Being in nature can heal us and our fragmented relationships with each other and even begin to contribute to the healing of the planet, according to author and filmmaker Priyanka Kumar.
In Kumar’s new book, “Conversations with Birds,” she explores some of the experiences she’s had with birds and how observing them can be the impetus for awareness about man’s impacts on nature. “Birds are my almanac. They tune me into the seasons, and into myself,” begins the book. Kumar will read from “Conversations with Birds” on Sunday (Jan. 15) at 4 p.m. at SOMOS, located at 108 Civic Plaza Drive.
“Over the last two decades, I’ve been having transformative experiences with birds,” Kumar told the Taos News. “The experiences have become more and more intense as I go deeper into my journey as a naturalist. A lot of people don’t have a personal relationship with the natural world. Birds drew me into their world in a way that became transformative. That’s especially important in a world that is tech and media heavy. The pandemic disconnected us even more and weakened an already fragmented fabric. The outdoors is a place to reconnect to the natural world, ourselves, and the crisis that the planet is facing.”
As a child, Kumar lived in the Himalayas of northern India, which is still considered to be one of the top biodiversity hotspots on the planet. Steeped in nature and fearless as a child, she fell in love with the translucent shed skins of snakes found in her garden and tried to imagine the lives they led. When a nun at her convent school was bit by a leaf snake, it only added to her interest in these elongated reptiles.
She moved to the West as a teenager and experienced a disconnection from nature that felt like a loss. “It wasn’t until I began to encounter these life-changing experiences with birds that I re-entered the natural world,” she said. “I was living in California and hiking and backpacking, but it was frustrating because I was still missing the intimacy of connection. It wasn’t until I started to see birds as not just aesthetically beautiful beings that I become interested and regained the intimacy that I’d lost. In a way, this book is a love song to the birds that gave me this gift and allowed me to re-embark on this journey I’ve been on now for so many years.”
As a young filmmaker, she was hiking on the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park in California. At the time, she was living at sea level. She had climbed higher and higher in the June heat, reaching elevations of 10,000 feet when she started to feel ill. “I felt nauseous, enervated and wholly unlike myself. Instead of hiking, I was dragging myself up the trail,” Kumar wrote. “Still, without a specific ailment, I hesitated to complain on the first day of an almost-weeklong hike.”
Her husband Michael had hurt his right heel, and although they had been planning several days of backpacking, he suggested they turn back. Kumar was grateful to be descending. She wondered if she was suffering from heatstroke.
Back at the base of the trail, the two set up camp. “I hurried into the tent and crumpled on top of the sleeping bag,” she wrote. “Lying down, I grew aware that something sharp was piercing my forehead, drilling life out of me.” While she was resting, Michael called to her to come see the brilliant bird outside their tent. “With some effort, I poked only my head out of the tent. The vivacious colors of the male tanager, his head softly brushed with cinnabar red, stood out against the deep green of the ponderosa branch. I was transported to a childhood memory in India, gazing delightfully at mangoes my father had brought me from the farmers market,” she wrote.
The moment brought her back to consciousness but later when she tried to walk, she was wobbly and began to hallucinate.
Realizing that she might be suffering from altitude sickness, the two packed up at midnight and began the drive home. It wasn’t until they had descended 4,000 feet that the pounding in her head finally stopped. She pondered the idea that without the appearance of the brilliant tanager, the extent of her illness might have gone unnoticed, leading to disastrous consequences.
Kumar had already been concerned about habitat loss, but this experience with the western tanager heightened her concern about the ecosystem.
After living in places like Los Angeles and Manhattan working in the film world, she decided to move to Santa Fe 15 years ago after a trip to New Mexico. Drawn by the sense of solitude, the piñon forest, and the rich cultural traditions, she was ready to come to a state where she did not have to go to extremes to find a place to walk or hike in woodlands that was not so fragmented.
Although there was a risk of being cut off from LA and New York, it was a risk she was willing to take in order to live in a place that made her feel alive through a daily connection with nature.
Here the tanager also made an appearance. “Seeing a western tanager perched on a juniper tree is like peering into the molten heart of the Southwest landscape,” she wrote.
A personal connection to nature
This is not the first time that Kumar has written about birds.
Several years ago, she published “Take Wings and Fly,” a novel set in the world of competitive birding. “There are themes in that book that resonate with the new book. I looked at questions like: What’s our relationship with the natural world all about? In birding there can be a sense of consuming birds,” she explained. “With this book, I take a different approach. As an artist thinking about the deeper challenges and crises of being disconnected, I see that fragmentation and disconnection extends to the natural world.”
She looks at social themes as they blend into themes of nature, wondering about this time of great mental illness triggered or worsened by the pandemic.
“Developing personal connections with nature addresses that disconnection to a deeper extent. Birding can take us out of ourselves and paradoxically deeper into ourselves, eventually circling back and connecting us,” Kumar said. “This can help us allay some mental health issues we are facing. The climate crisis is only a theory if we don’t have a personal connection with nature. We are not sure what’s at stake and why we should care.
“When we are actually in forests and begin to watch birds that live there and are migrating, we start to develop a feel for what’s happening,” she added. “We are simply not seeing birds in the numbers we did five to 10 years back. Birds are impacted by climate warming and extreme global fluctuations. If we see that, we might feel inspired to live in a way kinder to the planet.”
She pointed out that walking connects us to our neighborhoods and communities and that there’s no substitute to being out every day — even in winter.
“Conversations with Birds,” has been recognized as a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Nonfiction book for Fall 2022 and an Apple Best Book of the month among other accolades.
“I’ve been quite grateful for tremendous response the book has already gotten,” Kumar said. “It went into second edition within several weeks of being published. It seems like it is resonating with people and I’m so grateful for that. It gives me hope.”
Books will be available for purchase at the reading or by special order at op. cit. bookstore 575-751-1999. At the reading, Kumar will talk about what led her to write the book and some of the birds that inspire her. Afterwards she will be available to sign copies.
“I’m really looking forward to the reading and interacting with the birding and literary community,” she said. “I love coming to Taos and hiking in the Carson National Forest, especially the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness. I also enjoy going to Fred Baca Park for a walk through the wetlands. The people of Taos are quite fortunate to be surrounded by all that nature.”
To find out more about Kumar’s writing and films, visit her website at priyankakumar.com.