How a stressed woman found solace through looking at birds

When her father fell ill, Kyo Maclear felt overwhelmed by life. Then she started looking at warblers and sparrows.

One winter, author Kyo Maclear found herself with a broken part. “I don’t know what it was that was broken,” she writes in her new book, Birds Art Life, “only that whatever widget had previously kept me on plan, running fluidly along, no longer worked as it should.” Her life, already busy with writing, a husband and children, had been further constricted by worry: her father was in hospital.

She developed wanderlust, a need to push back the boundaries of her existence. Through happenstance, the Toronto novelist and children’s writer got to know a birder—she doesn’t name him—and decided to follow him for a year as he trekked through urban parks and alleys in search of the city’s avian residents.

The result, Birds Art Life, is an elegantly crafted quasi-memoir, told through the prism of birds: the story of an immigrant child who grew up away from nature, an exploration of the obsessive yet at times serene lives of birders and a cri de coeur to strengthen the faltering thread between culture and nature. In an age in which bombastic noise often triumphs over quiet contemplation, Maclear offers a lyrical ode to the beauty of smallness, of quiet, of seeing the unique in the ordinary. Reporter Patricia Treble spoke to Maclear about her journey. Their conversation has been edited for length.

Q: It starts with you being very honest about your father, who was seriously ill in hospital. How did the situation create the conditions so you could write this book?

A: I think that it made me less desirous of being alone. I felt that I was carrying this weight of worry all the time. I’d always associated writing long-form fiction and non-fiction with isolation and sequestering yourself in your own office or study. I knew I couldn’t sustain myself that way. I needed to be in the world in some way. I needed to feel a sense of hope, and maybe transcendence, something to lift me out of what felt like a very heavy moment.

I was looking for somebody who could lead me in a way for a while. I discovered there was this man in Toronto who had fallen in love with birds. He’d been in a creative slump and he had discovered this whole world of birds in the city. He’d fallen in love with them.

Q: Had you ever done birding or anything similar?

A: I see myself as quite un-geographic. I grew up in Tokyo and Toronto and London and my parents were nature-averse. I’ve always felt a little estranged from nature. Even the idea of birding felt so exotic and bizarre to me.

Q: Your book is about birding in an urban setting, including going to High Park, the huge park in Toronto. Did you have a clue how many birds are in there?

A: I knew there were sparrows and pigeons in Toronto. It was a shock to discover that there are upwards of 300 species of birds that pass through Toronto, or are in Toronto at various points of the year. We’re on what is called the Songbird Superhighway because we’re on a lake. So every year, five to 10 million birds pass over Toronto. A lot of them stop here to refuel because they have depleted their fat reserves coming from Mexico or South America. They are on their way up north to the northern boreal forest. In fact, I’ve been told that if you look at the weather radar around May, you’ll see these large red blotches that look like thunderstorms and are actually birds. That’s how heavy the concentration of birds is over Toronto at certain points.

Q: In your book you tell a story about you and your son: your son is afraid of riding a bike, afraid that he’s going to get hurt. Later, you talk about a little bird that has fallen out of the nest. Was your son that little bird?

A: There are little moments in the book when there are tiny echoes. It wasn’t about finding an equivalence between the life of humans and the life of birds, but I think I realized that vulnerability is a window, and it’s a shame to close that window. That I was feeling so vulnerable that year allowed me to see the faltering of birds in a different way. They had their own stories of struggle. It wasn’t that it was edifying to compare humans to birds, but it made me realize the stories we tell about ourselves are no more or less important than the stories that birds are living at any given moment.

There’s a powerful moment toward the end of the book. I was down by the lake and I saw a peregrine falcon. It looks at me with this complete lack of interest—complete disregard and indifference. It’s a very strange feeling to being looked at in a way we’re not accustomed to being looked at, or may not even want to be looked at. Some people may feel that’s a threat to their own sense of ego, but to me it was incredibly reassuring that humans are no more or less important in our multi-species city. And that bird had its own story that day. It had probably just feasted on a pigeon; it was having its own thoughts at that moment.


Q: You have to keep very still when birding. We’re in a world now where everyone has to do stuff. This is the antithesis: you are the observer and the birds are working.

A: The one thing I’d thought of is that we spend most of our lives in survival time. There’s a sense of hanging off the ledge, trying to tread water, trying to keep ahead of the deadlines or the business of the city. Birds are the antithesis of that, for sure. I discovered that there were things that did not pay off in the birding world. Rushing, for example. Impatience. All the things that we do to self-optimize in our working lives don’t work out at all in the birding world. To realize that there’s an actually entirely different way of being if you’re watching birds.

I hadn’t thought it was about observing the birds in action, but it’s true: they are very industrious, very active. The grebes [mentioned in the book] are very collaborative. They are nest-building but doing it together. There is a sense that they are barn-raising together. It’s not about ego, you know.

Q: In the book there’s a list, the “Pantheon of Smallness,” in which you compare items such as blackbirds and Rembrandt’s etching. Equating the arts with nature was deliberate, no?

A: It was. It was also a bit playful. I wanted the readers to come in and fill in their own ideas. The Pantheon of Smallness was a way of thinking about smallness differently. Sometimes we make small things, sometimes there are small bird songs, but it can have an enormous impact. Sometimes you have to whisper to be heard. Our culture is very much one of “bigging it up,” always upping the noise level in order to produce a louder signal. What you see in the bird world is sometimes that the smallest tweet can actually pierce through the cacophony in a different way. That became a metaphor for thinking about art. Emily Dickinson did quite miniature work that had a very profound, almost epic, impact, culturally speaking.

Q: What’s your favourite bird?

A: I have two favourite birds. One is the magnolia warbler. It’s one of the birds that I mention in the book that comes through Toronto every May on the Songbird Superhighway. It’s a migratory bird, it’s beautiful, it’s delicate, it’s so lovely. The other bird is actually the house sparrow, which is completely common. I’ve heard that they are in Africa, in Asia, all through Europe. Some people see them as flying vermin because they are so ubiquitous. What I like about them is that they are everywhere. I think we tend to disparage the common things. For me just seeing a shrub shaking with a bunch of sparrows, or hearing their song, is enough to make my day. They are really hearty. You’ll see them feeding at the top of a tower, and they’ve been known to breed in the bottom of mines. I’m amazed by their scrappiness and how sturdy they are.

Q: One of the migrations you mention is that of the whimbrel.

A: The whimbrels pass over Toronto almost exactly around May 20 to May 23 every year, which is amazing. They follow this ancient migratory path. What’s incredible is that [the Whimbrel Watch] is a citizen science effort. So you have all these people who are volunteering to go and stand on this hilly knoll in the middle of Etobicoke [in western Toronto] and count the birds that pass over every year.

They’re trying to figure out if there are natural declines, how many birds have left a place the night before and how many have arrived in Toronto. Often the numbers are quite significantly lower and they want to know–is that normal? Is that the hurly-burly attrition because of migration or are there other issues at play? It can be a matter of global warming, or deforestation.

Q: For someone who is so urban, like you, doing this for the first time, were there rules you had to know, things you could do and couldn’t do? And was it natural?

A: One thing that you do as a child is, you see a flock of birds and you run into it and want to chase the birds. Then there’s this upsurge of birds, or updraft of birds, as you run into them. That’s called creating a “bird plow,” I’ve learned. And that’s not a good thing. I discovered that being out in the field. What happens is that the birds are then disoriented, they are displaced, they become prey to what are called “wake hunters” – other species might come and find them in a place they don’t know. It can be quite dangerous.

Q: You have a sentence near the end, “There is wilderness at the edge of all knowledge.” What was the wilderness for you?

A: I didn’t approach birds empirically, like I didn’t go out as a scientist tagger deciding I was going to create lists of birds, and then I would know about them. I feel if you approach birds that way there is something almost metrical. You can count, there is a sense that things are quantifiable. For me the wilderness was the poetry of birds, and not knowing.

I quote George Plimpton in the book, and he said that, in terms of birding, he’s a bit like the tone-deaf musician who has had a few flute lessons. That he goes out and he enjoys himself but the results are always uncertain. That’s me as a birder.

Q: When you came back after a day of trudging through mud, when you were cold, wet and couldn’t really feel your fingers, would you want to go right back out?

A: Not always [laughs]. One thing I did realize is that there is a real disjunction between the over-sold idea of nature, which I’d known about, [and the real thing]. As I mention in the book, I’m the classic Portlandia cliché who has all these bird tchotchkes and bird trinkets and knew nothing about birds. I’m a “put-a-bird-on-it” person. Then there’s the reality of nature, and I quickly discover what that reality was, which was dampness, cold, long periods of waiting for something to happen that may or may not happen. Also there’s the ferocity, the wildness of nature. The dirtiness of nature.

Q: Your father is the war correspondent Michael Maclear, and he wanted you to write a big book. When you said what you were writing, he didn’t understand the smallness of this book.

A: I think that it’s a mystery to him, to be honest. It’s a very odd book, I have to say. He’s very supportive in every way, but for somebody who comes out of a reportorial tradition—he was schooled in Hemingway and a different era and his sense of narrative is very linear—this is a really strange book.

Q: This is a small book, about a small subject—birding—but it’s a big book as well, isn’t it?

A: I was wrestling with whether birds were just an alibi, a way of talking about other things. I think it started off that way, then I actually lost my heart to birds as well. But I wanted to talk about certain things in a way that I hadn’t seen them talked about. There is vast literature about caring for people romantically, about caring for children, but there’s not a lot about caring for older people, eldercare. I was searching for a book that would speak to me, that wouldn’t be sociological, that would offer some insight, some solace.

I wanted to start writing that book, but at the same time, my mind is roam-y. So the book is very much a carrier bag of all the things I’m interested in. One of the questions I had was, “How do you sustain a creative life when your life feels very squeezed, when your intentions are being minced by caregiving demands? How do you have a life as an artist?” Another question I explore is, “What does it mean to be a dutiful daughter and the same time, take care of yourself?”

Q: The other part of the book is really a plea, I found, to link culture and nature. That children in urban areas are losing that connection. What would you say to parents who are reading this? How has it changed you?

A: I have another hat, in that I’m a children’s author, and I spend a lot of time visiting children’s schools all over Toronto, and I’ve been to a lot of what people call inner-city schools. One thing I often find is that there are a lot of children in Toronto who are growing up with no sense of a connection to nature whatsoever. Who [do not] even visit Toronto parks; they just don’t do that as families. I wonder what kind of environmental consciousness is to be developed in a family or a community where nature is seen as either an optional thing, not accessible to you, or something completely exotic, unwelcome.

I think that’s my history. That was my upbringing as an immigrant to Canada with parents who weren’t interested particularly in nature. But  one thing that can happen is you develop a sense of connection as a grown-up or as an adolescent. There is a way of accessing nature in cities that may be very welcoming to people.

Q: What were you like at the end of the year versus the beginning?

A: I think with memoirs in particular, we come to expect an ameliorative crest—by the end everything is better and we’ve reached transcendence, and some kind of wisdom. I don’t think it was like a thundering, or an epiphany. It didn’t feel that way. I think I had a lot of small epiphanies along the way. What I really got out of this experience is a sense that there’s other ways of living your life and [that] there are lots of things that we lose track of when we are stressed.

One thing that stress does is make us ungenerous, so we constrict, we look after our own. We get solipsistic and go into our own narcissistic spiral. What this taught me is that there is another way of dealing with stress that is much more welcoming and open and hospitable to the world.

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