A writer’s search for inspiration, beauty, and solace leads her to birds in this intimate and exuberant meditation on creativity and life—a field guide to things small and significant.
When it comes to birds, Kyo Maclear isn’t seeking the exotic. Rather she discovers joy in the seasonal birds that find their way into view in city parks and harbors, along eaves and on wires. In a world that values big and fast, Maclear looks to the small, the steady, the slow accumulations of knowledge, and the lulls that leave room for contemplation.
A distilled, crystal-like companion to H is for Hawk, Birds Art Life celebrates the particular madness of chasing after birds in the urban environment and explores what happens when the core lessons of birding are applied to other aspects of art and life. Moving with ease between the granular and the grand, peering into the inner landscape as much as the outer one, this is a deeply personal year-long inquiry into big themes: love, waiting, regrets, endings. If Birds Art Life was sprung from Maclear’s sense of disconnection, her passions faltering under the strain of daily existence, this book is ultimately about the value of reconnection—and how the act of seeking engagement and beauty in small ways can lead us to discover our most satisfying and meaningful lives.
This reading group guide for Birds Art Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. We hope that these questions will enrich your reading group’s conversation and your experience of the book.
Birds Art Life is a beautifully crafted meditation on the search for beauty, meaning, and creative inspiration in the stillness of the natural world. Seeking an antidote to stress and grief, Kyo Maclear joins a musician on his weekly birding tours of the city parks and harbors of Toronto, learning, over the course of a year, to approach other aspects of her life through a more delicate, forgiving lens. Blending memoir, nature writing, and cultural commentary, Maclear plumbs the universal questions that frame the human experience. How can we draw emotional nourishment from nature? Why, in an ever-expanding world, should we hold tight to smallness? What is the function of creative expression during times of anguish and loss? By seeking beauty in the small things, Maclear shows us a path towards a more meaningful, compassionate, and fulfilling way of being in the world.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Birds Art Life is structured by season. Why do you think Maclear chose this as an organizing principle? How does the rhythm of the natural world mirror the cyclical turns of our interior lives?
2. Maclear writes about stress and solitude, “A mind narrows when it has too much to bear. Art is not born of unwanted constriction. Art wants formless and spacious quiet, antisocial daydreaming, time away from the consumptive volume of everyday life” (page 7). Do you agree with Maclear? Does art require solitude? Is there meaning to be found in noise and chaos?
3. On page 9, Maclear writes, “Faces have a near-unwatchable intimacy, particularly in a world in which everything perishes in the end.” How does this observation connect to the anticipatory grief Maclear feels towards her ailing father?
4. How does art lead us towards “other possible lives” (page 13)? Does the solitary nature of art hinder such a pursuit?
5. On page 21, Maclear describes how, every time her family moved, her mother constructed a Japanese rock garden in their new backyard. What is the symbolism of this action?
6. In the early days of their birding adventures, the musician tells Maclear that “birds may sing just for the joy of it” (page 30). Why do you think this idea makes Maclear so happy? What might we learn from song made simply for the pleasure of song itself?
7. On page 39, Maclear describes the “sanctuary of the cage.” How are we conditioned to live compartmentalized lives? In what ways can boundaries and constrictions be positive and life-giving?
8. Smallness is a guiding aesthetic for Maclear’s art. How do we see the value of smallness play out in Birds Art Life, both in terms of structure and content?
9. Maclear describes the “spark birds” and “spark books” that ignited her passion for birding and literature. What was your “spark book”? Discuss the formative paintings, films, music, etc. that changed the way you view the world.
10. Throughout the book we see the devastating impact of human interference on birds’ existence. In what ways do we also see the natural world transcend the effects of human development? Do you view such interference as a loss?
11. How does art sustain us through lulls? How can lulls be, as Daniel Day Lewis describes on page 137, the periods in our lives when we do “the real work” of becoming human?
12. What do you make of Maclear’s musings on regret? “Would a life protected from all regret be considered virtuous or monstrous?” (page 171)
13. Maclear states that, “For me, birding and writing did not feel interchangeable. Birding was the opposite of writing” (page 195). Do you agree with her here? In what ways do birding and writing get at the same universal truths?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. How does Crawford’s vision amplify Maclear’s philosophy? How does the notion smallness animate both works?
2. Contact your local Audubon Society chapter and arrange to go on a local bird tour with your book club. How did reading Birds Art Life inform your adventure? Did the experience change the way you understand Maclear’s artistic vision?
Kyo Maclear is a novelist, essayist, and children’s author. She was born in London, England, and moved to Toronto at the age of four. Her writing has appeared in The Millions, The Volta, The Guardian, and The Globe and Mail, among other publications. Kyo lives in Toronto where she shares a home with two sons, two cats, and a musician. For more information, please visit KyoMaclear.com or KyoMaclearKids.com.
"A profound, charming memoir of art, books, life — and birds .... This book is a lovely song — a symphony — for all of us." —Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Birds Art Life chronicles [Maclear's] journey, exploring the many shapes passion can take, and the many spaces natural beauty can occupy." —Huffington Post
“I can hardly put this down …Yes, it’s about birding. But so much more.” —Charlotte Observer
“[A] fragile fluid commentary … The reader can relax in the solitude of [Maclear’s] musings as the words gently flow into the consciousness.” —Manhattan Book Review
“[A]n incandescent exploration of beauty, inspiration, art, family and freedom that seems to leave no topic out of its binocular scope.” —Toronto Star
"[A] literary jewel box ... Maclear’s book is appealing in its appreciation of non-human nature in the midst of city life, agnosticism about the place of human activity in the midst of nature’s rhythms, and exploration of the relationship between captivity and freedom." —Publishers Weekly
"The simple precision of Maclear’s prose belies the depth, as if the book were the tip of the iceberg and what she has elided or omitted constitutes the rest .... Writers and others will find inspiration in the advice to stop and hear the birds." —Kirkus Reviews
“Maclear’s musings will appeal to readers who enjoy nature writing focused most on the search for meaning in a hectic world.” —Booklist
Intricate and delicate as birdsong, Kyo Maclear’s clear-eyed observations of the natural world and our place in it challenge the velocity of modern life. A year spent birding is a year spent in passionate introspection. As she discovers beauty in urban cityscape, she leads us to turn fresh eyes to our surroundings. Her beloved birds become messengers of both loss and hope. —Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way
"Every now and then you read a book that changes the way you see the world. For me, Birds Art Life is one such book. The writing is marvelously pure and honest and light. At the same time, magically, it is erudite, generous, and brimming with meaning and event. Birds Art Life is a book I know I will return to again and again for inspiration and solace.” —Barbara Gowdy, author of The White Bone and We So Seldom Look on Love
"A beautifully crafted memoir that elevates the ordinary with intelligence and humility." —Leslie Feist, musician