The day after I finished reading Kyo Maclear’s new memoir, Birds Art Life: A Field Guide to the Small and Insignificant, three things happened that took each of her themes in turn. First, we saw the swans. By “we,” I mean me and my partner, Keith—although in emulation of Maclear’s own subdued manner, it might be more appropriate to call him “the art historian.” Apart from a brief mention in the small print of her acknowledgements, Maclear does not identify her own birdwatching companion by name, even though they went on joint excursions into the urban wilds of Toronto for an entire year. Instead, she speaks of him obliquely as “the musician.” I am guessing she chose this greyed-out identification to suit the muted pallet of her book, with its moody black-and-white photographs, whimsical pen-and-ink drawings and quiet, meditative words. After all, she had come to this project looking for comfort and reassurance. Her beloved father—the man who anchored her life as a writer—had fallen ill, and she had fallen with him, her life out of kilter, unmoored. “The act of wrangling words into sentences into paragraphs into stories made me weary,” she confides. “It seemed an overly complicated, dubious effort.”
And it was then, in the mysterious way that these things sometimes happen, that birds had called to her. They were not rare and exotic species from some untouched wilderness but everyday birds from everyday urban environments. Her birds scrounged in the garbage and perched on streetlights, occupying “the dirty, plain, beautiful, funny places many of us call home.” And they were “suddenly everywhere,” tugging at her attention.
I could hear them in the trees and tucked in the eaves of our house: idle choirs chattering and trilling—pretty songs and ugly songs, songs to pass the time. A hawk perched high above the ice rink while I was skating with my sons one afternoon. I spied a flock of migrating geese through a skylight while I did the backstroke in a YMCA pool. It moved like a giant cursor across the white flatness of the sky.
Hope had appeared in Maclear’s life as a thing with feathers, but, pace Emily Dickinson, hope was abashed and fragile in this tenuous world. Best to keep your voice down, speak in whispers.
And so, the art historian and I sat on the narrow verge of a highway, in the presence of swans. There were more than a hundred of them, a flotilla of whiteness, resting on a shallow marsh on the outskirts of a beat-up prairie town. Every time a vehicle shuddered past, our binoculars were jolted, and our focus shifted to include the rusted oil storage tank on the far side of the pond. Although we were thousands of kilometres distant from Toronto, we found ourselves in the same kind of tattered “mongrel space” in which Maclear and her musician had made their birding trips. Cities, with their endless demand for resources, scratch their imprint onto the land far beyond city limits.
By rolling down the car windows, we could hear the swans murmuring to one another in their quiet, piping voices, as if nothing were wrong. But we knew too much about what we were seeing, about habitat loss, species decline, global warming and all the other sorrows that beset both the swans and us. And like Maclear, we also knew that the day when, “without our acting, the little things will take care of themselves” was long gone. And yet, despite this burdensome awareness, our hearts were light, and we were happy just to sit and look. We were experiencing what Maclear describes as “the lift of the bird” in us.
The second thing that happened after reading Maclear’s book was a conversation with my friend Nick. I do not know what he did in his earlier life, but nowadays, in his fifties, he spends his time making bowls. If, for some of us, joy is “bird-shaped” (to borrow a phrase from Maclear), for Nick, it is a thin-walled vessel taking form on his potter’s wheel. Although his creations are all nearly identical in size and shape, they are distinguished from one another by the way he paints on the glaze. Every bowl is a miniature world of land or sky or water. Across a table of his wares at a craft sale, I attempted to persuade him to make different kinds of vessels to vary his stock—you’d sell more, I said—but he brushed the suggestion aside. “I was sick this summer,” he told me. “To make these things, the clay weighs two and a half pounds; it’s heavy. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able—” He paused and, with a wave of his hand, indicated his array of bowls. “This size is the most fun to paint. I want to make them as long as I can.” He threw me an impish grin and a wink. “It’s all about me, you know.”
In the grand scheme of things, Nick’s craftsmanship (like this essay, like most of our efforts) is of minuscule significance. Yet I could not help thinking that Maclear would have taken huge satisfaction in his intransigence. “I like smallness,” she confides in a chapter “on the satisfactions of small birds and small art … I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny.”
If you pour everything into the tiny vessel of a song and wear out your heart, what is that? Is that small or big? If you choose to put yourself out there on a small stage, singing for the small somebody inside of you, knowing how quickly songs wane, is that modest or gargantuan?
Sing like a bird. Sing through your art, knowing how quickly songs wane.
If I’d had that same conversation with Nick a day earlier, before reading Birds Art Life, I might just have laughed it off. What a wit that guy is, so amusing. But one of Maclear’s gifts is attentiveness, her insistence on getting to the heart of things. She likes noticing and thinking. Whenever her experience as birdwatcher offers her a lesson, she makes the most of it. The significance of small ambitions. The virtue of waiting. The importance of knowledge. The acceptance of brokenness. It seemed that by spending time with her writing, I had become more perceptive and thoughtful myself. Her courage and curiosity had turned out to be contagious.
The third thing that happened after I finished Birds Art Life was discovering that Maclear had published a very different but related text just a few months earlier. The Liszts is a picture book for young children, created in collaboration with illustrator Júlia Sardà and released by Penguin Random House this past October. It concerns a family of compulsive list makers. “They made lists in winter, spring, summer, fall,” Maclear writes of them. “They made lists every day except Sundays, which were listless.” Without this clue, I might not have noticed that Maclear herself is a maker of lists and that, from the title page onward, Birds Art Life is filled with them. (I have taken my cue from her in structuring this review.) Each chapter of her memoir takes a month in its turn and is prefaced by a list of the birds that have come into view in that time. Some of her lists are poignant, such as the inventory of things she noticed but did not talk about after her father fell ill, and some are playful, such as her catalogue of famous eyebrows—“Frida. Audrey. Greta. Groucho.”—her own having risen in a permanent state of alarm. There is a list of songs about roaming, prompted by the wandering of birdwatchers in search of midsummer action, and paired lists of “spark birds” and “spark books,” to honour encounters that ignited outdoor and armchair passions. Occasionally, her fondness for catalogues makes her sentences heavy, but it keeps her thinking open to surprise. There is space in her branching awareness for contradictions and unexpected sightings.
In The Liszts, the characters are thrown into a tizzy when a visitor shows up who was not on anyone’s list. In Birds Art Life, the unwanted intruder is the shadow of mortality. Our lives are tiny, this brave book reminds us, and the world we inhabit is scarred and beautiful. “Life is just this way,” Maclear concludes. “If we’re lucky we learn by watching others make it through, still standing and smiling. If we’re lucky we learn to live in a flux of adaptation, in the ‘twoness’ between despair and hope.” We learn to listen for the song of birds.