'Birds Art Life': A symphony of a book to delight all of us

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"Birds Art Life," by Kyo Maclear: Detail of the book jacket.

Birds Art Life
A Year of Observation
By Kyo Maclear
Scribner. 221 pp. $25

Reviewed by Laurie Hertzel

Kyo Maclear took up birding after her father suffered his second stroke. It had been a tough winter, cold settling in early, snowing often, and between the harsh weather and worries about her father, Maclear was feeling unmoored. "I had lost the beat," she writes in her strange, lovely, profound little book, Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation.

A friend she calls only "the musician" had found peace in his life by photographing urban birds. The birds he watched "lived in gardens of steel, glass, concrete, and electricity. There was a bird with a plastic 'frozen mango' bag on its face and another bird nesting in a shattered light fixture. ... The birds were doing ordinary bird things - perching, flying, preening, hunting, nest-building - but there was no doubt that they were of, rather than above, the mess and grit and trash of the world."

So she asks whether she can accompany the musician on a bird walk. "I wanted to be enraptured and feel I was still inspirable," she writes.

One bird walk turns into a year of birding, during which Maclear meditates on her past, her parents, her marriage, books she loves, the nature of art, death, happiness, climate change, and whatever else comes to her fertile, deeply curious mind. Though structured as a chronological memoir, hers is not a typical "year-in-the-life" narrative. Each chapter is built around bird observations, but her excursions to the urban-bird habitats serve as jumping-off points for her intelligent and thoughtful ramblings.

Her metaphors and verbs are often bird-inspired, but these allusions feel natural, never forced, and her descriptions are vivid and original: "A horned grebe sporting a punky Klaus Nomi hairdo put on a little show, diving and disappearing." Hooded mergansers have "crests resembling Elizabethan bridal hats. They dove for barnacles while giant ice cubes clinked around them." A solitary male gadwall "stayed still long enough for me to fixate on its delicate herringbone feather pattern."

On one walk, fairly early on, she recalls the birds that smashed into the windows of her elementary school when she was a child. "I remember their little matchstick legs poking up at the sky," she writes. "I remember thinking it seemed cruel that a bird should be punished for believing it could fly."

"If you listen to birds," she writes, "every day will have a song in it."

This book is a lovely song - a symphony - for all of us. The musician's bird photographs are at www.smallbirdsongs.com.

This review originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.