Hybrid Interview: Priyanka Kumar
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Priyanka Kumar and A. D. Carr, who also essays about Kumar’s new collection, Conversations with Birds. —CRAFT
Essay by A. D. Carr •
“Sometimes it just takes the right bird to awaken us.” —Priyanka Kumar
I didn’t start to have an interest in birds until my midthirties. No doubt this shift coincides with the transition from urban apartment dwelling to settling down in a woody neighborhood, where the oak, sugar maple, sycamore, and sweetgum canopy was thick with birdsong, so loud some mornings and evenings you might find yourself unconsciously raising your voice to talk with someone just across the fence. Cardinals, robins, jays, a half dozen or so different kinds of sparrows, and overhead in the late afternoons, larger birds circling in great, lazy circles. Once I got interested, I’d learn that the biggest birds, usually in groups, were turkey vultures surfing the thermals; the shorter-winged hawks, typically alone, were either red-tails or Cooper’s hawks (each have enough variation in plumage that I have a hard time knowing the difference from the ground). The more I noticed birds, the more I knew when and where to expect them. What a gift—to have this sense of connection with and knowledge of the wildlife in one’s own backyard. During one particularly snowy season, I noticed for the first time through our picture window a squat little creature hopping down the trunk of our magnificent oak tree. The physics of her movement appeared to defy mathematical logic: she was built like a heavyweight collegiate wrestler, all chest and head, no neck to speak of, and yet moving with a springy litheness on legs as slight as pinion needles. Black cap on her head, snow-white chest, and a vibrant blue cape with black edging, she pierced her short beak into the gaping ridges of the tree’s bark, hunting for insects. “My nuthatch friend” is how I came to know her.
So began my “bird era,” as my younger sister teases, a life stage that, she claims, strikes at thirty-five. Luckily for readers, filmmaker and novelist Priyanka Kumar’s bird era began in her midtwenties when, suffering from severe altitude sickness on a hike in Sequoia National Park, she is momentarily steadied by the sight of a western tanager, whose “ethereal beauty” arrests her attention and transports her to the “living, breathing landscape of my childhood, sweetened with juicy guavas, jackfruits, and mangoes, when I played every minute I could in the womb of nature.” This epiphanic moment of communion in the opening chapter of Conversations with Birds grounds what follows: an expansive and intimate collection of essays that detail Kumar’s deepening sense of kinship with and duty toward the natural world, punctuated at turns with reflections on her childhood in the Himalayan foothills and essential elements of Eastern thought. As it unfolds, we meet scores of birds—including mockingbirds, flickers, woodpeckers, bulbuls, burrowing owls, goshawks, bald eagles, and long-billed curlews—each of whom guides Kumar’s (and, by extension, the reader’s) growing understanding of the ecological interdependence of all living creatures. With this growing understanding, Kumar and her readers are also reminded of the environmental, social, and emotional harms we must reckon with as a result of habitat loss, reduction in biodiversity, and a warming planet. In our asynchronous conversation, Kumar reveals to me she did not intend to write a memoir, but given this interdependent vitality that the essays make visible, I certainly can see how these reflections on birds and their habitats—including threats both wild and industrial—could be received in that way. Conversations with Birds is also: a naturalist’s notebook; a work of cultural criticism; a warning; a meditation. For me, above all, Kumar’s book is a story of life.
Like many, I carry a constantly simmering combination of anxiety and grief about the planet: past, present, and future. Those feelings shaped my reading experience, as well as the questions I brought to Kumar last October. In directing our attention to these “animated” and “easy to love” winged neighbors, Kumar helps to reduce the heat of those feelings, and offers direction for them. As a naturalist and artist, Kumar joins a tradition of writers—among them Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Annie Dillard—whose work urges us to reimagine what it means to be living in communion with the natural world. What I most appreciate about Conversations with Birds is its hopefulness. While hope is perhaps too often dismissed as naïve or one-dimensional, Kumar models a perspective that strikes me as astonishingly clear-eyed: a disciplined and sustainable practice that readers would be wise to take on.
A. D. Carr: I’m so interested in the way this book positions itself between or among two kinds of established genres: the memoir-in-essays, and, for lack of a better term, a collection of linked nature essays. It’s also a book that fits into what I think is an emerging category of literature—whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry—and that is climate literature, literature that confronts and attempts to understand or convey something about what’s at stake in our escalating climate crisis. I don’t view any of these categories as mutually exclusive—it makes sense to me that your book can and would do all of these things, but I’m curious about whether you planned this bend of genres from the start, or whether it happened as you wrote. That is: Did you set out to write a birdy memoir that doubles as a call to action about climate, or did this book’s final form emerge more gradually?
Priyanka Kumar: It wasn’t until I finished writing that I saw that the book’s form reflects my evolution as a naturalist. While writing the essays I wanted to tell the stories of my transformative encounters with birds and other wild animals in a way that was authentic and wasn’t married to a particular genre. I wanted a book that an ordinary person, whether a birder or not, could walk into and, by osmosis, see the ecological vision that I chisel here. I saw a need for such a book.
I’ve been reflecting for years on how mental health, habitat loss, and climate change are some of the defining crises of our time. A sense of dread pervades our lives. I suspect we cannot fully address these crises without developing and deepening a relationship with the natural world. The arc of the book mirrors this vision. As my engagement with nature deepens, the reader will sense my field trips growing richer and my response to habitat loss and climate change growing more nuanced. I hope that the stories in this book can function as a map for the reader and suggest ways of being in the natural world and examining one’s ecological consciousness.
AC: Related to this genre/process question, something else I noticed as I read was the way you, as a character, kind of recede as the book progresses, and the natural world—more specifically, the wildlife of New Mexico—really drives the narrative. In a parallel arc, it seems to me that you have a sense of yourself as more “visible” in those early chapters, living and working in California, and in the film industry more specifically, as an Indian immigrant—there are tense encounters that catalyze reflection on your childhood and what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. As the book progresses, these frictions or tensions dissipate, somewhat, and the birds and other wildlife you’re tracking come into stronger focus. Can you talk a little bit about this drift as the book unfolds?
PK: I wanted to be visible to the extent that identifying with me would pique the reader’s interest in the nature narratives. It’s important to understand why I am the person telling this story. But it wasn’t my intent to write a memoir; if readers see a glimpse of that genre in my book, that’s okay. It’s your book now, so I honor a reader’s response.
When I allude to the barriers that I face as an artist, I touch the “tip of the iceberg”—a tiny fraction of the concrete barricades in my way. If we don’t articulate our experiences, how can we expect anything to change? I couldn’t have brought the reader along in an authentic way had I completely glossed over those frictions and tensions. I acquaint the reader with their walking companion and where she is coming from. But I didn’t want to dwell on that aspect. I’d like us to go together into the forest where we can engage with trees and birds and other wildlife and widen the conversation to include our relationship with the planet. Many of us experience primal yearnings for such nature-soaked, contemplative walks, and this is the raison d’être of the journeys I etch in the book.
AC: You occasionally observe an apparent conflict of interest between intense birders and their lack of regard for the broader climate emergency, in one essay writing: “many of the birders around me, even board members, were so hungrily focused on their bird lists that I couldn’t engage them in a conversation about the fate of Carrizo Plain, where they annually led bird-watching trips.” I’m so interested in this conflict because, you know, birders and other wildlife enthusiasts are probably some of the most reliable witnesses for the subtle and major ways our environments are changing, and therefore would be such effective ambassadors for the importance of protecting and stewarding the natural world—or one would think that they could be—but of course there’s always going to be an element of consumerism around nature and wildlife, like identifying as many birds or visiting as many national parks as possible. Can you say a little more about how you think through the ethics of birding at this scale?
PK: Most birders are well-meaning people who care about the environment. But our culture drifts inexorably toward the ego and individual achievements. While listing birds can motivate us and give a sense of accomplishment, if that becomes the focus and climax of the birding journey, then we’re missing an opportunity to engage in a deeper way.
Today, our thinking is shifting to a degree and we’re talking more about the climate crisis. But sometimes I wonder if we’re forgetting about habitat loss. As critical as it is to respond to how climate change is devastating our planet, biodiversity loss is inextricably linked to habitat loss, which began with industrialization and has been intensifying ever since. If we don’t take nature personally, then our response to the crises the natural world faces might be weak.
When I see nature as my mother, I don’t want to throw more plastics into her ailing body. According to a recent OECD report, “The world is producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, with the bulk of it ending up in landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment, and only 9% successfully recycled.” When we become aware of what we’re consuming, we might ask ourselves: “Will I be able to compost this?” I use compost to grow more bird habitat. This is one way to love birds. This way of thinking about nature as a mother and seeing birds thrive in my garden or in some forests in the Southwest has given me more joy than I could get from flying around the world to see as many bird species as I can add to an arbitrary list.
How exciting it would be if birds visibly crisscrossed the places we live in and were seen in large numbers, not only in wildlife refuges! The other day I walked out onto my snowy porch and saw a rare sight: almost a hundred sandhill cranes flying above in V formation, scissoring a cloud-filled sky; it was a profound joy to witness their migration, through snow flurries, to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. In the book, I hopefully bring the reader along on similar journeys.
AC: Though this book establishes you as a highly knowledgeable naturalist, you appear to share more of a kinship with people who wouldn’t take on that label. For example, in one of the chapters where you are tracking eagles wintering in New Mexico, you describe some local folks as people who “would not call themselves birders but they speak of the bald eagle with reverence; they keep an eye out for the bird.” I love the tension in this moment, and what it signifies: the important role that birds play in capturing the attention of, you know, “not-birders,” the way birds maybe catalyze a longer-term land ethic. We meet a lot of birds in this book; can you talk about early birds for you, the one(s) that drew you toward birding and naturalism in a committed way?
PK: I have gravitated toward thinking about birds in groups and seeing them in relationship to each other and their ecosystems. Right now, I’m deeply involved with grassland birds such as the long-billed curlew, who catalyzed my transformation into a person who could enter the natural world in an assured way and know why she was there. The long-billed curlew is a shorebird with a prehistoric nine-inch bill, and the bird takes my breath away every single time I see it. Living in landlocked New Mexico, I’m grateful that the curlew breeds in the summer in our local grasslands. In many ways the long-billed curlew, with its poise and stillness and fierce paternal love, has been like a Zen teacher. Observing the curlew locally with its chicks also led me to researching grasslands.
It turns out that grassland birds are among our fastest declining group of birds in the United States and, as I was researching this, I was astonished to discover that 85 percent of US grasslands are in private hands. So, it’s people like you and me—ranchers, farmers, city dwellers—who can have conversations about how to restore our grasslands and support these birds. If we support agricultural practices that rely on pesticides, we might want to be aware that pesticides not only harm the grasshoppers that the curlews feed their chicks but also change the microbial community in the soil.
Another grassland bird I love is the burrowing owl, who lives in burrows excavated by prairie dogs; these two animals can work together to warn each other about impending danger. Experiencing how the lives of burrowing owls and prairie dogs are stitched together, and then further woven into the grassland ecosystem, makes me want to delve deeper into their stories.
One way of engaging and digging deeper is to consider how we can reverse the damage that we have inflicted on the natural world. We have separated ourselves from nature—to our detriment. But when we begin the process of repairing this relationship, we might also find our mental health improving. Scientists have verified this in many ways—one intriguing finding is about the beneficial aerosols that we inhale simply from walking under trees! When we start engaging with nature, it’s hard not to feel inspired about repairing some of the damage. Birds are so animated and beautiful that it’s easy to love them. They are like guides that led me into nature, and I get real sustenance from birdsong. It’s a gift to be able to see in this way, and I want to pass this on to my readers.
AC: At some turns in the book I was reminded of Wendell Berry’s “It All Turns on Affection,” which confronts the economic argument enabling wide-scale refusal to address land use, an argumentative frame that has hastened and exacerbated the collapse of local ecologies, something you illustrate with particular poignance in the chapter about logging. Berry’s core counterargument, drawing from Leopold, asserts that “affection” is the only motive that might help us see outside of economic costs/returns. He explains, “Ecological health, in a land dying of abuse, is not worth ‘something’; it is worth everything. […] The primary motive for good care and good use is always going to be affection, because affection involves us entirely.” For me, Conversations with Birds illustrates this mission. I know you draw a lot of guidance from Leopold, and I wonder if you’re familiar with Berry’s lecture or what you make of his thesis here.
PK: I have known about Wendell Berry’s work for some time but hadn’t read this lecture; thank you for bringing it to my attention. I read it recently and I’ll take it as an honor that I came to the same conclusion that Berry did. What he calls affection for the land, and farmland in particular, I call a loving engagement with nature and her ecosystems. Berry knows that many of us no longer have farmland to turn to; and, in my generation, many of us are almost irrevocably distanced from farmland. But nature, albeit in a highly fragmented form, remains available to us. One reason I encourage us to deepen our relationship with nature is that we cannot effectively respond to the crises of biodiversity loss and climate change from an unfeeling state.
It is possible to cultivate a daily relationship with nature. My walks and animal sightings help me take the pulse of how drought is impacting wildlife in my area. I recently saw a scraggly coyote wander about in my garden and jump into the compost pile. “Is it that desperate?” I wondered. But, no. It soon jumped out. Two scrub jays kept flying at the coyote, trying to get it to leave the garden. When I observed the coyote’s search for food and the territorial (and fearless) response of the scrub jays, I empathized with all these animals and recalled that we’re in a megadrought in the Southwest. We need to change how we live in order for all of us to live in harmony.
Yet everywhere I turn I see us responding in unsustainable ways: for instance, development picked up pace in Santa Fe during the pandemic and has been intensifying since, and I have been witnessing further fragmentation, or proposed fragmentation, of desert ecosystems. I’ve seen a proliferation of thoughtless development all over the West—in New Mexico, Colorado, California—with new houses sprouting up right next to roads or even highways! We lose on both ends: studies have shown that it’s not healthy to live that close to roads or highways, and then the natural buffer that birds and other wildlife used to have is squeezed to an extent that it’s almost no longer there. What we need are wider greenbelts, and recent research is finding that they can slow urban sprawl.
The Japanese language has a word, gaki, that means “hungry ghost,” and Zen Buddhism uses this term to refer to insatiable desires that arise in humans no matter how much we already have. I wonder sometimes if we’re in a perennial state of being hungry ghosts, because we seem to go on devouring the natural world.
AC: As I read, I was reminded of so many essayists who have shaped my own sense of relationship with the natural world, including Annie Dillard, Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Tempest Williams, Brian Doyle, and of course the brilliant Rachel Carson, whose observation of trends in bird populations led to one of the most important environmental reforms in US history. Am I right to see these influences? Who else would you identify as present for you as this book came into being?
PK: I feel kinship with Rachel Carson, not only because of her deep love of the natural world but also because she has a stirring way of framing our past and our future. I love how her stories about the sea and sea creatures inspire me to empathize with the watery world in ways that I might not have thought possible. Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is also close to my heart. I read it for the first time as I was completing Conversations with Birds and it almost felt like I had made a new best friend! Another influence is the late scientist E. O. Wilson, who wrote eloquently about the staggering biodiversity loss we’re facing.
When I am out in nature, I become lost in the lives of many different birds and other wild animals. I experience such joy from teasing out their stories over time that it becomes a natural impulse to share these stories. Sometimes it feels like the birds are generously sharing parts of their world with me. I feel a sense of responsibility to represent them and their lives as accurately and lovingly as I can. It’s reassuring that I am working in companionship with writers like Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard and, lately, Sy Montgomery (The Soul of an Octopus), who had a very generous response to my book.
AC: I hope this question doesn’t feel too “out there,” but I wanted to connect a few lines scattered throughout your book that really resonate for me, and to ask you about how your connection with and observations of the natural world come into conversation with your experiences as a parent, raising children at what feels like the end of the world. I’m also a parent, and while I am definitely not someone who would call myself a “birder,” in the last few years—coinciding with becoming a parent—I have started seeing and watching birds with a kind of attention that feels important or reassuring to me. So, you have this line, “When the universe gives us a bird we should accept it without too many questions.” That made me think of the first bird I ever noticed enough to identify, which was a white-breasted nuthatch tiptoeing down the trunk of an oak tree in the deep of winter. Later you write of seeing cranes in the Bosque, “My heart is full with seeing,” and then, “Each time I see a bald eagle, it seems to be the first time.” Near the end, referring to the story of Hanuman:
Reversing the damage we have done to the Earth sometimes feels as impossible as carrying a mountain in our arms. There is no magic herb that can heal the wounds caused by the inexorable march of industrialization. What remains in our power, however, is to alter how we see the natural world and to appreciate that this finely tuned biome (what’s left of it) sustains numberless creatures, including us.
The wonder and agency present in these moments strikes me as deeply important in a time when, as parents or even just people, it is so difficult to resist the inertia of despair as we come to grips with the scale of the crisis yet to come. Can you talk a little bit about how you manage to sustain this wonder and agency, as a parent, a birder, a naturalist, an artist?
PK: This is such a beautiful question. I consider myself fortunate because I grew up with the music of nature, roaming freely (and unsupervised!) up and down hills, and through bamboo groves in the foothills of the Himalayas in ways that children rarely do today. Perhaps because of my past, and the biodiversity I experienced, I want to keep hearing the strains of this music in the present, in my everyday life. But something as simple as this can feel incredibly difficult. I might be walking down a dirt path skirting an arroyo and a huge UPS truck zooms by, or the noise of construction becomes so present that I can’t unlisten it. All of us are familiar with the brutal sounds of leaf blowers. Why are we turning our world into this noisy, harried place where the music of nature is drowned out? I want that music to enter me, and when it does, it sustains my sense of awe.
Children can be our teachers in this regard. When my young daughter crouches to meditatively observe insects while we are hiking, I remind myself to be present in the moment rather than hurrying her along; I also find myself observing the moth or the caterpillar she’s fascinated with more closely than I might have done.
It’s true that many of us are experiencing climate grief today, but one thing that sustains me is a belief that each of us has a role to play, whether it’s planting trees that sequester carbon or allowing nature to percolate into our inner lives and becoming more sensitive toward her.
AC: Do you think it is possible for writers, artists, creative people to do art that doesn’t confront or engage the climate emergency?
PK: Yes, I think so. Ansel Adams went on taking photographs of the natural world during World War II and got criticized for not addressing the war in his work. But aren’t we glad now that we have those majestic photographs of Yosemite and other exquisite places?
But we can no longer afford to live lives that don’t engage with the climate emergency. If we continue to inflict harm on the earth, we should be conscious that we’re narrowing our future and the future of our children. If we continue to live as though the planet isn’t facing a metacrisis, we might well be living delusional lives.
Simone Weil once wrote, “Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached.” At the very least, being in nature gives us a level of detachment from a material world that continually snares us. Nature can steer us away from that state of being a hungry ghost. Why would we want to harm the very thing that has the potential to heal us?
PRIYANKA KUMAR is the author of Conversations with Birds, widely acclaimed as “a landmark book” that “eloquently warns us about the loss of nature” (Psychology Today). Her essays and criticism appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Orion, and High Country News. She has been featured on CBS News Radio and Oprah Daily, and honored with an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award, a New Mexico/New Visions Governor’s Award, a Canada Council for the Arts Grant, and an Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Fellowship. She wrote, directed, and produced the feature documentary The Song of the Little Road, starring Martin Scorsese and Ravi Shankar.
A. D. CARR is a multigenre writer from the Midwest. Her essays have appeared in Quail Bell Magazine, The Rumpus, Apple in the Dark, CRAFT, and elsewhere. She is associate professor of rhetoric at a small liberal arts college in Iowa. She tweets @hors_doeuvre.