In 'Conversations With Birds,' Priyanka Kumar Captures the Ways That We Are Part of Nature – Shondaland.com


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For years, Kumar felt lost amidst the sea of big cities until she built a profound connection with birds.
Novelist and documentary filmmaker Priyanka Kumar was born and raised in India until she moved to California as an adolescent. As she grew into adulthood, she lived in major cities across the U.S., but Kumar always felt lost and disconnected in ways she couldn’t pin down. She was prompted by a near-death experience after encountering a western tanager, and her profound love and connection with land and nature began to reawaken. So, in her new book of essays, Conversations With Birds, Kumar chronicles the deeply entwined and fulfilling relationship she had with the mountains and bamboo forests of her childhood as formative for her sense of self and her place in the world.
Conversations With Birds consists of Kumar’s observations, insights, and engagement with birds and the earth in prose that feels like a gentle guide for the reader to nurture their own relationship with nature, whatever it may look like. Especially as climate change claims more of what we know and love about this planet, Kumar’s writing is one of many reminders of what we have to lose, and what we must save.
Shondaland spoke with Kumar about conversation as a guiding word, climate grief, getting closer to the natural world, and the Hindu idea of rasa.
SARAH NEILSON: The title of the book includes the word conversations. In what ways was that a guiding word for you — the idea of conversing and mutual engagement in the context of birds and the lessons you’ve gleaned from watching them?
PRIYANKA KUMAR: For many years now, I’ve been developing relationships with birds and other wildlife. To do that, I spend as much time as I can with them. Because I feel that it’s only when you have a relationship that you can have a conversation. For the last few weeks, I’ve been watching these gorgeous rufous hummingbirds, which are still, as of yesterday, hanging around the raspberry sages in my garden even though we’re moving into the end of October. And I’m thinking, “Why are you still here? Don’t you need to begin your journey south?” I’m also thinking that next spring I need to plant more penstemons and more sages for these hummingbirds. Planting makes me feel alive, and then I see how the birds respond, and it’s an ongoing conversation. When this happens on a daily basis, I feel that I’m engaged in a conversation with birds and with other wildlife and with our planet. And that’s transformative.
SN: How do you approach climate grief in your work, and how is this book a work about grief more broadly?
PK: I think that we’re all living with climate grief right now. [A recent study] showed that 64 percent of Americans worry about climate change. I think it’s great that it’s in the consciousness of so many of us. But I also take away from that that many of those 64 percent of Americans are living with climate grief. I know that those of us who are thinking about this more deeply are living with it every day. For me, what allays that grief is to have a vital relationship with the land, because I think that the macro and the micro can happen at the same time. So for me, it’s really important — and this is a tiny thing — that I use my hands even when doing something as basic as composting, and then using that compost to enrich the garden so that I am then growing more bird habitat, and so that the migratory birds that go through here each fall (and I’ve been seeing some stunning ones lately, like the Townsend’s warbler) have an abundance of seed, and that I’ve never used pesticides so that there are insects and there’s grasshoppers for birds to eat. I think on a day-to-day basis, it is very important that I keep that relationship with the land active and that I get soil into my fingernails. That way, I feel that as an ordinary person, I am doing my part. And I think that all of us can do that. It doesn’t really matter where we live, in a city or rural area. I think that we all have the opportunity to be engaged with the land, whether it’s in a community garden or even just growing pots of edible perennials. At least I find that’s quite therapeutic for me.
The other part of that is that because I’m so engaged in this particular conversation, then of course I’m interested in going deeper into the stories of the birds and wildlife that I encounter on almost a daily basis. As an artist and a storyteller, I feel compelled, and almost a profound moral responsibility, to tell these stories in a way that will engage people and hopefully inspire them to have their own relationship with the natural world. I truly believe that if we don’t have that relationship, it’s so much harder to be effective advocates for the land and for our planet. I think that is the first step to have a relationship with the land. Even if it’s birding in a parking lot, just to find some entry point and develop a relationship. That gives us a stronger idea of what’s going on — how temperature and precipitation fluctuations are impacting wildlife and what we could do about it.
SN: That reminds me of the word rasa that you bring up at the beginning of the book. Can you describe what rasa means and how you carry its meaning through the book?
PK: Rasa means “juice” in Sanskrit, literally and metaphorically. It’s an ancient concept, and it was first used in a second-century text that is a commentary on performance and dance. I think that it’s interesting that it was used in the context of storytelling. I weave this concept through the book because I stopped experiencing rasa in my life in the West. I thought that it was so fascinating that I was living in these iconic cities like Los Angeles and New York, and yet I’d been happier as a child in India. I wondered what was missing. Now, I don’t know that any of us can truly articulate what is missing in our lives, but I do know that when I reentered the natural world, I found that I was closer to this juicy feeling of being alive and connected and in awe. What more can we ask for?
SN: Speaking of childhood, can you talk about the ways that childhood and nature are connected for you, and the importance of place and how that shows up in the book?
PK: As a very small child, even when I was about 5 years old, I [had] this vivid memory of walking to school every morning. We were living in the foothills of the Himalayas, and along the way, I would see these snow-peaked mountains. I was certainly guilty as a child of personifying mountains — it looked like they had brows made of snow, and that they were glaring at me or winking at me or just watching me. I felt very much like I was walking to school under the immense shadow of these mountains. They seemed to be almost otherworldly to my childlike eye. I never forgot that relationship I had with these mountains. A couple of years later, we moved farther east, and there, it wasn’t so much snowy mountains, but it was vast tracts of bamboo. As a 7-year-old, I would take a 40-minute walk to go visit a friend through these bamboo forests. I lost all sense of time, and it was just this magical feeling.
I’m very grateful that I had that — that as a child, I developed those deep bonds with the natural world. And that was primarily because I was in an area that was so beautiful and so wild. This is an area that scientists now acknowledge is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Taken together with the fact that I was a sensitive, artistically inclined child, it was just love at first sight. And I never fell out of love until I was thrust out into a city eventually. I was heartbroken, and I didn’t understand why I was heartbroken. And part of the reason I write about some of these experiences is to help us all remember how key it can be for children to grow up in close communication with nature. That is my greatest wish for children growing up today.
SN: Can you talk about the parallel between your relationship with nature and your relationship with yourself? What has birding and this relationship with nature taught you about the act of looking and noticing not only what’s going on outwardly but also inwardly?
PK: What’s interesting is we’re living in a time that’s quite different from even how we lived 20 years back. We’re steeped in these device-filled lives. Technology can be an excellent tool. But for many of us, it’s really taken over our lives. It’s going to take a lot of reflection to understand how we’re changing in this very transformative time. I think it’s more important than ever today to cultivate a sense of inner silence. I’m not talking about silence in the sense of loneliness, because we also have a loneliness crisis in this country, but how do we develop in ourselves the capacity to sink into time? We may not have bamboo forests to wander through, but do we have spaces in our daily lives where we get lost and we are no longer conscious of time? For me, engaging with birds is in that sense also a radical act.
I choose to walk away from this device-filled existence, and I choose to go as close to the natural world as I can in my everyday life and lose myself — whether it’s the song of the chickadee, or the meowing of a flicker, or the piercing gaze of a coyote. I know that I’m only an observer, but I feel this great curiosity to deepen my knowledge of these animals and their lives, which leads me the next day to go back again and see what I can see, and then eventually tell those stories to the world, which is hopefully what I’m doing in this book.
SN: You write that one of your writing teachers asked you if your narrator could “hold the stage,” which I took to be a metaphor for the idea of performance for a specific audience. What are some ways that you nurture your own creative and artistic self along these lines of connecting with nature?
PK: What I chafe against is the idea of art solely as entertainment, as performance for an elite audience. For me, true art speaks to life. And in that moment of connection, there is simultaneously a sense of enlargement and recognition and joy. On the other hand, capitalism is hyper-focused on the individual, and we’re pitted against each other in many different and brutal ways. I really don’t know how a person can make art in this environment. And the writing teacher you speak of, his lack of perception, lack of generosity, and, frankly, crusty outlook is something that I have been up against again and again. Being in nature and spending time with birds got me away from that poisonous culture. Those experiences of patriarchy, sexism, and racism seem to dissolve. I was back in an environment that felt timeless and which had spoken to me from the beginning, and which I never wanted to be separated from again.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.

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