When Kyo Maclear’s life was disrupted by the declining health of her father she decided to look closely at her life, her feelings and try and observe what was really happening to her. This slim little book is the wonderful result. It is a book full of contemplation of birds and art but also asks: what is grief, what makes a writer and artist and how does that fit into a busy life as a mother, wife and daughter?
She luckily watches a documentary called 15 Reasons to Live that her musician husband is writing the score for and comes across an accomplished musician who while overwhelmed with depression and stress turned to observing and photographing birds as a kind of therapy for his unhappiness. It is from this friendship that the whole book evolves.
It turns out that observing birds means being very still and thoughtful which helps Kyo Maclear think upon many topics. She looks carefully at many books about birds and lists them for us to possibly read in the future. She also discovers many artists and people who are interested in birds and write about them, including lovely illustrations of her favorites. She writes about her family relationships and how those relations have created the person she is now. She even has a wonderful funny bit of writing illustrating the importance of eyebrows of some of her favorite writers and artists. She spreads a charmingly wide net to encompass her interests in birding, writing, loving and living.
Birds Art Life is organized into a full year of Maclear’s life, divided by the seasons and then the months of each season, each with a subject title. The whole book is interspersed with her unique black and white drawings and is best read in small increments and savored for her crisp and evocative writing. She is clearly a gifted writer who can poetically describe a bird landing on water and the painful truths she faces in her stressful year.
The observation of birds is what truly becomes her creative space where she sits and attempts to quiet herself so she can just look. It helps her cope with her sadness of her father’s diminishing life and her fears of the future without him. It also becomes a kind of meditation and ultimately helps her in all parts of her life too. For as she writes to all of us her readers, “If you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”
Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life is on the long list of Canada’s most prestigious nonfiction writing prize for 2017, the Hilary Weston Writers Trust Prize. She has written two novels, The Letter Opener (2007) and Stray Love (2012) and a number of children’s picture books.