World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
Milkweed Editions, 2020, $25.00, 184 pages.
Perusing poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s previous books of poetry, flora and fauna are frequent muses so it’s not entirely surprising that World of Wonders, her first book of prose, is a meditation on nature’s bounty of plants and creatures, big and small. This moment of pause and panic created by the pandemic is pushing people to delve into nature and to take time to savor it during the rare times we are not housebound. And Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders is the perfect literary companion for this.
She builds each chapter around one specific animal or plant species, weaving background on their habits and habitats, highlighting some of their most stunning attributes, along with how they resonate with her own life. Although her descriptions are filled with fascinating facts, what makes them come alive is Nezhukumatathil’s obvious astonishment and affection, which comes through in the text. In evoking her magical memories of the firefly, she says, “In flight, it is like a loud laugh, the kind that only appears in summer, with the stink of meats sizzling somewhere down the street and the mouths of neighborhood children stained with popsicle juice and hinging open with the excitement of a ball game or tag.”
The “wonders” that Nezhukumatathil ponders in this slim volume run the gamut, from the familiar and beloved firefly, which receives not one but two chapters in the book, to the intimidating southern cassowary, a bird that can kill humans, to the dragon fruit, exotic to some and everyday to others.
Nezhukumatathil is an ideal guide on this journey through nature’s treasures because although she conveys her own deep curiosity and compassion for these plants and animals, her explorations never take on a stuffy professorial tone, which can make those who haven’t had many experiences with the natural world feel excluded. It’s clear Nezhukumatathil’s desire is to foster the same love and wonder for the natural world that her Indian father and Filipino mother, who are avid gardeners, fostered in her. She acknowledges that she didn’t always appreciate the significance of her childhood family trips into nature and her parents’ lessons, but now strives to pass those lessons on to her own sons, to her creative writing students, and to her readers.
The strongest chapters are those where Nezhukumatathil meditates on plants or animals with whom she has direct experiences and memories. She evokes not only the beings’ significance to the world but also to a moment in her life that continues to impact her.
Nezhukumatathil often underscores the life lessons that these beings have offered her. Her family moved around, leaving her feeling unmoored and as the perpetual new kid. As an adult and mother, she wonders where her family should call home. She finds inspiration in the red-spotted newts, which she spied on her forest walks in western New York, who wander for years before deciding on a home pond, and whose homing instinct enables them to return time and again. Nezhukumatathil’s wanderings and homing instinct led her, unexpectedly, to make home in Mississippi, and to realize it’s the home for which she’s been searching.
Conversely, the chapters that discuss plants and animals she hasn’t seen up close or interacted with don’t cast the same spell, and the connections and lessons she draws from them don’t seem as resonant.
In the final pages of the book, Nezhukumatathil asks, “Where does one start to take care of these living things amid the dire and daily news of climate change, and reports of another animal or plant vanishing from the planet?” and she offers her own answer, “Start with what we have loved as kids and see where that leads us.” She goes on to observe that, “in that spark is a slowdown and tenderness.”
There have been reports of skies over cities clearing of pollution and of animals returning to habitats endangered by development due to the slowdown of human life necessitated by the pandemic. As we ponder what the world will look like after this moment, an inspiring vision is one in which the creatures and plants Nezhukumatathil animates are able to thrive and offer up their wonders to the next generation.
Kavita Das is the author of Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar and the upcoming Sparking Change on the Page: Lessons and Reflections on Writing about Social Issues.