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book review

A bird perched high in a tree watches the sun set over western New York, Tuesday, July 20, 2004, in Williamsville, N.Y.ADAM AMATO/The Associated Press

Kyo Maclear was at a loss for words. Her father had suffered two strokes, and when she was far enough away from the pressures of care-giving and grim realities of the hospital to find the occasion to write, she was too weary to get the words on the page. Even when the immediate crisis had passed, the long tail of anxiety left her on guard, awaiting the next disaster. She experienced what she calls "anticipatory grief."

"I had grown so accustomed to being interrupted by emergency calls and hospital news, I began interrupting myself whenever I sat down to work," she writes in her new memoir, Birds Art Life.

Maclear knew that to move forward, she had to fall in love with something outside herself; she went on to discover that love in an unexpected place. While watching the documentary 15 Reasons to Live with her husband, Maclear learned of a musician who experienced a similar "creative depression," and who had found an unexpected cure in urban birding. Maclear was immediately fascinated by his story, and by the hope he'd found in nature – "He had discovered his joy was bird shaped." Knowing little about birds but inspired nonetheless, Maclear contacted this stranger from the film, and arranged to meet him for a "bird walk."

Birds Art Life, a memoir that springs from that initial meeting, documents a year in Maclear's life. Yes, it tracks her return to creativity via her burgeoning interest in the urban bird, but the book is much more rich and generous; it invites the reader to meditate with her on a wide variety of subjects, themes and issues far beyond the beloved city wildlife she observes. It details great creative minds and their obsessions with the natural world. (Who knew John Cage was into collecting mushrooms?) It even offers a handful of whimsical drawings of famous eyebrows. In fact, the book's strength is in its smallest sketched-out details – a few lines about the author watching her cat sun herself feels monumental, as does an anecdote about discovering her younger son was eating the pages of books. And although the memoir certainly feels eclectic and wide reaching, Maclear is able to weave everything she touches on into a cohesive, meaningful whole.

In many ways, Birds Art Life feels like a passionate defence of the things we so consistently overlook – the tiny, the invisible, the seemingly inconsequential, the precious. "Small is a safe harbour," Maclear proclaims, and proves it not only with what she writes about, but how she writes it. The memoir's structure is a lot like a tidy cupboard brimming with beautiful objects – each one taken from a shelf, examined for a short time and returned, to allow another to reveal its wisdom. When the author is not conveying her own personal observations about living, she zooms right out, delving into history, music, philosophy and literature, backing up the personal with the tradition that precedes her.

Though this memoir covers a lot of ground, it still manages to bounce gracefully from topic to topic – so much so that readers will find themselves wondering how they so seamlessly got from Point A to Point B. I often found myself flipping backward, revisiting underlined passages, relishing the insight offered on everything from health and aging to introversion and extroversion, familial and romantic love to success and failure, courage and fear. Birds are indeed the narrative thread, but a love for them, or even an interest in them, is not necessary to appreciate what Maclear has accomplished. What it means to be human is the overarching subject, and readers will find a universality in Maclear's experiences, along with countless passages worthy of returning to time and time again.

At a time when the world feels like it's unravelling on a grand scale, when the daily news so often feels dire, Birds Art Life acts as a source of much-needed solace. The book finds beauty and enjoyment in unlikely places, and contentment in the smallest things – from the flight of a bird to the love of a parent to the sweetness of a song. "[The birds] tell me it's all right to be belittled by the bigness of the world," Maclear writes. "There are some belittlements and diminishments that make you stronger, kinder."

There is certainly strength and kindness in what Maclear has delivered with Birds Art Life – it is a timely and generous reprieve from anxiety, fear, and grief, much like the comfort the birds gave its author when she needed it most.

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