‘Birds Art Life Death’ by Kyo Maclear

Blurb from Goodreads

‘Now when I hear birdsong, I feel an entry to that understory. When I am feeling too squeezed on the ground, exhausted by everything in my care, I look for a little sky. There are always birds flying back and forth, city birds flitting around our human edges, singing their songs.’

One winter, Kyo Maclear became unmoored. Her father had recently fallen ill and she suddenly found herself lost for words. As a writer, she could no longer bring herself to create; her work wasn’t providing the comfort and meaning that it had before.

But then Kyo met a musician who loved birds. The musician felt he could not always cope with the pressures and disappointments of being an artist in a big city. When he watched birds and began to photograph them, his worries dissipated. Intrigued, Kyo found herself following the musician for a year, accompanying him on his birdwatching expeditions; the sounds of birds in the city reminded them both to look outwards at the world.

Intricate and delicate as birdsong, Birds Art Life Death asks how our passions shape and nurture us, and how we might gain perspective, overcome our anxieties and begin to cherish the urban wild spaces where so many of us live.

My Review

Upon closing the last pages of this book I feel as if I should bow my head in silence, speak only in whispered tones. Make some sort of reverential gesture. I really didn’t know what to expect from reading a book about bird watching but this…

This felt so much more than anything I could have hoped for.

In this memoir, writer Kyo Maclear writes about the year when she followed in the footsteps of a musician friend as he went out birding. She had been intrigued by this fellow artist’s immense passion in such an almost benign hobby and took to birding alongside him to help her cope with the every day anxieties of being a mother, a wife and daughter to an ailing father. This was about learning to be still while living under the watchful eye of expectant grief.

By no means am I a bird watcher. I feed garden birds in Winter and will sit happily in the park in Summer watching the ducks and the swans. But that has traditionally been the extent of my interest and my knowledge. So you could say that I am not really the target audience for a book about birds.

And yet I was utterly entranced by this.

I was intrigued by the ideas of urban bird watching. It wasn’t something that I would have expected. The juxtaposition of the coldness of urbanity with the softness of nature was a breath of fresh air to me. It made the idea of birding very accessible to a novice like me but conversely gave great pause for thought about the impact of ever evolving ecologies on some of our smallest of neighbours and how quickly it can take a species to become extinct. (Case study Passenger Pigeon)

And yet this book was so much more than bird watching.

It felt as if I was reading someone’s innermost thoughts and I was specially invited to be a passenger with them on their journey of discovery and self-acceptance over the course of a year.

There were many wonderful moments of insight into being an artist, a mother, a daughter and a wife.

It felt natural.

Honest.

And at times there were passages of such pure clarity about life and living.

Kyo Maclear is traditionally known as a children’s book author. And in this book she has taken the simplicity that is required for writing for children and poured it into a beautiful journal of words. I found myself being very moved on a number of occasions throughout the read.

On one occasion she talked about how becoming part of the birding scene was akin to ‘disappearing into the crowd’ and how it was refreshing and reinvigorating to not always have to ‘individuate, or to be your own you’. It was as she said the perfect ‘antidote to the artist ego’.

I read an e-version of this book but I have held and looked through a physical hardback copy and I have to say that it is a thing of beauty. And it is as much a visual feast for the eyes as a feast for our word-loving souls. I will definitely be adding it to my bookcase.

I would very much recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in birds but mostly to anyone who is just looking to be still. To be quiet. To pause a moment amidst this hectic world of ours. This is a book to nourish the soul. To reinvigorate and revitalise the tired and weary mind.

five stars


A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, Harper Collins UK: 4th Estate, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Published February 2017

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