Book Review: World of Wonders; In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

No one sees nature quite like a poet and Aimee Nezhukumatathil proves that in World of Wonders, her first book of prose. This collection of essays centers around Nezhukumatathil’s lifelong interactions with and observations of the natural world. Born to a Filipina mother and a father from South India, Nezhukumatathil grew up all over the United States due to the demands of her mother’s job as a psychiatrist, and was immersed in landscapes from New York to Arizona. She writes from both the poet’s perspective and as a person of color in a white-privileged world.

“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun.” The opening line acclimates readers immediately to the book’s form as a hybrid of memoir and naturalist study. Each snapshot of Nezhukumatathil’s life—moving from her childhood to present day—is paired with a particular flora or fauna, and what she learns from these natural wonders. Most of the essays are gorgeously illustrated by Fumi Mini Nakamura, adding whimsical touch points throughout the text, and as an added bonus, coloring sheets combining selected prose and illustrations are available free to download on Nezhukumatathil’s website.

The essays begin with Nezhukumatathil’s childhood and her earliest encounters with the natural world, teaching her as much about herself as they do about the planet. In one essay, Nezhukumatathil recounts how a teacher shamed her in elementary school for drawing a peacock, an “un-American” animal. The essay on Touch-Me-Not plants is particularly poignant. “How I wish I could fold inward and shut down and shake off predators with one touch…let me and my children decide who touches them and who touches them not, touch them not, touch them not.”

The experience of being a person of color in America centers painfully often on being marginalized, objectified, and categorized. Nezhukumatathil brilliantly pairs these memories with the flora and fauna that have been similarly treated, and shows how she draws strength from the natural world to live in the human one.

The essays mark the evolution of Nezhukumatathil’s eco-consciousness as she grows to adulthood. We witness her anguish as an octopus dies in her hands, as well as the almost simultaneous discovery and declaration of endangerment of the Micrixalus “dancing frogs.” Her subjects range from Indian monsoons to ribbon eels to fireflies, bringing insight and fresh appreciation to each species. The only noticeable gap in her subjects is the lack of farmed animals, arguably those whose dignity and wonder humans need most urgently to see. Hopefully Nezhukumatathil will bring her considerable talent to Eastern wild turkeys or Red Angus cattle soon.

Nezhukumatathil’s voice is a wonder in itself. In her essay on Monarchs, she tells us how the migrating butterflies veer sharply at a certain spot over Lake Superior. No one knew why until a geologist discovered that a mountain had stood there thousands of years ago.

“Does this message transmit through the song they sing to themselves on their first wild nights, spinning inside a chrysalis? Or in the music kissed down their backs as they crack themselves open to the morning sun? Does milkweed whisper instructions to them as it scatters in the meadows? Maybe that is the loneliest kind of memory: to be forever altered by an invisible kiss.”

Nezhukumatathil’s words weave connections, bright and unexpected, and open our eyes to the stunningly beautiful world around us.

World of Wonders subverts the implicit bias in this society that to study nature you must be a scientist, you must be white. It opens the framework for whose experiences get to be told, and is perfectly timed for the coming holiday season. Buy it for anyone discovering their own connection to the natural world or who simply needs a dose of wonder during these times. And by that, I mean everyone.

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