World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2020.
Summary: A combination of memoir and nature writing describing the variety of living creatures encountered by the author in the different places where she lived and her own lived experience in these places.
Great nature writing enables the reader to envision at least in the mind’s eye, the landscape the writer is describing with fresh and wondrous eyes. Such writing is very simply, great writing. There is also something of the writer in the narrative, whether we think of Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, or Henry David Thoreau. This work has all these elements. Little wonder it has won numerous awards including Barnes and Noble’s 2020 Book of the Year.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil has lived in a number of places growing up and in her adult life, from the grounds of a mental institution in Kansas where her mother worked to the lake effect winters of upstate New York to the lush landscape of northern Mississippi. She caught my attention from the opening words:
“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark, too dark, our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless mid-western light”Aimee Nezhukumatathil, p.1
From these opening words, we discover that this book is both about the wonders of the natural world like a catalpa’s big leaves or long seed pods, but also the experience of growing up a brown-skinned Filipina in many white-skinned contexts. Yet this comes through with a strong sense of her own uniqueness, her own wonder amid the wonders she sees in the natural world.
She goes on to write of both common and uncommon creatures. She evoked my own memories of catching and releasing fireflies, which sadly, because of pesticides, seem to be declining.
“I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little bit more each. I can’t help it. They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say: I am still here, you are still here, I am still here, you are still here, I am, you are, over and over again. Perhaps I can will it to be true. Perhaps I can keep those summer nights with my family inside an empty jam jar, with holes poked in the lid, a twig, and a few strands of grass tucked inside. And for those nights in the future, when I know I’ll miss my mother the most, I will let that jar’s sweet glow serve as a night-light to cool and cut the air for me.”Aimee Nezhukumatathil, pp. 13-14.
I am searching, at least in memory with her.
In subsequent chapters, she writes of peacocks, comb jellies, narwhals, the curious looking axolotl, the putrid smelling but impressive corpse flower, dragon fruit, flamingoes, doing a bird census with her children, and the Southern Cassowary, one of the only birds who can kill a human being with a swipe of its knife-like talon.
She describes being the new girl in high school in Beavercreek, Ohio, a toney suburb of Dayton. She wished she were like the vampire squid, who ejects a mucous luminescent cloud to evade pursuers. Thankfully, things got much better for her!
What is most surprising is that this woman teaches creative writing but spent one sabbatical studying whale sharks, allowing one to swim just beneath her stomach. She offers both biologically accurate descriptions of the various species of which she writes and her own sense of wonder in her encounters, and the life situations they recall.
All this made me want to pay closer attention to the things I see on my walks, whether bird calls, the bark of trees, the flow of sap in my maples, the skunks that occasionally visit my suburban neighborhood (but not too close), the squirrels racing up and down our lindens, and the fireflies that light up when we sit out on a summer evening. I think this would gladden the author, who laments that 17 of her 21 students had never seen a firefly, not because they are extinct, but because they were indoors on their videogames. She makes me wonder how we will care enough to act to preserve the creation when we do not attend to its wonders enough to not want to lose them.