Review: World of Wonders

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.

Review: Desert Solitaire

desert solitaire

Desert SolitaireEdward Abbey, illustrated by Peter Parnell. New York: Touchstone, 1968.

Summary: The author’s account of spending six months as a park ranger in the Arches National Monument in southwest Utah.

This book was unlike other environmental or nature writing I’ve encountered. Sure, there are descriptive passages, some powerfully evocative, but nothing of the lyricism of tone of a Rachel Carson or an Aldo Leopold. Perhaps it is the landscape–stark but beautiful wilderness that has so many ways to kill the unprepared, or even those who think they are. Perhaps it is the personality of Abbey, who does not sound like a particularly nice person. My hunch is that it is likely both.

Desert Solitaire is Abbey’s account of six months as a seasonal park ranger in the Arches National Monument, as well as some of his other wanderings in the canyon lands of southwestern Utah. During this time, he basically lives alone in a trailer (or outside of it in warm weather) near the park entrance. His routine duties consist of visiting the different camping areas, replenishing firewood, and looking for tourists in need of help. The account begins with solitary life in the trailer, his immediate environs and extends out to the creatures, the arches and rock formations that make up the park, the mountains and canyons of the region.

His narratives convey the peculiar beauty of this land and Abbey’s desire that it would remain undisturbed. It feels at times that he wants this land for him and his friends alone and that everyone else are unwanted tourists that are the threat, in their “motorized wheelchairs” and “industrial tourism.” Some of this is a legitimate concern over the commercialization that leads to paving over dirt roads and all sorts of tourist facilities that compromise the landscape, turning it into a kind of wilderness Disneyland.

He also helps us grasp how unforgiving the landscape is. He chronicles the search for an older man whose car sat abandoned for a couple days. They assume he is dead, and indeed, that is how they found him, carrying him back with crude jokes and matter of fact comments, even while a relative walks nearby. A fall, too little water, going into an area one can’t get out of, a vehicle breakdown all can be fatal. Particularly in the heat of summer, or winter snow storms, and a journey into the unique beauty of this place might be the last one takes.

One of the most striking parts of the book is Abbey’s description of taking boats through the Glen Canyon before it was dammed to build a reservoir and recreational lake. He describes a landscape soon to be submerged and transformed. He narrates descents into canyons he is not sure he can get out of, a descent from a summit madly sledding down the side on a rock. I honestly was surprised he lived to tell of some of these episodes, and maybe he was as well.

What Abbey does is capture the mysterious draw that wilderness holds for many. He observes:

The desert is different. Not so hostile as the snowy peaks, nor so broad and bland as the ocean’s surface, it lies open–given adequate preparation–to leisurely exploration, to extended periods of habitation. Yet it can hardly be called a humane environment; what little life there is will be clustered about the oases, natural or man-made. The desert waits outside, desolate and still and strange, unfamiliar and often grotesque in its forms and colors, inhabited by rare, furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning, sparingly colonized by weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted, and twisted as they are tenacious.

At the end, all he can do is say there is “something” about the desert, but never can quite find a name for it.

Abbey clearly evokes a sense of the peculiar beauty of this land. But, apart from the description, I found his narrative unsatisfying. Many have gone into the wilderness and come out of it transformed. I’m not convinced this was the case with Abbey. He definitely comes out with descriptions of its character, with a set of experiences, and a passion that it not change. But I wonder if he changed. He does not seem to have greater compassion for either visiting tourists or the clients he will serve as a social worker. It all seems a bit self-absorbed and hedonistic. One wonders how this can be when one glimpses such rugged grandeur…