World of Wonders is a mesmerizing work of essays and tender illustrations, meditations on nature, cumulative in effect; nature as memoir, nature as metaphor, nature as simply and joyously itself. Each chapter captures a moment, each centered around a different natural phenomenon and charts the reverberations of the lived experience it evokes, be it family, identity or the notion of belonging. She urges us to start small to "start with what we loved as kids and see where that leads us." A centering book, delightful and unexpected.
BARNES & NOBLE BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020
From beloved, award-winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil comes a debut work of nonfiction—a collection of essays about the natural world, and the way its inhabitants can teach, support, and inspire us.
As a child, Nezhukumatathil called many places home: the grounds of a Kansas mental institution, where her Filipina mother was a doctor; the open skies and tall mountains of Arizona, where she hiked with her Indian father; and the chillier climes of western New York and Ohio. But no matter where she was transplanted—no matter how awkward the fit or forbidding the landscape—she was able to turn to our world’s fierce and funny creatures for guidance.
“What the peacock can do,” she tells us, “is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life.” The axolotl teaches us to smile, even in the face of unkindness; the touch-me-not plant shows us how to shake off unwanted advances; the narwhal demonstrates how to survive in hostile environments. Even in the strange and the unlovely, Nezhukumatathil finds beauty and kinship. For it is this way with wonder: it requires that we are curious enough to look past the distractions in order to fully appreciate the world’s gifts.
Warm, lyrical, and gorgeously illustrated by Fumi Nakamura, World of Wonders is a book of sustenance and joy.
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About the Author
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poems, including, most recently, Oceanic, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Other awards for her writing include fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Mississippi Arts Council, and MacDowell. Her writing appears in Poetry, the New York Times Magazine, ESPN, and Tin House. She serves as poetry faculty for the Writing Workshops in Greece and is professor of English and creative writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
Read an Excerpt
When the first glimmer-pop of firefly light appears on a summer night, I always want to call my mother just to say hello. The bibliography of the firefly is a tender and electric dress, a small flame sputtering in the ditches along a highway, and the elytra covering the hind wings of the firefly lift like a light leather, suppler than any other beetle’s. 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.
I used to see fireflies as we drove home from family vacations, back to rural western New York. My father loved to commute through the night, to avoid the summer glare and heat. My sister and I would be wrapped in blankets, separated by a giant ice chest in the back seat, and I’d fall in and out of a sleep made all the more delicious by hearing the pleasant murmurings of my parents in the front. Sometimes I tried to listen, but looking out the car window, I’d always get distracted by the erratic flashes of light blurring past us.
For a couple of weeks every June, in the Great Smoky Mountains, the only species of synchronous firefly in North America converges for a flashy display. Years ago, my family stopped in this area during one of our epic road trips. My father knew to park our car away from the side of an impossibly verdant hill that plunged into a wide valley full of trillium, pin cherry, and hobblebush. He knew to cover our one flashlight with a red bag, so as not to disturb the fireflies, and to only point it at the ground as he led his wife and semi-aloof teenage daughters through the navy blue pause just moments after twilight. I confess, at first I wanted to be back in the air-conditioned hotel room—anywhere but on an isolated gravel path with the odd bullfrog clamor interrupting the dark. But now I think of my sister and I scattered in different homes now as adults and am so grateful for all of those family vacations where we could be outdoors together, walking this earth.
My mother’s temper was always frazzled by vacation’s end, but I know each day off from work and spent with her family was something sweet and rare. How I crave those slow vacation days and even slower nights, her taking her time to select our frilled nightclothes, to laugh about the day’s sightseeing and the cheap trinkets I’d bought. She’d pull a coverlet to my chin. Her gorgeous, dark wavy hair tickled when she leaned over to kiss me good-night, smelling of Oil of Olay and spearmint gum. Only on those trips would I know such a degree of tenderness, the quiet reassurances a mother can give a daughter, while she stroked my bangs to the side of my face. No rush in the mornings to get me and my sister shuffled onto a school bus and herself off to work. When my mother is no longer here, I know I will cling to that lovely fragrance of mint and a moisturizer I’ll always associate with beauty and love. I will cling to those summer nights we raced—and yet didn’t race—home. I will try to bang myself back to that Oldsmobile like the lacewings that argue nightly with my porch light bulb, to what was my small family then, not even big enough to call a swarm: one sister, two parents.
I grew up near scientists who worked with indigo buntings. There is no other blue like that of these birds, no feather more electric. They navigate by following the North Star, and these scientists were trying to trick them into following a false star in a darkened room. But most of them don’t fall for the ruse. When released, they find their way home the same as always. The buntings know the North Star by heart, learn to look for it in their first summer of life, storing this knowledge to use years later when they first learn to migrate. How they must have spent hours gazing at the star during those nestling nights, peeking out from under their mother. What shines so strong holds them steady.
Where the buntings remain steadfast, fireflies are more easily deceived. They lose their light rhythm for a few minutes after a single car’s headlights pass. Sometimes it takes hours for them to recalibrate their blinking patterns. What gets lost in the radio silence? What connections are translated incorrectly or missed entirely? Porch lights, trucks, buildings, and the harsh glow of streetlamps all complicate matters and discourage fireflies from sending out their love-light signals—meaning fewer firefly larvae are born the next year.
Scientists can’t agree on how or why these fireflies achieve synchronicity. Perhaps it is a competition between males, who all want to be the first to send their signals across the valleys and manna grass. Perhaps if they all flash at once, the females can better determine whose glow is most radiant. Whatever the reason—and in spite of, or rather, because of, all the guided tours that now pop up in the Smokies—fireflies don’t glow in sync all night long anymore. The patterns sometimes occur in short flashes, then abruptly end in haunting periods of darkness. The fireflies are still out there, but they fly or rest on grass blades in visual silence. Perhaps a visitor forgot to dim a flashlight or left their car lights on for too long, and this is the firefly’s protest.
Firefly eggs and larvae are bioluminescent, and the larvae themselves hunt for prey. They can detect a slime trail from a slug or snail and follow it all the way to the juicy, unsuspecting source. Whole groups of larvae have been known to track relatively large prey, such as an earthworm—like a macabre, candlelit chase right out of an old B-movie, to the edge of a soupy pond, the larvae pulsing light as they devour a still-wriggling worm. Some firefly larvae live completely underwater, their lights fevering just under the surface as they capture and devour aquatic snails.
For a beetle, fireflies live long and full lives—around two years—though most of it is spent underground, gloriously eating and sleeping to their heart’s content. When we see these beacons flashing their lights, they usually have only one or two weeks left to live. Learning this as a child—I could often be found walking slowly around untrimmed lawns, stalling and not quite ready to go inside for dinner—made me melancholy, even in the face of their brilliance. I couldn’t believe something so full of light would be gone so soon.
I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little more each year. 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 unimaginable 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.
I’m eight and I’ve just returned from my first trip to southern India. During that time, I fell completely in love with peacocks—India’s national bird—in spite of the strays in my grandparents’ courtyard that shrieked every morning like cats being dragged over thumbtacks. The memory of their bold turquoise and jade feathers and bright blue necks curls over my shoulder as I listen to my third-grade teacher announce an animal-drawing contest. My knees bounce at my desk. Of course I know what I’m going to draw.
We’ve just moved to suburban Phoenix from a small town in Iowa, where I was the only brown girl in my class. Although my classmates here stared hard at me when I was first introduced, I felt so happy to see kids of all shades in the room. Now as I watch those classmates go off to the library to search for their animals, I ask my teacher if I can just stay and get started on my drawing. She fumbles in her purse and I see a pack of cigarettes. No, you may not. We all need to be on the same page, she says. In the library, I scan the shelves. There are no books on peacocks. My friends choose various dog breeds, small reptiles, kittens. In my notebook, I write in careful cursive, “Peacocks are the national bird of India.” Then the bell rings and summons us back to class.
My teacher walks up and down the aisles, checking our work. When she stops at my desk, I smell and hear a smoky sigh, and her long maroon nail taps my notebook twice. I have no idea what this means. When it comes time to draw our animals on thick sheets of white construction paper, I begin with a sea of bright teal and purple. I outline the dramatic eye of the peacock in black, like he’s wearing eyeliner. The rest of the page blooms with peacock feathers, dozens of violet eyes. I see the drawing the kid next to me is working on, a mostly blank page with a single squiggle on it: a snake.
My teacher continues to stalk through the rows of our desks. Some of us misunderstood the assignment, she says. She reaches the front of the room, and cleared her throat. Some of us will have to start over and draw American animals. We live in Ah-mer-i-kah! Now she looks right at me. My neck flushes. Anyone who is finished can bring your drawing up to my desk and start your math worksheets. Aimee— The class turns to look at me. Looks like you need a do-over!
I turn my drawing over and blink hard, trying not to let tears fall onto the page. Does she think peacocks can’t live in this country? I saw peacocks at the San Diego Zoo the summer before, and my father once told me that roads are even blocked off for peacocks in Miami, where they can be seen strolling across lawns in the suburbs.
I pick up a new sheet of paper, slink back to my desk, and draw the most American thing I can think of: a bald eagle perched on a branch at the edge of a cliff, two eggs peeking up from its delicately balanced nest. I know the nest looks like a basket of Easter eggs, but I don’t care anymore. I just want to be done so my classmates will stop staring. I color the wings with the saddest sepia crayon in my art supplies box. Before I turn the drawing in, I add an American flag—as big as the one hung outside our school—its pole poked into the tree’s branches. Nothing about this drawing looks natural, especially since I drew the flag so much larger than the eagle’s nest, and even then I knew that eagle’s nests are huge—about as wide and as tall as an elephant—but I didn’t want her to ask me any more questions, so I just kept quiet.
When I get home that day, I park myself on the couch and stare at the television. When my dad calls me to dinner, I tell him I’m not hungry. When he walks into the living room to ask me to come to the dinner table anyway, I burst out, Why do we need to have these peacocks all over the house? Wooden peacocks, brass peacocks, a peacock painting—it’s so embarrassing! My dad says nothing, just walks out of the room and gently calls back, Your dinner will be cold. The next day, all the peacocks in the house are gone. All the peacocks, except for our family calendar: twelve months of peacocks—in front of a waterfall, a museum, a wall of bougainvillea; albino peacocks, peahens, and peachicks. That calendar remains, marking our time that year with its little squares and a new set of dramatic eyes looking back at me each month.
Weeks later, after announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, my teacher announces the results of the drawing contest: my eagle drawing has won first place. It will be displayed in the giant glass trophy case right outside the principal’s office. I will always hurry past it on my way to class.
I was a girl who loved to draw. I was a girl who loved color, who loved a fresh box of crayons, who always envied the girls with sixty-four colors but made do with my twenty-four off-brand shades. I was a girl who loved to draw—and yet I don’t think I ever drew a bird again, not even a doodle, until well into adulthood.
This is the story of how I learned to ignore anything from India. The peacock feathers my grandfather had carefully collected for me the day before I left grew dusty in the back of my closet instead of sitting in a vase on my white dresser. This is the story of how, for years, I pretended I hated the color blue. But what the peacock can do is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life: My favorite color is peacock blue. My favorite color is peacock blue. My favorite color is peacock blue.