Birds Art Life

“They were constantly chirping, and what they were saying, or what I heard them say, was: Stand up. Look around. Be in the world.”



“For me, birding and writing did not feel interchangeable. Birding was the opposite of writing, a welcome and necessary flight from the awkward daily consciousness of making art. It allowed me to exist in a simple continuity, amid a river of birds and people and hours. The stubborn anxiety that filled the rest of my life was calmed for as long as I was standing in the river.”


“As long as I can remember I have been drawn to people who have side loves. Maybe because no single job or category has ever worked for me, I am particularly interested in artists who find inspiration alongside their creative practice. It could be a zest for car mechanics or iron welding (Bob Dylan) or for beekeeping (Sylvia Plath). I love the idea that something completely unexpected can be a person’s wellspring or dark inner cavern, that our artistic lives can be so powerfully shaped and lavishly cross-pollinated by what we do in our so-called spare time.”    Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear

I just love this little memoir. Writer Kyo Maclear, a novelist, essayist, and children’s book author, was feeling overwhelmed by the illness of her father, caring for her two young boys, keeping up her writing, and all of life’s other demands. She decided to begin a side practice, something to relax her and refresh her writing and creative spirit.

For a year, she accompanied an avid birder who is also a musician and performer in birding adventures around Toronto and wrote about it, along the way finding truths about life and art.

Many artists and writers are dabblers or become accomplished in a side practice that cross pollinates their art and their life. Vladimir Nabokov was a world renowned butterfly expert. Virginia Woolf gardened.

I’m not sure I have a side practice. Certainly nature feeds my writing and inspires me, and I’m experimenting with learning how to paint watercolors because painting is nonverbal, a relief from hours of being in my own head when I write.

For Kyo, birding was a delightful hobby and new passion because it was relatively easy to do. Despite living in an urban environment, Kyo and her birding companion were intrigued and entertained by the wide range of birds they found along the lake front and in streams, parks, vacant lots, parking lots, backyards, and right outside their picture windows.

Each chapter in Birds Art Life is devoted to a month and a theme: Love, Cages, Smallness, Waiting, Knowledge, Faltering, Lulls, Roaming, Regrets, Questions, and Endings.

A few chapter subtitles will give you an idea of Kyo’s thematic reflections:

Smallness: On the satisfactions of small birds and small art and the audacity of aiming tiny in an age of big ambitions

Lulls: On peaceful lulls and terrifying lulls and the general difficulty of being alone and unbusy

In one chapter, Kyo broadens her scope to reflect on climate change and how, day to day, urbanites and suburbanites don’t notice the human-caused environmental disruption and species depletion happening just outside their view.

Many birders have a spark bird, a particular species of bird that ignites their interest and launches them into birding. Likewise, many devoted readers have a spark book, a book they read in childhood that became a portal to a life of passionate reading.

Do you have a spark book? What comes to mind for me is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. 

This is a hugely satisfying memoir and meditation on life and art that will replenish your spirit. I highly recommend it.

“This is what birds do when they join a swirl of other birds, I thought. They don’t proclaim their individuality or try to make a splash. They dissolve into the group. I wondered if this merging felt so relaxing because it was an antidote to the artist ego, built on an endless need to individuate, to be your own you. In place of exhausting self-assertion, the relief of disappearing into the crowd.”

Do you have a side practice that complements your primary work? Do you have a spark book, or a spark bird, or something specific that sparked your passion in another hobby or practice?


16 thoughts on “Birds Art Life”

  1. I had missed this post earlier and am so glad you mentioned it in your recent post so I could visit. I love what you’ve quoted here and will be seeking out her book.Also interesting that your spark book was a Wrinkle in Time, which was also one of my favorite books, and could well have been my spark book too. I’ll have to think about that more.

    1. Thanks, Deborah. I do think you’ll love this book. Although I don’t often track down children’s books – which Kyo also writes – I will look out for her work from now on. Re: Wrinkle in Time, I still remember coming home from school and lying on my bed and reading into the night until I was finished.

  2. This is one I really enjoyed as well. When I discovered it, I was in the mood to gobble it up, but I can also imagine reading very slowly, allowing her musings to spill over into later weeks/months even. It might actually make for an interesting rereading project, following month-by-month. I’m not sure that I had a single spark book, or if it was more the experience of being surrounded by books in libraries and bookshops that sparked the love for me. But I did love L’Engle’s book, Hariet the Spy, Joan Aiken’s stories, Cynthia Voigt (in my teens). Children’s books were incredibly important to me for sure and they still make me want to write!

  3. To have a side outlet is absolutely essential, I feel. It was funny – your post made me stop to think about it. Surprisingly, I think my outlet is writing and taking pictures. I really enjoy both. Together, they act as much needed vents for the barrage of thoughts constantly battling in my head, and my need for both visual and cerebral stimulation.

    1. Anna, that’s interesting. I think so many of us do have a side passion – seems so obvious and beneficial, but she really explored it in her book. I like to take photos too, and the interesting thing is, while I want to improve and get good at it, I also don’t have any grand ambitions in that area – just pleasing to do it in and of itself.

      1. Exactly – no outside pressure to perform. Just your own expectations and the milestones crossed off along the way. If only ALL work was that way, huh?

  4. Val, thank you for this post. The book sounds upliftings, and all the quotes are beautiful. I am surely adding it to my TBR. As I was reading about side practices, I was waiting for you to mention your adventures with water colours. I hope you would share the pictures with us someday. I am looking at exploring water colours too, as soon as I land myself in a job. Thank you, Val!

    1. Deepika, I think you will really like Birds Art Life and you’ll have a new author to follow. There was something so comforting and contagious in her writing and her approach to this new endeavor in her life. I’m loving playing with watercolors and am too much of a beginner to show anything yet….but that’s a good goal to have and besides, I suppose I shouldn’t worry about my ability, that’s not the point with this, is it? When you begin watercoloring let me know….and BTW I buy really cheap supplies…but I know what you mean it does add up.

  5. Thanks for this review, Valorie. I’d never heard of “Birds Art Life,” and now I am putting it on my To Read list. Thanks for the new discovery. PS: I started bird watching later in life and it has truly been a marvelous experience. I feel like I can see and hear better now : )

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