What Do You Want from Nature Writing?

By Jeff Darren Muse

March 17, 2023

What Do You Want from Nature Writing?

Conversations with Birds by Priyanka Kumar

Let me be honest—and be myself. I think writing a book review says as much about my own interests and biases as it does about any author’s words. I should also say, having recently completed my own book and now on the cusp of publishing, authors deserve kudos. It’s a long march.

So let’s begin there, with kudos to Priyanka Kumar whose new book, Conversations with Birds, has racked up impressive endorsements. Kirkus calls it “an eloquent depiction of how birding engenders a deep love of our ecosystems and a more profound understanding of ourselves.” Publishers Weekly says it’s “perfect for readers of Diane Ackerman.” That’s high praise! Ackerman’s sensuous, erudite prose is a hallmark of sentimental nonfiction often known as nature writing.

But for me, the reader—an environmental educator and historical interpreter, plus a White guy, fiftysomething—the entire time I was enjoying Conversations, I kept thinking about a different writer, one likely never associated with Thoreau or Muir or Carson. I’m talking about Vivian Gornick, particularly her dictum in The Situation and the Story on the “art of personal narrative”:

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

What’s the situation in Conversations? Kumar’s passion for birds. Their biology, their lifeways, how she celebrates diverse species while also highlighting pernicious and ever-growing threats. In terms of plot, her book follows mile after mile of Kumar and her family pursuing eagles and hawks, owls and woodpeckers, whatever resides in or migrates through the American Southwest, especially New Mexico, her adopted state. Conversations is a collection of twenty essays, each a journey of varying depth and distance, and through each flow keenly instructive sentences such as:

With its clean, freshly colored lines, the red-shafted flicker is a cartoon sprung to life. As if an endearing black bib and dark polka dots on a creamy underside weren’t enough, the males also sport a rust-colored cap and a malar stripe or “mustache.”

That’s as fine a description as any bird nerd could write, myself included. And Kumar, a filmmaker and novelist by profession, applies this sensory-rich skill to anything on which she trains her lens, even a recollection that troubles her: 

At first glance, Pasadena was all blazing light and sun-dried concrete. In the evenings, we strolled around the periphery of the California Institute of Technology where the hedges were thick and coated liberally with dust. In the southeast corner of the campus, blooming jasmines perfumed the evening air, momentarily blotting the hiss of traffic. Otherwise the snore of trucks and cars filtered all day into our apartment, which was just a block away from the northern edge of campus.

Page after page, Conversations presents lush, Ackerman-like writing—details on natural and cultural history, hiking, homemaking, backyard visits by two-winged or four-legged neighbors, as well as local and global environmental woes, along with a few solutions. Chiefly, look, listen, pay attention! She also expresses heartbreak, much as I do, pinning blame on human greed and societal indifference: “We have fragmented our rivers and drained our wetlands and built malls over them.”

I’m surprised, however, to read little in the way of self-interrogation. Why doesn’t Kumar question her own resource-dependent adventures on what she calls our “sad and vulnerable planet”? 

Still, as the book’s introduction lays out, I’m drawn to her circumstance as a child growing up in India, one robustly attentive to wild things, and later, as a young adult, when she had lost the ability of “seeing”: 

In my twenties, I started to mull over the deep connection I’d had with nature as a child . . . 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.

Throughout the book, while rebuilding rasa—her “metamorphosis into a naturalist”—Kumar ensures that readers step through a “portal to a more vivid, enchanted world,” one we had better start appreciating before it’s gone. Case in point, since 1970, avifauna populations have experienced a net loss of three billion birds, or 29 percent. To put that another way, are your treetops quieter these days? Conversations helps explain why.

Having shared all that, I’d like to address this book’s emotional experience, at least how I perceive it. First, allow me to offer an aside, which reveals something of my own narrative behind the task of writing a review.

A colleague and I were discussing my early draft of this piece, and though he had not read Conversations, his words stuck with me. “Actually,” he said, “a friend of mine in Santa Fe read it and thought it way too much about herself and neglected the nature aspect. She didn’t like it at all. It’s too subjective.”

Too subjective? I take that to mean an emphasis on personal feelings and beliefs, or on one’s personal life, as opposed to, say, just the facts. Scientific facts? Whose facts? In any case, that comment led me to think about the nature writer Terry Tempest Williams, especially her book, Refuge, which chronicles not only birds in and around Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, but also environmental trauma, death, and her mother’s passing due to ovarian cancer. Refuge is a profoundly intimate book written by someone who, at thirty-four (at the time), became the matriarch of her family.

I also thought about J. Drew Lanham’s recent title, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. Cover to cover, Lanham identifies and discusses his many selves—ornithologist, professor, hunter, family man, and how he often feels like a “rare bird, an oddity: appreciated by some for my different perspective and discounted by others as an unnecessary nuisance, an unusually colored fish out of water.” He also wrote a line I kept thinking about while reading Conversations: “But in all my time wandering I’ve yet to have a wild creature question my identity.”

The more I chewed on my colleague’s words, the more I realized why I like these books and so many others now emerging in the nature writing genre: their stories. Personal stories. In Conversations, Kumar reveals not only the intricacies of avian life, but also her life, her insight, her wisdom. For me, it poses, as Gornick suggests, “the thing one has come to say.”

And so what does Conversations say? That partly depends on what I care to listen to, which is influenced by, knowingly or not, my interests and biases. I guess that means you should all be aware that my professional work revolves around learning and teaching “difficult history,” what Kappan calls “periods that reverberate in the present and surface fundamental disagreements over who we are and what values we hold.” Another way to explain that: I’d likely be banned in Florida.

Take, for instance, this line in Conversations: “That curlews are faintly unwieldy does not prevent them from flying gracefully but it does make them more visible to louts.” Louts? People who enjoy offending others. Or, as Kumar notes, guys who like “target practice.” Is she merely writing about a bird, or something more? I’m drawn to seeking more.

So let’s throw up this passage, which highlights her early film work in Los Angeles (she directed the feature documentary about the Indian director Satyajit Ray, The Song of the Little Road):

But I was growing keenly aware that my artistic self was languishing here, that for each yes that I heard, a hundred noes reliably followed. My feature scripts had won numerous awards, but older white producers balked at letting me direct the stories I had written. When someone did take me on, they were either a novice or a retiree and were unable to secure the significant budget needed to make a feature. 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 the cultural norm were deal breakers.

“Good grief,” I imagine my colleague’s friend saying, “What does this have to do with birds?”

Keep reading, I’d tell her, the very same passage: “When I was birding, these muddled, twisted considerations dissolved along with the haze over trafficky roads. I saw only the birds and their rasa, the deodars and welcoming arches, not the doors that were repeatedly shut on me.”

Huh. Sounds like nature can provide a refuge. As if the alienation and discrimination someone might feel in the human world, whatever his or her background, are ameliorated by spending time with non-human life. Got a dog, anyone? A kitty? 

Throughout Conversations, Kumar discloses captivating details about her own biology, her history, her journey as a woman, a daughter, a mother, a person of color, as well as an immigrant who became a naturalized U.S. citizen less than a decade ago. All of these selves, these identities, also love birds. I’m cool with that as a White guy. Am I an oddity too?

Mouthy, I know. I can hear my mother saying that.

But here’s the thing. Whenever Kumar writes “I,” detailing personal hardships, her book starts feeling like a conversation. A conversation with other books. Also with Jeff Darren Muse, a kid born and raised in Indiana, himself juiced up on wild things as he escaped the pain of parental divorce, his father’s alcoholism, and the gnawing feeling of inadequacy among his peers. And now that kid is a park ranger, a public servant, and he and I are often surrounded by people who look a lot like us. But Kumar’s sentences remind me that saving the world—the world I want, anyway—means not only appreciating non-human life, but also trying to understand the perspectives of people who are not White, not male, not born in the U.S., or perhaps not as free as I have been. 

Call me woke. Whoopee! As a reader, I was hooked by Conversations with its first sentence: “Birds are my almanac: they tune me into the seasons, and to myself.” And then I really got going with its second line, when Kumar introduced the western tanager, including its scientific name, Piranga ludoviciana. It’s a “flaming yellow-orange” migrant, she writes, “whose presence is one indicator that the insect population in an area has not catastrophically plummeted.”

Where did this reader go with that? Where I’m drawn to, of course.

Piranga comes from the Tupi word “tijepiranga,” which is what a tribal member in the Amazon might call an unidentified small bird. As for ludoviciana, that’s more revealing, and for some, troublesome. Alexander Wilson, a Scottish American poet-ornithologist, chose the moniker as a reference to King Louis XIV—as in the Louisiana Purchase, the 1803 land deal between the United States and France that essentially annexed the entire western half of the Mississippi River watershed, not to mention its inhabitants, both human and non-human.

As you might recall, the Louisiana Purchase was meant to provide access to the elusive Northwest Passage, a route to the Pacific and thus more trade, more wealth. More wealth for whom? Anyway, Wilson was tasked with examining the dead bird collected by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the spring of 1806, in today’s Kamiah, Idaho—what had been the winter home of the Nez Perce tribe.

All of which got me thinking: what do the Nez Perce, the Nimiipuu people, call the western tanager? I don’t know yet, but I’ll get there. Conversations is a welcome nudge.


Conversations with Birds by Priyanka Kumar

Milkweed Editions
 $28.00 Harcover | Buy Now



Jeff Darren Muse is a fatherless, childless Hoosier who wouldn’t and couldn’t stay put. With master’s degrees in science and creative writing, he has worked throughout the United States as an environmental educator, historical interpreter, and park ranger. Today, he and his wife live among the pines of Santa Fe, New Mexico. His new book, Dear Park Ranger: Essays on Manhood, Restlessness, and the Geography of Hope, will be released by Homebound Publications in early May. Learn more at www.jeffdarrenmuse.com.

Keywords: book review
« Back to Articles

Newsletter Sign Up

shadow shadow