According to author and filmmaker Priyanka Kumar, being in nature can heal us, our broken relationships with each other, and even begin to contribute to the healing of the planet.
In Kumar’s new book, Conversations with Birds, she explores some of her experiences with birds and how observing them can be a trigger for awareness of human impact on nature. “Birds are my calendar. They adjust me to the seasons, and to myself,” the book begins. Kumar will read from Conversations with Birds on Sunday (January 15) at 4pm at Somos, located at 108 Civic Plaza Drive.
Kumar told Taos News, “Over the past two decades, I’ve had transformative experiences with birds. The experiences became more and more intense the deeper I delved into my journey as a naturalist. Many people have no personal relationship with the natural world. Birds drew me into their world in a way that became transformative.” “This is especially important in a world full of technology and media. The pandemic has separated us further and weakened an already fragmented fabric. The outdoors is a place to reconnect with the natural world, ourselves and the crisis the planet is facing.”
As a child, Kumar lived in the Himalayas in northern India, which is still considered one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet. Natural and brave as a child, she fell in love with the translucent snake skins found in her garden and tried to imagine the lives they had. When a nun at a convent school was bitten by a leaf python, her interest in these long-legged reptiles increased.
I moved west in my teens and experienced a disconnect with nature that felt like a loss. “It wasn’t until I entered the natural world again that I began to have these life-changing experiences with birds,” she said. “I used to live in California and hiked and backpacked, but it was frustrating because I was still missing intimacy. It wasn’t until I began to see birds as not just aesthetically pleasing creatures that I became interested and regained the intimacy that I had.” I lost her. 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 that I have now been on for so many years.”
As a young filmmaker, she has been trekking the High Sierra Trail in California’s Sequoia National Park. At that time, she was living at sea level. She had climbed higher and higher in the June heat, and had reached an altitude of 10,000 feet when she began to feel ill. “I felt nauseous, debilitated, and completely unlike myself. Instead of hiking, I was dragging myself down the trail,” Kumar writes. However, without a particular ailment, I hesitated to file a complaint on the first day of an outing for about a week.”
Her husband, Michael, had injured his right heel, and even though they had been planning several days of backpacking, he suggested they go back. Kumar was grateful to get off. I wondered if she had heatstroke.
Back at the base of the road, the two set up camp. She wrote: “I hurried to the tent and collapsed onto my sleeping bag.” Lying down, I realized something sharp was piercing my forehead, squeezing the life out of me. While she is resting, Michael invites her to come see the shining bird outside their tent. With some effort, I only got my head out of the tent. The vivid colors of the male tanger, and its head gently brushed vermilion red, stand out against the dark green of the Ponderosa branch. I was transported to a childhood memory in India, staring happily at the mangoes my father brought me from the farmer’s market,” she wrote.
The moment brings her back to consciousness, but later when she tries to walk, she is wobbly and begins to hallucinate.
Realizing she might be suffering from altitude sickness, the two pack up in the middle of the night and start driving home. It wasn’t until they had descended 4,000 feet that the pounding in the head finally stopped. She pondered the idea that without the appearance of a bright tan, the extent of her illness could have gone unnoticed, leading to disastrous consequences.
Kumar was already worried about habitat loss, but this experience with western tanagers has heightened her concerns about the ecosystem.
Having lived in places like Los Angeles and Manhattan and worked in the film world, she decided to move to Santa Fe 15 years ago after a trip to New Mexico. Because of the sense of solitude, the piñon forest, and the rich cultural traditions, she was willing to come to a state where she didn’t have to go to extremes to find a place to walk or hike in forests that weren’t too fragmented.
Although there was a risk of being cut off from Los Angeles and New York, she was willing to put up with it in order to live somewhere that made her feel alive with daily contact with nature.
Here the tanger also appeared. “Seeing a Western hummingbird perched on a juniper tree is like looking into the molten heart of the Southwest landscape,” she wrote.
Personal relationship with nature
This is not the first time Kumar has written about birds.
Several years ago, I published Take Wings and Fly, a novel set in the competitive world of birding. “There are themes in this book that resonate with the new book. I looked at questions like: What is our relationship to the natural world? And she explained that in birds there can be a sense of bird consumption.” With this book, I’m taking a different approach. As an artist who thinks about the deeper challenges and crises of separation, I see fragmentation and separation spill over into the natural world.”
She looks at social themes as they blend into themes of nature, and questions this time of great mental illness caused or worsened by the pandemic.
“Developing personal relationships with nature addresses this disconnect to a deeper extent. Birds can pull us out of ourselves and paradoxically go deeper into ourselves, eventually coming back and connecting us.” This can help us soothe some of the mental health issues we have. The climate crisis is only a theory if we do not have personal contact with nature. We’re not sure what’s at stake and why we should care.
She added, “When we’re actually in the woods and we start to watch the birds that live there and migrate, we start to get a sense of what’s going on.” “We simply aren’t seeing birds in the numbers that we did five to 10 years ago. Birds are affected by a warming climate and extreme global fluctuations. If we see that, we might feel inspired to live in a way kinder to the planet.”
She noted that walking connects us to our neighborhoods and communities and that there is no substitute for going outside every day – even in winter.
Conversations with Birds has been recognized as one of Publishers Top Ten Non-Fiction Books of Fall 2022 and Apple Book of the Month among other awards.
Kumar said, “I was very grateful for the tremendous response the book has already received. It went into second edition within several weeks of its publication. It seems to have resonated with people and I am very grateful for that. It gives me hope.”
Books will be available for purchase on reading or by special order at the op. Quote. Library 575-751-1999. In the reading, Kumar will talk about what led her to write the book and some of the birds that inspired her. After that it will be available for signing copies.
“I am really looking forward to reading and interacting with the birding and literature community,” she said. “I love coming to Taos and hiking in the Carson National Forest, especially the Columbine-Hondo Wild Forest. I also enjoy going to Fred Baca Park to hike through the wetlands. People in Taos are so lucky to be surrounded by all that nature.”
To learn more about Kumar’s writings and films, visit her website at priyankakumar.com.