, [and] those in need,” Hazzard invites the reader along as he learns the ropes, adapts to ever-changing partners, and gets “hip deep in things that matter.” (Scribner)


Shame and Wonder, David Searcy

In 21 captivatingly offbeat essays, Searcy (“Ordinary Horror”) finds the exceptional in the everyday — the hidden meaning of his childhood Scrooge McDuck comics; a Jewish tightrope walker crushed in a fall in Corsicana in 1884; a rancher who lures a coyote into shooting distance with a recording of his crying baby daughter — and contemplates the mysteries therein with grace and eloquence. (Random House)



What Happened, Miss Simone? Alan Light

Inspired by the critically acclaimed 2015 Netflix documentary, this revealing and harrowing biography of North Carolina singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone by music journalist Alan Light draws from Simone’s private diaries and interviews with many close to her — including her ex-husband, daughter, and longtime guitarist Al Schackman — to tell the story of a musical force of nature as tormented as she was brilliant. (Crown Archetype)


Out of the Blues, Trudy Nan Boyce

Meet Sarah “Salt” Alt, a newly minted APD homicide detective with a psychic bent whose past stalks her in the form of a cold case about a musician who OD’d, dreams about a talking dog, and memories of her late father’s suicide. Veteran Atlanta cop Boyce sets this moody, character-driven series debut amid familiar urban haunts — Manuel’s Tavern, the Krog Street tunnel, Criminal Records, a cinderblock blues club suspiciously reminiscent of Northside Tavern. (Putnam)


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Don’t look now, but seeds are disappearing.

The ones our grandparents and great grandparents grew and the ones their grandparents and great grandparents grew. Seeds that were brought to this country from all over the world, and some that got their start right here in America.

These old seed names are both evocative and unfamiliar, lyrical and memorable: Bulgarian Triumph Tomato. Arkansas Traveler tomato. Czech’s Excellent tomato. Listada de Gandia eggplant. Chocolate Sweet pepper. Granny’s Scarlet Runner bean. Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon. Black Becky bean.

According to a study conducted by two University of Georgia researchers, seed catalogs in 1903 offered 7,262 varieties of vegetable seeds; by 2004, that number had dropped to 430. What happened? Are they still out there? Are they lost forever?

Poet, writer and environmental activist Janisse Ray—author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Wild Card Quilt and last year’s Drifting into Darien—has the answers in her latest book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food (Chelsea Green Publishing, $17.95, 240 pages). (more…)

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I always wondered what could take writers away from their blogs for so long that their readers (all 14 of you! sob!) stop checking back for new posts. Most bloggers claim work-related issues, or a new baby, or an unexpected health problem. For some it’s a vacation.

For me, who knows? like Facebook says, it’s complicated. Some of it was just getting too caught up in work and some was lack of inspiration and I’ll try to touch on that here, because they’re interconnected. But whatever it was culminated in an insane decision to turn down a week in cool(er) North Georgia, sitting around in a cabin near a lake, so that instead, I could spend my days outside in 95 degrees, under a blistering sun, tending my never-get-enough-sun vegetable beds, creating a small rose garden at the foot of our driveway and digging two new borders so we could divide and transplant some mutantly huge hostas.  Pruning shrubs was also on the agenda, as well as yanking up about two dozen pine/maple/holly saplings that evidently grow four feet tall overnight.

Brilliant, right? All good, diligent, necessary adult work in the name of home improvement, a term I once heard only from my parents or read in newspaper articles.

When it was all done, I kept staring out at my neatened yard and new plantings, wondering where the pride and contentment were, why I had an urge to sit down on the back steps of the deck and cry and make the cat sit on my lap. I had dutifully completed all my chores, when what I had really wanted was to do a whole lot of nothing. What happened?

When I’m lyin’ in my bed at night
I don’t wanna grow up
Nothin’ ever seems to turn out right
I don’t wanna grow up
How do you move in a world of fog
That’s always changing things
Makes me wish that I could be a dog
When I see the price that you pay
I don’t wanna grow up
I don’t ever wanna be that way
I don’t wanna grow up—Tom Waits

Everyone needs time to do nothing. Being able to retreat from the world is part of the alchemical process most writers need before they can burrow down into where all the good stuff lies. And bring something back. It’s the privilege of children to be able to play without having to prove they’re learning something or contributing to society or paying the bills.

Know what? I could use a place like this right about now:








Or one of these.

Or this:

I would not do anything but read and scribble and make semi-magical connections between what I was reading and thinking and everything that had happened lately or in the past year. I wouldn’t come inside and prepare dinner; someone would have to make sandwiches for me and leave them at the door in a paper bag.

I would only pad up to the main house for a coffee refill.

And these are the books I would stack on the desk or table to read. Or pile in a beach bag. You can also think of them as my suggestions for reading to take on any kind of summer vacation, even if it’s a staycation out in your back yard. Most, but not all, are new. (more…)

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Come December, everyone makes their Top Ten or Best Of the Year lists, and usually just in time for book lovers to choose their Christmas gifts. Not so my list for the AJC, which will come out one day later. So even though time is short, I’m noting some of those titles here, and adding a few I read along the way.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey—The author, while bedridden with a mysterious illness, found the ultimate “Slow Living” lessons in the life of a wild snail a friend brought her one day.

Each evening the snail awoke and with astonishing poise moved gracefully to the rim of the pot and peered over, surveying, once again, the strange country that lay ahead. Pondering its circumstance with a regal air, as if from the turret of a castle, it waved its tentacles first this way and then that, as though responding to a distant melody.

… One evening I put some of the withered blossoms in the dish beneath the pot of violets. The snail was awake. It made its way down the side of the pot and investigated the offering with great interest and then began to eat one of the blossoms. A petal started to disappear at a barely discernible rate. I listened carefully. I could hear it eating. The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously. I watched, transfixed, as over the course of an hour the snail meticulously ate an entire purple petal for dinner…The tiny, intimate sound of the snail’s eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.


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