'World Of Wonders' Urges Us To Take A Breath And Look Around

Sep 7, 2020
Originally published on September 8, 2020 5:57 am

It can be helpful to focus on the wonder of the natural world when so much of what is happening around us feels out of our control.

Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil's new book aims to help introduce readers to nature's marvels — it's called World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments.

"I'm hoping to open up more of a conversation about whose outdoor experiences get to be told," she says. "And I'm hoping that it increases the sense of wonderment when you see that you don't have to be a scientist to appreciate the outdoors as well."


Interview Highlights

On how nature was an integral part of her upbringing

My mother is retired now, but she was a psychiatrist, so we actually lived on the grounds of several psychiatric hospitals most of my childhood. And that's a strange location, you know, to grow up. But it was also such a secure, safe place. And what I found is that it's a place where flora and fauna were allowed to exist on the outskirts and where I could explore some of the most beautiful creatures and plants without being disturbed.

I think one in particular was the mighty catalpa trees of Western Kansas. And they're now here where I live in Oxford, Mississippi. But the catalpa have these giant, giant leaves that could cover my entire face, so my sister and I would wear them as hats, or try to stitch them as hats together. And, you can make so many things with the catalpa Leaf or the catalpa seed pods ... clothing for dolls, hats, and we would try to stitch shirts out of grass. I mean, just think of a catalpa leaf as a piece of paper. I would paint on them ... we could have any toy we wanted, really, but the toys that I played with the most were from the outdoors.

On a moment in her childhood when a peacock taught her about her roots

This was in the third or fourth grade. I'd just come back from my first trip ever to see my paternal grandparents in India. And the national bird of India is the peacock, so we had peacocks all over the house. I grew up thinking that this is the most beautiful bird on the planet. Period. And so there was a little assignment in third grade where we had an animal drawing contest, but we had to do research for it. So I picked the peacock, fresh from my first visit to India.

But I had this teacher who kind of embarrassed me in front of the whole class — she came over and said, some of us will have to start over. Some of us didn't understand the assignment. Some of us need to draw American animals. And what kind of breaks my heart now is I remember going home and being embarrassed of the peacocks all over our house, and it took me a while, a great while before I kind of reclaimed the peacock for myself. And now I have peacocks all over my house again — I mean, not real peacocks, but peacock decor, shall I say.

On seeing the natural world through the eyes of her sons

I think so much terror, so much hate and fear towards each other and towards other cultures has been from a lack of wonder and imagination. It's staggering how much violence has resulted to the planet and each other because of that lack of imagination, or that lack of wonder. - Aimee Nezhukumatathil

One of the most precious things to me is having that time with my kids outdoors, no screens. And there's something about that time where we can all kind of exhale. We can unfurl a little bit in our questions towards each other, our wonderings. And so for me, that's been one of the most magical parts of being a mother is to be able to share the outdoors with my own children and hopefully foster in them a feeling that the outdoors is a place of safety. But it's hard. I don't have all the answers.

On whether she ever loses that wonder, and how she gets it back

Every day. Every day, and then double that during a pandemic. My hope is that it's a practice. As with anything, it's a practice, it's work. And I think so much terror, so much hate and fear towards each other and towards other cultures has been from a lack of wonder and imagination. It's staggering how much violence has resulted to the planet and each other because of that lack of imagination, or that lack of wonder. So it's a practice. It's definitely something that I work at. And I'm not ashamed to say that I work at it, but it's something that I feel like we have to do. We have to do. Because the news will just make me feel like I don't want to get out of bed and wear a gravity blanket over my head. But I feel myself exhale when I learn more about the planet, and each other.

This story was produced for radio by Jeevika Verma and Reena Advani, and adapted for the web by Jeevika Verma and Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It can be helpful to focus on the wonder of the natural world when so much of what's happening around us feels out of our control. Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four poetry collections and a professor of English at the University of Mississippi. She wrote a book of essays about nature's marvels.

AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: I'm just hoping to open up more of a conversation about whose outdoor experiences get to be told. And I'm hoping that it just increases the sense of wonderment when you see that you don't have to be a scientist to appreciate the outdoors, as well.

MARTIN: Her book is called "World Of Wonders: In Praise Of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, And Other Astonishments." When I spoke with Aimee, she told me about her childhood and her Asian American parents who loved the outdoors and wanted her to, as well.

NEZHUKUMATATHIL: My mother is retired now, but she was a psychiatrist. So we actually lived on the grounds of several psychiatric hospitals most of my childhood. And that's a strange location, you know, to grow up. But it was also such a secure, safe place. And what I found is that it's a place where flora and fauna were allowed to exist on the outskirts and where I could explore some of the most beautiful creatures and plants without being disturbed, you know?

I think one in particular was the mighty Catalpa trees of western Kansas. And they're now here where I live now in Oxford, Miss. But the Catalpa have these giant, giant leaves that could cover, you know, my entire face. You know, so my sister and I would wear them as hats or try to stitch them as hats together. And, you know, you can make so many things with the Catalpa leaf or the Catalpa seed pods. And...

MARTIN: What can you make?

NEZHUKUMATATHIL: How much time do you have?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Clothing for dolls, hats. We would try to stitch shirts out of grass. And, you know, I mean, just think of a Catalpa leaf as a piece of paper. I would paint on them. I would - I mean, it's just - we could have any toy we wanted, really, but the toys that I played with the most were from the outdoors.

MARTIN: You write in the book about how you came to understand your own identity as it was perceived by others. Because you moved around so much, you were in towns that you didn't know and classrooms that you weren't familiar with. And you were, more often than not, the only nonwhite kid in those classrooms. I wonder if you could recount for me the story that you tell in the book about the peacock you drew once for a writing class assignment.

NEZHUKUMATATHIL: This is, you know, third, fourth grade. I had just come back from my first trip ever to see my paternal grandparents in India. And, you know, the national bird of India is the peacock. So we had peacocks all over the house, You know, I grew up with thinking, this is the most beautiful bird on the planet, period, you know?

And so there was then a little assignment in third grade where we had a animal drawing contest. But we had to do research for it. So I picked the peacock, you know, fresh from my first visit to India. But I had this teacher who kind of embarrassed me in front of the whole class. She came over and said, some of us will have to start over. Some of us didn't understand the assignment. Some of us need to draw American animals.

And, you know, and so what kind of breaks my heart now is I remember going home and being embarrassed of the peacocks all over our house, you know? And it took me a while, a great while before I kind of reclaimed the peacock for myself. And now I have peacocks all over my house again - I mean, not real peacocks...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

NEZHUKUMATATHIL: ...But peacock decor, shall I say, that I try to tamp down a little bit for my husband's sake.

MARTIN: I mean, a lot of these essays speak to how you have come to see the natural world through the eyes of your sons. And I'm thinking of one of the later essays about going birdwatching. And it's not just the natural world that you observe through them. It's the suffering that we humans inflict on one another, right?

NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the most precious things to me is having that time with my kids outdoors - no screens. And there's something about that time where we can all kind of exhale. We can unfurl a little bit in our questions towards each other, our wonderings. And so for me, that's been one of the most magical parts of being a mother - is to be able to share the outdoors with my own children and hopefully foster in them a feeling that the outdoors is a place of safety. But it's hard. I don't have all the answers.

MARTIN: Right. If you don't mind, let's have you read an excerpt of that.

NEZHUKUMATATHIL: OK. So the passage that this friend is is from an essay called "Questions While Searching For Birds With My Half-White Sons, Aged 6 And 9, On National Audubon Bird Count Day, Oxford, Miss."

(Reading) Will I be brown or white when I grow up? Mommy, why do some white people not like brown people? Don't worry, Mommy. You can hide in the forest from those bad people. You have good camouflage. Can I have good camouflage, even though I'm half and half? At school, we have to hide under our desks in case of bad people. We did that last week. It's called lockdown. We have to be quiet, like what we're doing now while we wait for birds.

MARTIN: It's just the perfect encapsulation of how kids talk - right? - the profound and the banal just kind of all mixed together.

NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yeah. As a parent, you're just never prepared for any of this. And yet I'm so grateful that they felt comfortable to ask me this.

MARTIN: Does your wonder ever slip in these times in particular? Do you sometimes wake up in the morning and find it missing or dormant? And if so, how do you find it again?

NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Every day, every day. And then double that during a pandemic. My hope is that it's a practice. As with anything, you know, it's a practice. It's work. And I think so much terror, so much hate and fear towards each other, towards other cultures has been from a lack of wonder and imagination. It's staggering, like, how much violence has resulted to the planet and each other because of that lack of imagination or that lack of wonder. So it's a practice. It's definitely something that I work at. And I'm not ashamed to say that I work at it, you know? But it's something that I feel like we have to do - we have to do because the news will just make me feel like I don't want to get out of bed and wear a gravity blanket over my head, you know? But I feel myself exhale when I learn more about the planet and each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVENDRA BANHART'S "THE BALLAD OF KEENAN MILTON")

MARTIN: Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of "World Of Wonders: In Praise Of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, And Other Astonishments." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.