Conversations with Birds

Conversations with Birds coverConversations with Birds
Priyanka Kumar
Milkweed Editions (November 8, 2022), 293 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $18.00

Priyanka Kumar is a writer and filmmaker. She also knows her birds.

Conversations with Birds is a collection of essays set in (almost) chronological order that describes her encounters with birds in the various places in which she has lived. The first essays in the book recount her time in Santa Cruz, where she was a visiting professor at the University of California. She then describes her time living near the Cal Tech campus in Pasadena where her husband had a temporary position. From there she and her husband move to New Mexico.

In New Mexico the couple first rents a house, but then found a house that they fell in love with, the deal for which almost fell through. The book concludes with her time enjoying a five-week residency in the cabin that Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, built and lived in.

Much of the book is memoir in its style. In Santa Cruz Kumar writes about her feeling of isolation from her film community, but that she was there to fill in for a professor of film who was on sabbatical. During her Pasadena time she describes a trip south to shoot a documentary about Ravi Shankar, who lived in Encinitas, on the California coast north of San Diego. She also recounts walking with her husband in the tree-lined streets of neighboring San Marino amongst the ostentatious mansions. In New Mexico she describes the downside to buying an old house and the fragility of the picture window, facing the back yard, that she loved so much.

Birds, however, dominate the book. Kumar writes about the tiny snowy plovers on the beaches of Santa Cruz (birds Terry and I loved to watch when we lived just an hour’s drive from there), about the bald eagle in New Mexico, and birds of all kinds in between. She sometimes delves into myth and folklore, as she does in her discussion of the owl, which is a symbol of death in some cultures (as it was in the case of her grandmother in India), but an auspicious sign in other cultures. Kumar is serious enough about birds that she provides the scientific name of every bird she mentions.

Nor is Kumar’s description of the natural world limited to birds. She describes encounters with cougars and mountain lions. She even describes coming across a herd of javelinas.

Kumar’s timeline is not wholly reliable. In one essay she mentions her two children playing near the Rio Grande, while in a later essay she recounts becoming pregnant for the first time. Nor am I entirely comfortable with the free pass she gives to Aldo Leopold. As much as I admire the early work he did in ecology, and as much as I enjoyed A Sand County Almanac when I first read it, I know from other sources that he was quite racist in some respects.

Nonetheless, as an essay collection that offers an appreciation of, and a respect for, the natural world in general and for birds in particular, Conversations with Birds does a superb job.

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