Conversations with Birds. Priyanka Kumar. 2022. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions.
“Birds are my almanac: they tune me into the seasons, and myself.” (p. 1)
“I owe a debt to this mango-colored bird; once it quite possibly saved my life.” (p. 5)
A few years back, during the Sturbridge Christmas Bird Count, we were standing on a small bridge over the Quabog River just before dawn. The early morning light gave the snow-covered landscape a bluish tint. The river was mostly open, although ice had formed along the edges of the cattails. I looked along the banks and there was a bobcat standing still, attention focused on something on the river. It was a drake Mallard. The bobcat was attempting to stalk it, but the edge ice was too thin to support its weight. The Mallard seemed to know this and would swim towards the bobcat quacking, until the bobcat started to slowly creep closer. Then the Mallard would back off, but only so far. It was driving the bobcat crazy. It would try one spot to get closer to the duck, and then another. All the while the Mallard would approach time and again, taunting its potential predator. What was the Mallard doing? I waited for the bobcat to just jump into the water. Bobcats are decent swimmers, but the water was freezing. This mesmerizing and comical scene played out in just minutes, until the blue tint to the snow began to become the first pinkish light of dawn. While watching this scene, all thoughts of the Christmas Count faded from my mind, and there was a feeling of being “in the moment.” Then a car stopped, blocking our view. The driver asked what we were looking at, and I was snapped back to reality. In hushed tones we told him about the bobcat. He took a glimpse and proceeded to have a conversation with us about the wildlife he had seen. That magical moment with the natural world was over. By then, of course, the bobcat had left, although the Mallard remained, quacking away.
Thinking about the experience later, I realized that what I most intensely remember about my days birding is not the list of rarities that I have ticked. My most vivid memories are those special experiences of the natural world that I have come across while birding. These moments feel like glimpses of a world outside of our human-centered life. A world we do not usually see. You become captivated, transfixed, and everything else in your life melts away. You feel closer to the rhythms of nature. These are the experiences that Priyanka Kumar writes about in Conversations with Birds.
“Lavished by nature, the western tanager easily wears the mantle of the landscape’s soul. I was not a birder yet, but I would soon experience a thirst to know more about the tanager’s life and struggles it faces.” (p. 12)
Priyanka Kumar is a filmmaker, editor, essayist, and critic now living in New Mexico. She spent her younger years with her family at the foot of the Himalayas in Assam, India. Her vivid recollections of her time spent out of doors in the dense bamboo forests of her neighborhood are an important touchstone for her later life. During these childhood years spent in the forests of Assam, Kumar associated this environment with a sense of belonging, beauty, and home.
When I was a small child, I lived for nearly a decade in the remote mountainous area of northern India, and almost all the worthwhile moments of my childhood were spent immersed in nature. Back then I didn’t pay any special attention to birds—I mainly looked out for snakes. I was in awe of what were called leaf snakes, such as the green vine snake, Ahaetulla nasuta, and the shimmering skins that many kinds of venomous snakes shed in my garden formed my greatest treasure. (p. 1)
Today we know that Ahaetulla nasuta is part of a wide-ranging species complex. The species now named Ahaetulla nasuta refers to a Sri Lankan endemic and other species in that complex range throughout India and southeast Asia. All the vine snakes are venomous, and the image of a six-year-old Kumar collecting the skins of these poisonous snakes like some kids collect marbles makes me as a parent and grandparent shudder but also jealous. Snakes were my first passion, and they still are.
Eventually Kumar moved to North America, first to Canada, then to southern California, and then to New Mexico. Finding her sense of home and her place in these alien environments was always a challenge. She confronted racism and, as her film career developed, sexism.
She began to hike a lot, especially in California, as a way of getting back to the feel of the natural world she loved as a child. Of course, there were no vine snakes or bamboo forests, but there were miles of remote trails in the many national parks. It was while backpacking on the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park that Priyanka Kumar had a close brush with death and had an experience that would make her a birder.
She and her husband Michael had been hiking for miles at high elevations when she began to feel unwell. Michael was also having problems with his foot, but her problems were much more general and alarming. She was getting weaker and sicker with every step, but still she trudged on. When Michael finally suggested that they hike back down because of his foot, Kumar was relieved. By the time they got to the camp site, she had a blinding headache and a variety of other frightening symptoms. She did not know it yet, but she was suffering from a severe case of altitude sickness. At her lowest point, as she was lying limp in her tent, Michael called to her to raise her head and look above the tent. A Western Tanager—the mango-colored bird of the book’s title—had perched right above them.
Was it the bird’s ethereal beauty I had responded to? Simply the magnificent colors? Its colors had recalled a more sensual world that I had once belonged to–the living, breathing landscape of my childhood, sweetened with juicy guavas, jackfruits, and mangoes, when I played every minute in the womb of nature. (p. 12)
Seeing the spectacular tanager so close roused her from her torpor and set her mind to thinking why seeing this singular colorful bird had such a dramatic effect on her mind and body.
Having noticed the western tanager, I puzzled over the significance of its presence. Something within me was ripening. Was it my eye? “One needs an eye to see color,” writes the Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, whose gift is said to gently unwrap the mystery of the self. “The colors are many, the eye is single.” I had inhaled the tanager’s colors and the bird had stamped an impression on my soul. In the years that followed, before my astonished eyes, other birds flew into the center of my stories, and altered the way I saw the western landscape and what place, if any, I had in it. All my hiking notwithstanding, an epiphany about the land had eluded me—until I began to notice birds. (p. 13)
This tanager sighting changed the way Kumar experienced the natural world from that moment on. She had been hiking through a world that was rich with wild lives she had just ignored. We all have seen people hiking or biking through a wonderful wilderness seeming to take no real notice of the complex world around them. For Priyanka Kumar it was a spiritual awakening.
Now the natural world, its Western incarnation, swung open its doors to me, and I entered an animated, even kaleidoscopic experience. Whereas before I had seen American landscapes in shades of green and brown, on vague aesthetic terms, now my senses began to truly engage with the life that was before me. (p. 24)
Though she began to notice many aspects of the natural world around her, it was the birds that she seemed to single out for special attention. “I seemed to be stumbling upon birds. They invigorated me, at a time when the barriers I faced as an artist had a dispiriting, estranging effect on me.” (p. 24)
Birds seemed to insinuate themselves into the many inner conversations she was having about finding a sense of home and who she was in this new place. She takes an organized shore bird walk at Elkhorn Slough, and the shorebirds she sees remind her of her life in America.
Water and land are opposing realms, with shorebirds at the edge, translating one realm to another. I identified with shorebirds; from an early age I felt at home in two realms, the East and the West, and I felt comfortable translating inscrutable India to Westerners or America to apprehensive Easterners. (p. 20)
One species of shorebird that she returns to time and again is the Long-billed Curlew, and she becomes interested in preserving its nesting habitat. In Conversations with Birds she vividly remembers her first sighting of these dramatic shorebirds.
The curlew was wholly at ease. The bird’s unhurried pace combined with its focus and laser-sharp moves when it found an invertebrate to eat was nothing short of arresting. I might have been watching a Zen monk at work. Here is a bird that embodies Milarepa’s saying: Hasten slowly and you shall soon arrive. (p. 22)
Often Priyanka Kumar will speak of a species’ rasa, a term difficult for Westerners to grasp.
The Sanskrit term rasa means “juice,” literally, but it alludes to charm without which life is, to put it bluntly, dry. The Natyashastra, an ancient treatise on theatre and dance, says that the eight rasa or “sentiments,” such as the Sensual, the Comic, the Pathetic, the Heroic, and the Odious, are so called because we can taste them—in our minds. Rasa is an intricate, elusive concept—you might suffer rasa’s absence as I first did in Santa Cruz, or discover a stream, as I did in Ravi Shankar’s house in Encinitas, Southern California. (p. 33)
I interpret rasa as the essence of an experience, the deep feeling we get when we see or hear something unique and fascinating. It is interesting to consider how many bird books you have read that have you wrestling with abstract spiritual ideas. Kumar spent some time with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar while working on a documentary film about his life and music. From those discussions, she learned a lot about the meaning of rasa.
Rava-ji believed that the magic of Indian classical music springs from “its hypnotic, intense singleness of mood.” In order to invoke this mood, an artist must decide which one of the eight rasas will dominate a piece. It is not simply technical mastery, but also the rasa in Ravi Shakar’s music that moves us. (p. 35)
Kumar often describes her experiences with birds in terms of the specific rasa that their behaviors remind her of. She is fascinated by the complex behavior of a pair of red-shafted Northern Flickers doing their pre-nuptial dance on a backyard tree.
The pair of flickers wasn’t done. They slid down the pole and began to revolve around it in a fluid rhythmic motion while staying more or less on opposite sides. Were they playing or teasing? Their melodic mewing scented the air. No debutantes these. They were enacting the dance of a married couple—and flickers are believed to mate for life. Hasya, the second rasa, is also known as the comic sentiment. “It can be shown through syncopated rhythmic patterns or an interplay of melody and rhythm between singer and accompanist, or between sitarist and table player,” writes Ravi Shankar, “causing amusement and laughter.” (p. 64)
Conversations with Birds follows Priyanka Kumar as she makes new discoveries in the world of birds, as well as animals including bobcats and coyotes. On a trip to San Marino, she feels an absence of rasa in the built-up city around her until she spots a flock of Red-whiskered Bulbuls. These introduced species were considered an invasive, and the city was about to implement a program of total eradication until it was decided that they really were not that much of a pest after all. The bulbuls are native in India.
In the face of violent antagonism from Los Angeles County agents, I saw the bulbuls as an embodiment of the fifth rasa, veeru, which, as Ravi Shankar writes, “expresses the sentiment of heroism, bravery, majesty and glory, grandeur and a dignified kind of excitement.” The majestic bulbuls also carried with them a quality typical of fruit-eating birds—the languidness of summers in India. (p. 43)
As Kumar becomes a serious birder, she finds the listers around her frustrating because they seem to look at birds like stamp collectors considering their perforated treasures:
In those early years when I fell hard for birds, it’s not as though I consciously bonded with them because they, too, are in a sense voiceless; they too have been the targets of easy cruelty. From the start, however, I felt a great deal of empathy for birds, in addition to being magnetized by their beauty; I felt surprised even when I first learned that people obsessively tick them off lists–as if they are somehow inferior and are fated to be objectified and catalogued, as if they cannot be expected by themselves to hold the stage. (p. 31)
She also becomes very energetic about preserving habitats as the best way of saving bird populations and becomes frustrated when birders do not want to talk about the challenges ahead:
It felt obvious to me that bird habitats are key to maintaining healthy populations, which is only in the interest of birders. For instance, land that is overgrazed in Carrizo Plain National Monument does not magically convert back to grassland when the grazing stops. It turns instead to scrubland. Not just the long-billed curlew, but also the endangered aplomado falcon, Falco femoralis, relies on thriving grasslands. To my surprise, however, many of the birders around me, even Audubon board members, were so hungrily focused on their bird lists that I couldn’t engage them in a conversation about the fate of Carrizo Plains, where they annually led bird-watching trips. While they were sympathetic to the problem of shrinking bird habitat, they avoided confronting the tragic situation and for the most part remained unresponsive when I brought it up. How is it that we can love birds and obsess over our bird lists, I sometimes wondered, and not be attentive to how bird habitats all around us are being fragmented or overgrazed or paved over with concrete? (p. 50)
At one point she decides that she would like to see a Bald Eagle. It becomes a bit of an obsession. Unlike here in the Northeast, Bald Eagles are found in the Southwest predominantly as an uncommon winter visitor. Typically, from seven to fourteen eagles may be counted on winter surveys. She dips several times in her quest but finally decides to take a patrol boat out onto Albiquiu Lake in New Mexico where they do a mid-winter survey of eagles. This spot is near Pedernal Mountain, close to where the painter Georgia O’Keeffe worked. This mountain can be seen in a number of her works. On Kumar’s trip, the weather is clear but extremely cold. She has bundled her daughter up, but the brutal cold has her worried about her daughter getting too cold. She is close to bagging the trip when she spots her life Bald Eagle:
The eagle rises into the sky, its massive chocolaty wings effortlessly slicing the air. All at once I see it soar past the mountain O’Keeffe loves. Both Pedernal and the bald eagle are titans and I feel as though I am listening to a strain of a sacred song. I shake my head, incredulous, but the eagle is gliding to the backdrop of Cerro Pedernal; my heart is molten like when I once sang an eighth-century ode to the Ganges River, onstage. As I follow the eagle’s stirring flight through my binoculars, I see another eagle in the sky flying in from the opposite direction and crossing paths with the first. On the heels of the unsuccessful Taos trip to find a bald eagle, it is overwhelming to see two at once, bisecting each other’s paths in the shimmering air. (p. 183–84)
Reading this section, I did some serious reflection on how I was currently looking at Bald Eagles. Decades back, seeing a Bald Eagle was an uncommon thing in Massachusetts. You would typically spot an eagle in winter at Quabbin where the few birds around fed on deer carcasses. Seeing an eagle then was thrilling. Now that eagles have returned as breeders to many areas of the state, including the city of Worcester at Lake Quinsigamond (Shrewsbury-Worcester line, really), they have become almost commonplace. I realized that I had become just a bit jaded about seeing eagles, and it was a revelation to look at an eagle through the fresh eyes of Priyanka Kumar.
One of the pleasures of reading Conversations with Birds is reading about common species like House Finches through the experiences of an artistic and spiritual author. It is refreshing to read a book about birds by an author who has many other passions besides birds and can include that knowledge in her writing about birds. Kumar writes about Ravi Shakar’s sitar playing one moment or film director Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy the next and then continues her writing about a bulbul or flicker. Conversations with Birds is always grounded in science, and Kumar cites many references throughout the book. A bonus is that she also introduces the reader to many national and state parks that easterners may not be familiar with. Conversations with Birds does something that few other bird books do: passionately writes about that moment when a person becomes a birder. Then Conversations with Birds follows Kumar as she evolves from birder into a serious environmentalist. Ultimately, this is a book about the personal, spiritual, and intellectual impact that birds can have on our lives. Priyanka Kumar is a unique voice that manages to bring her many non-bird experiences to bear on her observations of birds, even common species. Conversations with Birds is unique and reveals a bright new voice among the usual bird literature.
The claims animals have on the land are as compelling as our own. Yet there are precious few places left where we can be “in place,” as Thoreau writes, where we can see not just the path but what lies beyond, where the electric mystery of a bobcat can thrill us rather than manufactured entertainments that often pale on second viewing. Who we will be (and whether we will continue to be) tomorrow depends on whether we have the vision to see the treasures we already possess. (p. 273)
To listen to Mark Lynch’s interview with Priyanka Kumar on his Inquiry show (WICN 90.5 FM), go to: https://www.wicn.org/podcast/priyanka-kumar/