- 'Conversations with Birds' will resonate with people who are experiencing alienation and permacrisis—long-term instability and insecurity.
- When we enter an old-growth aspen forest and are moved by a hermit thrush, we know intuitively that motorized chainsaws don't belong there.
- Humans have a great capacity for empathy—for ourselves and other animals—but we need to cultivate this.
- Simply walking in the woods can help people reconnect with other animals, diverse flora, and themselves and elevate their moods.
“Priyanka Kumar charts the life-changing surprise and splendor that birds can bring. They open the heart. They widen the soul.” —Sy Montgomery
It’s no secret that connecting or reconnecting with nonhuman animals (animals) and all sorts of flora and landscapes can help us overcome feeling alienated from the natural world and other humans. We often don’t realize how profound these losses are until they’re gone—a point poignantly made by Rachel Carson in her classic book Silent Spring.
I recently read Priyanka Kumar’s outstanding and profoundly moving book Conversations with Birds, a Publishers Weekly “Top Ten Nonfiction Book for Fall 2022,” and realized that her prose and personal stories could help people around the world rewild their hearts and souls. I am thrilled that she could answer a few questions about her landmark, most timely book.
Why did you write Conversations with Birds?
I’ve had phenomenal experiences with birds and other wildlife for more than two decades. As an author, I try to tell stories about experiences that cause a quantum shift in the way I see the world, and birds were a catalyst that inspired me to become a lifelong naturalist. As a child, I had an intimate connection with the natural world, and then I lost that connection—it was a profound loss—until birds cracked the door open. I tell the stories of my encounters with birds, such as the mango-colored western tanager and the long-billed curlew, and how seeing their beauty was a transformative experience.
How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
I was fortunate to grow up in the foothills of the Himalayas, where snowy mountains loomed over me as I walked up to school and, later, I collected snake skins and wandered alone in bamboo forests. The area I grew up in is now considered by scientists to be an important biodiversity hotspot.
I had felt one with nature as a child, but when we moved away to Delhi and then to Toronto, I grew sensitive to the biodiversity loss everywhere around me. I kept looking for ways to reenter the landscape in the effortless way I had done as a child. It wasn’t until my heart opened to the extraordinary beauty of birds in California—and I understood how habitat loss is impacting them—that I found my calling as a naturalist.
Who is your intended audience?
People who would like to develop a relationship with the natural world or deepen the relationship that they already have. To have grown up with the music of nature, as I did, is an incredible gift. I want to pass on this gift to those who are interested in trees or birds and other wildlife but would like to consider a fresh way of approaching the time they spend under the blue sky. Conversations with Birds will also resonate with people who are experiencing a state of permacrisis (the word of the year, according to the U.K.-based Collins Dictionary) or climate grief or an overwhelming sense of tech overload—my stories map out a different way of being in the world.
What are some of the topics you weave into your book, and what are some of your major messages?
We can cultivate ways of truly seeing what is before us and develop a mutually beneficial relationship with nature. I’ve been doing this all my life. As I write in the book, “(W)hen we experience the richness of what is before us, we don’t need some corporation to come along and entertain us. An acquaintance with the natural world grows and deepens until it permeates our cells; it reawakens primal memories.”
Tech overload has the opposite effect—it can numb us and our sensory response to the world. In this time of climate crisis and loss of biodiversity, how can we respond from an unfeeling state? Once we rewild our hearts and souls, we will hear the piercing cry of the long-billed curlew and understand that we need to restore our grasslands. Around 85 percent of U.S. grasslands are in private hands, and grassland birds are among our fastest-declining group of birds. While legislation can be enormously helpful in protecting wildlife, individuals, whether ranchers or city dwellers, also have a role to play.
How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?
One book I return to from time to time is E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth, in which he argues that we need to dedicate fully half the surface of the Earth to nature in order to prevent mass extinctions of species, including our own. Wilson eloquently expresses the enormity of biodiversity loss, but I felt that a book was needed that an ordinary person could open and see themselves in. Can we become literate in nature? How can we relate to birds and other wildlife? Is it possible to look at wild animals differently? I hope that the stories I tell clarify some of these questions.
Are you hopeful that as people learn more about how we can truly and deeply connect with birds and other nonhumans, they will come to treat animals and all of nature with more respect and dignity?
Humans have a great capacity for empathy—for ourselves and other animals—but we need to cultivate this. All the stresses of our everyday lives push us toward thinking about our individual needs and wants. I think the key is for us to realize that deepening a relationship with nature could be the most important thing we do to support our mental health and well-being and to help us respond to some of the most devastating crises of our times—habitat loss and climate change. It’s not truly effective to think about and respond to these crises only in abstract terms.
When we enter an old-growth aspen forest and are moved by a hermit thrush hopping among the silvery aspen trunks, and the leaves shimmering gold in the fall sing a mysterious rustling refrain, we know intuitively that motorized chainsaws and heavy equipment do not belong here.
In conversation with Priyanka Kumar. Her essays and criticism appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Huffington Post, and High Country News. Priyanka is a recipient of a Playa Residency, an Aldo & Estella Leopold Writing Residency, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award, a New Mexico/New Visions Governor’s Award, a Canada Council for the Arts Grant, an Ontario Arts Council Literary Award, and an Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Fellowship.
Eftaxia, Giota. The Powerful effect of the sound of nature on human health. Radio Art, 2021.