An Apple November 2022 Best Book of the Month
“Birds are my almanac. They tune me into the seasons, and into myself.”
So begins this lively collection of essays by acclaimed filmmaker and novelist Priyanka Kumar. Growing up at the feet of the Himalayas in northern India, Kumar took for granted her immersion in a lush natural world. After moving to North America as a teenager, she found herself increasingly distanced from more than human life and discouraged by the civilization she saw contributing to its destruction. It was only in her twenties, living in Los Angeles and working on films, that she began to rediscover her place in the landscape—and in the cosmos—by way of watching birds.
Tracing her movements across the American West, this stirring collection of essays brings the avian world richly to life. Kumar’s perspective is not that of a list keeper, counting and cataloguing species. Rather, from the mango-colored western tanager that rescues her from a bout of altitude sickness in Sequoia National Park to ancient sandhill cranes in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and from the snowy plovers building shallow nests with bits of shell and grass to the white-breasted nuthatch that regularly visits the apricot tree behind her family’s casita in Santa Fe, for Kumar, birds “become a portal to a more vivid, enchanted world.”
At a time when climate change, habitat loss, and the reckless use of pesticides are causing widespread extinction of species, Kumar’s reflections on these messengers from our distant past and harbingers of our future offer luminous evidence of her suggestion that “seeds of transformation lie dormant in all of our hearts. Sometimes it just takes the right bird to awaken us.”
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About the Author
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Birds are my almanac: they tune me in to the seasons, and to myself. The western tanager, Piranga ludoviciana, with its flaming yellow-orange plumage, and the yellow-breasted chat, Icteria virens, glistening with a mango sheen, mean midsummer. When a juniper tree sparks to life with a Wilson’s warbler, Cardellina pusilla, its beady, black eyes prominent in a bright-yellow-and-olive body, I know that the aspens in the nearby Santa Fe National Forest will soon turn to gold. In midwinter, I will see dark-eyed juncos, Junco hyemalis, whose folk name is snowbird, pecking on the clayey, snow-plastered dirt. When specks of green mysteriously rise from the earth and a little ruby-crowned kinglet, Corthylio calendula, with baby-big eyes hops in a piñon pine, it will be time to celebrate spring.
When I was a small child, I lived for nearly a decade in remote mountainous areas of northern India, and almost all the worthwhile moments of my childhood were spent immersed in nature. Back then I didn’t pay any special attention to birds—I mainly looked out for snakes. I was in awe of what were called leaf snakes, such as the green vine snake, Ahaetulla nasuta, and the shimmering skins that many kinds of venomous snakes shed in my garden formed my greatest treasure.
It wasn’t until I moved to the West as a teenager that I found my life increasingly shorn from nature. So many of us are experiencing this disconnect today and our inability to see or fully experience the natural world has played a part in making our Earth a sad and vulnerable planet, where warming temperatures are reducing the breeding success of birds and habitat loss has caused sublime species such as the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, to become extinct.
In my twenties, I started to mull over the deep connection I’d had with nature as a child. After a debilitating experience in a Northern California forest nudged me to take a closer look at birds, I realized that I had been hiking extensively through California, but not seeing anything. In the years to come, I befriended a string of birds and began to understand why my life in the West was lacking rasa, which in Sanskrit means “juice,” literally and metaphorically. Gradually, the town or city became a place to move through to get to the forest, which was a radiant sanctuary—a place to discover birds, their calls, and their dances, and to comprehend why their numbers were declining. Some of these birds became such fixtures in my life that the time I spent observing them, over two decades, charts my metamorphosis into a naturalist. As I share in these pages, loving these winged marvels has been my portal into the natural world.
I recently led a group of schoolchildren into a New Mexico forest for a daylong excursion. In the morning, the children were introduced to a Swainson’s hawk, Buteo swainsoni, one of the largest migrating raptors we get in these parts, and a burrowing owl, Athene cunicularia, a leggy, ground-dwelling bird who emits a “rattlesnake rasp” to scare off predators. Then we hiked on uphill until we reached a magnificent waterfall. The hawk and the owl had made a deep impression on the children and, still recalling these fierce birds, they raced to the water gushing past black basalt and began scaling the cliff face like mountain goats. It looked as though they were embracing the landscape. I stood there, mesmerized; I recognized the embrace, for nature also offered it to me as a child. A woman who was assisting me pointed out that a child might lose their footing and suffer a fall. I then called out, asking them not to climb any higher and to come back, but the children clung to the basalt rock face for a long while, the sun-inflected water haloing them, before they reluctantly scrambled down. The experience of watching these children at home in nature crystallized my belief that seeds of transformation lie dormant in all of our hearts. Sometimes it just takes the right bird to awaken us.
1. MANGO-COLORED BIRD
Seeing a western tanager perched on a juniper tree is like peering into the molten heart of the Southwest landscape. This sublimely colored bird must be the forest’s expression of joy. Nature concentrates yellow-gold, crimson, raven black, and mango in one midsize bird who flashes like a jewel in an otherwise subdued palette of olive greens and dove blues. Seeing the western tanager is a gladdening, if aleatoric experience—walking along a dirt road, a flash is all you might see, lemon-yellow wing-bar against black, as the bird flicks past the road to perch on a dry birdbath before vanishing into a deciduous tree. Hungry for another look, you stand before the tree shimmering in the last blaze before twilight, but you sense only a flutter in the shadows or you hear a chuckle or two. The western tanager is by no means a rare bird. Well over a century back, countless strands of these birds flew freely over the Americas. Now I see tanagers only singly or in pairs. Breakneck industrialization, wanton use of pesticides, agribusinesses, and habitat loss have largely evicted these shining jewels from our parched land. The tanager, of course, is not alone; some 40 percent of the world's bird populations are in decline.
I owe a debt to this mango-colored bird; once, it quite possibly saved my life. After graduating from film school at the Universityof Southern California, I moved to Northern California, where, while backpacking on the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park, I had a near-death experience.
It was not my first time at this park. I relished being among the ancient sequoias, their copious, maternal trunks, the color of burnt sienna, soaring toward the shining sky. Sequoia bark is rich in tannin, which shields the trees from the maladies of rot, insects, and fire. I walked among these immortals, as John Muir once called them, with the awe I might experience among columns in a cathedral that was all the more stirring for not being bound by stone. A porous cathedral, the Earth’s cathedral, and I was but a leaf undulating through it.
After a four-hour drive from Santa Cruz, where we were living, Michael and I camped overnight at the Sequoia National Park and, the next morning, we got to the permit office at nine. The air was like the kiss of a pine; in the distance, a quail cackled. We filled out the requisite forms and were handed a backpacking permit and two bear canisters and we were on our way. It was nearly ten by the time we began hiking on the High Sierra Trail. Our first steps were charged with sun-drenched hope: we planned to backpack for five or six days. I dodged an enormous pine cone in my path and inhaled the muddy, dusty, piney fragrance of the trail. From deep inside the mixed-forest canopy, a jay let out a raucous cry. The air grew balmy and my navy tee glistened in the morning light. Our knapsacks bulged with a tent, cooking equipment, water for two days, a filter for the rest, and dried and cooked food in the bear canisters.
By midafternoon, we were hiking due east where the trail rose up a V-shaped canyon. We climbed the south-facing slope with the June sun beating down on us. The hot, white light stung my eyes. The temperature was between eighty-five and ninety degrees, and only the occasional ponderosa pine offered a smudge of shade. In the sun’s pelting glare, I felt that my knapsack was unconscionably heavy, but Michael’s was heavier still and it pinched his shoulders uncomfortably. We trudged on, with only the sound of our boots crunching pine needles or the drone of a cricket or a fly sundering the heat-baked silence. From time to time, we exchanged anecdotes and our conversations buoyed us.
After six hours of climbing, with the trail zigzagging upward ad infinitum, my thighs were on fire and my body was limp from the sun’s embrace. Worse, I was feeling uncharacteristically ill, though I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. I felt nauseous, enervated, and wholly unlike myself. Instead of hiking, I was dragging myself up the trail. Still, without a specific ailment, I hesitated to complain on the first day of an almost-weeklong hike. I was slender and in tolerable health, and it sometimes amused me when other people acted like hypochondriacs. Now I gritted my teeth and willed myself to climb on.
I didn’t know that Michael’s heel had started to hurt early on in the hike. The more we walked, the more aggravated his right heel grew. He mentioned it passingly, but disoriented by my vertiginous state, I didn’t take note.
We were both in our midtwenties, and we hiked daylong trails on weekends whenever we could. During a previous summer, we had spent days backpacking through Yosemite, setting camp wherever the trail led us at twilight and keeping ears open for bears as we drifted off to sleep. I loved walking under canopies of sequoias, pines, and spruces, though I had noticed that I could get overheated while doing grueling hikes in the midday sun. Michael was also an experienced and stoic mountain biker. His heel must have grown unbearably painful for him to suggest that we consider turning around.
I started, unsure if I had heard him correctly.
Yes, he was wondering if we should turn around. If his heel were to go on hurting, we might eventually get stuck in an even more remote section of the trail.
I nodded, agreeing. In the moment, his suggestion felt like a gift from the skies. The decision brought me deep relief. As we began the long hike down, I acknowledged to myself that I was feeling pretty nauseous and it would have been torture to keep climbing. Was I suffering from a heatstroke?
We clambered down to the trailhead and then to the ranger station, where we duly returned the bear canisters. The afternoon was wilting when we stopped by a Park Service café for tea before we headed out to search for a campsite.
The cashier at the café paused when he looked at my face. I saw concern flicker in his eyes before he asked: “Are you OK?”
I nodded, though I felt an ocean away from OK. I still felt clammy and the skin on my arms gleamed unnaturally, like my navy tee. Michael later told me that my face was pale and glistening all over with an olive sheen.
Having planned to sleep along the High Sierra Trail, we had no campground reservation and were fortunate to find a site. From our knapsacks, we pried out the gas canisters and the propane tank, and Michael began to warm up the black-eyed peas that we had cooked the night before. As the dish warmed, I smelled a rancid whiff. The tomatoes had spoiled. Abruptly, I discovered that I could no longer stand. I wavered and clutched the picnic table. Would the day’s light never stop glaring at me?
I hurried into the tent and crumpled on top of the sleeping bag. Lying down, I grew aware that something sharp was piercing my forehead, drilling life out of me.
Michael sat at the picnic bench, feeling uneasy, concerned, and baffled about my collapse. Neither of us had eaten. The group next to us had a roaring fire going and they were thigh-slappingly garrulous.
It was now around 8:00 p.m. In the twilight, a singular bird darted over and perched on a tree limb right above our tent.
It was the first time Michael had seen a western tanager, but he knew enough to identify it correctly.
Our tent squatted under a colossal ponderosa pine and the tanager was perched on a crescent limb that stretched out from the tree’s scaly terra-cotta trunk.
“Look at this bird.”
I heard Michael’s voice while drifting out of consciousness.
He wanted to come into the tent and point it out, but that would have spooked the bird. He again called softly. “Open your eyes. You have to see this bird.”
Stirred by his enthusiasm, I moved my head a few inches to see what he was pointing at. I could scarcely focus. Everything was wobbly. Gravity felt like a planetary force such as I hadn’t experienced before—it pinned my body to the ground, while a knifelike heaviness jabbed at my forehead.
With some effort, I poked only my head out of the tent. The vivacious colors of the male tanager, his head softly brushed with cinnabar red, stood out against the deep green of the ponderosa branch. I was transported to a childhood memory in India, gazing delightfully at mangoes my father had brought me from the farmers market. The tanager was all fruity, luscious, heartening colors. As refreshing as my father’s smile. I felt a gentle breeze on my face and I located my breath again. The spot of oxygen seemed to waken my lungs. The bird was not of this world. Was I imagining it? No. Michael was just as entranced.
Later I would learn that the tanager’s prime breeding season is in May and June, which explained its bridegroom glow. It’s partial to open areas in evergreen forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir; in the Southwest, it also frequents piñon-juniper woodlands. With yellow wing-bars on raven-black wings, the male tanager may have alighted on the ponderosa branch to glean a snack of insects, while it foraged nearby for dry, spindly grasses for its coarsely woven nest.
Despite the menace clutching my forehead, the bird lit up my heart, a sunbeam poured into me, and I steadied myself. I kept on gazing with a slightly open mouth until the tanager flew away, unswervingly, as soundlessly as it had arrived.
I had been sipping tea and I asked Michael to steady me so that I might walk to the restroom. When he saw how challenging it was for me to walk and how much I needed his support, he grew troubled. He abruptly recalled that a friend’s wife had suffered a debilitating condition on a backpacking trip. They had later figured out that it was altitude sickness.
Now we wondered if I was having a severe case of altitude sickness.
Closer to 11:00 p.m., I was hallucinating about what was now a lethal spider on my forehead, and now a scorpion. Feeling sure it was a scorpion, I told Michael so.
A little later, I asked him to tell my mother that I loved her.
Michael tried to reassure me but his stoicism began to fail him.
In the eepening darkness, a yellow-gold thread hovered somewhere and I let out a faint smile despite imagining that I had uttered my last words. Even if I could have called my mother, my head hurt too much to talk.
Now Michael raced over to the trailer of the camp host. He was asleep and Michael woke him up. At first put out about having his sleep disrupted, when the camp host heard about our situation, he grew irate. “You came straight from sea level to six thousand feet and immediately got onto the High Sierra Trail—and went up to ten thousand feet!” he railed. “Go sleep it off!”
The night deepened into an inky, purple welt. To stay on in the mountains, in this oppressive two-person tent, which was suffocating, strangling me, was unthinkable. In the dark, Michael stood me up, all wobbly and staggering, and helped me into our secondhand Honda. He swiftly packed up our tent and equipment. At midnight, he drove us out of the park, weaving downhill on numerous switchbacks in the coal-like darkness.
In the car, I had a vile, throbbing headache. I clutched my head in my hands and shut my eyes but nothing helped. After we had descended four thousand feet, however, all at once the pounding in my head stopped, as though a celestial being had waved a wand over me, and in my mind’s eye, the nebulous yellow-gold thread blossomed into the mango-colored tanager. We were closer to sea level now.
It was still a three-and-a-half hour drive home.
Table of ContentsPreface
1. Mango-colored Bird
2. A Zen Monk at Work
3. The Rasa of Bulbuls
4. A Flicker of Light
5. The Fruit Orchard
6. Le Petit Nuthatch
7. Interlude: Western Tanager
8. The Bobcat in my Rosebed
9. The Mystery Dimension
10. Messengers from the Past
11. Damsels Floating in Air
12. Crepuscular Activities
13. Prairie Dog Town
14. Pedernal Mountain
15. La Jornada del Muerto
16. Lifting the Veil
17. Desert Breeding Grounds
18. Mi Casita
19. The Mountain Lion of Birds