Priyanka Kumar considers the birds

Her elegant memoir is packed with information on the animals and landscapes she observes—and the threats to their future.

Though it’s categorized as a collection of essays, one might, at first glance, mistake Conversations with Birds as a coffee-table book of whimsical shelf art. Wrapped in a selection of images from the famed paintings of John James Audubon, the book’s smooth exterior provides a stunning entryway into its pages of compelling and poetic prose.

Born in the foothills of the Himalayas, Priyanka Kumar grew up with the rhythm of recurrent moves prompted by her father’s post as an Indian diplomat. In light of this, she recalls a lingering sense of disconnection between herself and the people and places she inhabited. After arriving in the West in her late teens, she describes her experience as being marked by “brittle connections, erratic friendships, and paper-thin communities.” This thread of detachment followed her through graduate school at the University of Southern California and into her vocation as a filmmaker in Los Angeles, where her sense of place was challenged each time the doors of opportunity swung shut in her face. With a weariness laced with strength and wit, she reflects that “a master’s degree from the so-called top film school didn’t really matter if you weren’t one of the boys. Graduating at the top of my class didn’t matter either. Being an outsider and telling stories outside of the cultural norm were deal breakers.”

An avid hiker, Kumar eventually identified the inward chasm she had felt for years as a disintegration between herself and the natural world. Though she had enjoyed a sense of oneness with creation as a child, roaming the forests of northern India, she struggled as an adult to really see and experience the beauty of her surroundings through the veil of smog and Western consumerism that shrouded her vision. It was her communion (and conversations) with birds that eventually inspired an awakening and informed her pilgrimage toward reconnection and a renewed sense of belonging. She notes, “seeds of transformation lie dormant in all of our hearts. Sometimes it just takes the right bird to awaken us.”