It’s Still A Wild, Wonder-Filled World
The table of contents for poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s new book of essays reads like a list of evolution’s most fantastic products. The comb jelly, which pulses with rainbow bioluminescence. The smiling-faced axolotl, which can regrow lost limbs and is a star of biology research labs, but is considered critically endangered in the wild. The human-sized corpse flower, which blooms for a mere 24 hours, smelling of dead flesh.
It’s also a deeply personal book: Nezhukumatathil says the screaming pink of dragonfruit signals “summertime, pop music, sunglasses balanced on the top of my head, weather too warm for socks.” A firefly’s spark might send her back to her grandmother’s backyard, or “to splashing in an ice-cold creek bed, with our jeans rolled up to our knees, until we shudder and gasp, our toes fully wrinkled.” Even the horizontal eye of an octopus becomes a “door that judges us,” as the oceans become increasingly difficult to inhabit, thanks to humans’ ravages.
Science Friday’s Christie Taylor talks to Nezhukumatathil about her experiences in natural wonder, and why in a world of changing climate, rising seas, and burning forests, she finds it important to share her joy in learning about the creatures we share the planet with.
Read an excerpt from the book about the life of the ribbon eel, and how the creature brings back memories of Nezhukumatathil’s son.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a poet, essayist and author of World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Milkweed, 2020). She’s also a professor of English at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I can understand how, in a global pandemic– with visions of people losing all they have to fire, winter, or flood– it may feel hard to find joy right now. But my next guest wants to give you something else to think about.
For example, did you know that a narwhal’s tusk is actually a tooth? Or that a firefly spends most of its life as a worm-like larva? Or how about the vampire squid, which uses mucus instead of ink to foil its predators?
Science Friday’s, Christie Taylor, dove into these and other natural miracles, with the author of a new book that praises the wonders of the world, even in the face of environmental threats. Take a listen.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I don’t know about you but, these days, I’m getting a lot of joy from my garden. It’s not very big. But we’ve managed to grow giant sunflowers, sprawling zinnias, and even huge basil plants, which also have flowers right now.
Every morning, there’s a crowd of fluffy, hungry bumblebees and so many other pollinators, some of which I’ve never even seen before. It gives me this small sense of wonder and discovery, in a period that feels, at times, relentlessly difficult.
And so I was really excited to see a new book of nature-writing cross my desk. It’s beautifully illustrated, singing praises of everything from dragon fruit to fireflies to a golf-ball-sized frog that, I kid you not, dances something a bit like a cancan in defense of their territory and quest for a mate.
Here to talk more about all these things is the author of that book, poet and essayist, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. She’s also a professor of english at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Welcome, Aimee.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Hi, there. So happy to be here.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I wanted to start, actually, with basically the key word in your book, which is the word “wonder.” It feels like one of those words we all know the meaning of and, yet, it can be maybe something we feel very differently. So, how do you describe it?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yeah, I think, for me, the word “wonder” is more of like getting that urge to be curious about something other than yourself. One of the roots of the word “wonder,” I discovered, is actually the same as the root of the word of “to smile.” So I just love this. So the way I look at it, in my own definition, is getting curious about the world and discovering something that makes you smile.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, and starting with the joy, I really love the way that you write in this book. Take dragon fruit– you say it’s a fruit for a time of year when everything you touch feels like it could give you a blister and a bit of wild burn. When you read about fireflies, you’re talking about the firefly as a tender and electric dress. In flight, it is like a loud laugh. I don’t know if I’ve seen or heard more exclamation points in a piece of writing about nature. Is this how you encounter every bee and butterfly?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: That’s just kind of– I had to fight for a lot of those exclamations, in a fun way. My editors were so fantastic. But that’s kind of who I am as a person. And I didn’t want to lose that on the page. I mean, I’m still that six-year-old saying, “Look! Look!” And you don’t ever say “look” with a period. You say it with an exclamation.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Staying with the exclamations, but also fireflies, you write twice about them. They’re this memory from your childhood. But then you’re also writing about an experience with your own children. And you say, in that spark of the firefly’s light, you see slow down and tenderness.
I guess what I’m saying is I love this metaphor a lot. And it feels so universal, in some ways. Like, anyone can go outside tonight and have the same experience of that slow down, that tenderness, memory. Is that what you’re going for? Giving people an experience that they can have, sort of, ubiquitously?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: I hope, I really hope that there’s something in this book for everyone to be reminded of what it’s like without screens. And I love social media. I love screens.
But I wanted to come back to the firefly because it’s a moment that, for my own children, who are our tweens now, it’s a chance for them to ask me questions that they wouldn’t normally ask. It’s a chance for them to be a little bit more vulnerable. And it’s a chance for me to let down my guard a little bit, as well, too. And I think we could all use a little bit of that these days.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: That fits very well with my next question, actually, because you’ve also had some experiences that seem really unique, in terms of your encounters with the natural world. And I’m thinking about the essay you wrote about meeting a whale shark.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yes, whale sharks are my favorite, favorite shark. And that has been on my bucket list, to be out snorkeling with them. My experience ended up being more complex than I thought. I just thought I’d be able to be within a foot away from them, and be changed, and la la la, go on with my life.
I came out of that experience– I was the last one in the locker room changing out of my wet suit. And I cried a little bit. And I think that’s important to share that, as much as I was so grateful for the experience– and I know it’s a research aquarium, I know that they’re doing such good conservation work there– but I also felt so sorry and realize, when I see this creature as big as a school bus, as fun as it was, they need to be in the ocean.
And I wanted to show that it’s not an either or– you have to just disparage aquariums and not like them at all and not find any value. I wanted to show that I absolutely am where I am because of aquariums and because I was able to have access to animals and zoos. But I also realize it’s not always the best place for an animal as big as the whale shark, as much as I love them.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Aimee, could you read to us from your book?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Sure, this is from my essay, The Vampire Squid.
“As if that wasn’t enough to shoo away a predator, the vampire squid discharges a luminescent cloud of mucus instead of ink. The congealed swirl and curlicue of light temporarily baffles the predator, who ends up not knowing where or what to chomp, while the vampire squid whooshes away, meters ahead. It’s as if you were chasing someone and they stopped, turned, and tossed a bucketful of large, gooey, green sequins at your face.
I wished I was a vampire squid the most, when I was the new girl in high school. We had moved around for so much of my childhood, but the most difficult move I ever made was between my sophomore and junior years. I went from sophomore class president to a little no one, a gal who tried out for the tennis team not because I had any interest in the sport, but because, at practice, at least I didn’t have to be alone.
I ate lunch in the library. I ate lunch in a stairwell hardly anyone used. Once I ate lunch– my sad peanut butter and jelly sandwich– while standing up in a scratched and marked up bathroom stall. To pass the hour, I read the often vulgar, sometimes funny graffiti scrawled on the stall door just so no one could see I had no one to talk to.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Oh, that’s gorgeous. And, throughout the book, including in this essay about the vampire squid, you’re weaving your encounters with the natural world in with your experiences, especially in your childhood, of being alone or of being the only Asian American face in a new town. Was nature a refuge?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Nature was a refuge for me, but also reading about nature. I did not go to South America to see the potoo, but reading about it, the language and the vocabulary, being outdoors, I know that that’s a very privileged thing to say, I know many of my black friends don’t feel safe outside. And I know that many people don’t have access to the outdoors. But, for me, I wanted to showcase that it was a place of great– just a place of safety and magic. And also it was a place where I could exhale a little bit.
For example, the Catalpa trees never asked me what I am– excuse me, are you Portuguese, are you Aztec. These are some kind of crazy questions I would get asked just while shopping at Target. But I could just kind of be myself. And, in that learning to be still and observe the plants and animals, I just felt just such a connection and so full of peace, where my otherness was not called to question every single time I walked out into the forest or onto a prairie. So, yeah, it became a place where I didn’t have to always be camouflaged.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And this book is such a joyful reflection of that. And, at the same time as you just said, and we’ve talked about this on the show before, racism has long excluded people of color, especially black people, from outdoor spaces. Do you have hopes for that changing or mandates for the people who have power to change that?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yeah, I do have hope that white people, in particular, are gonna take a look in the mirror. And, you know, I’m not black, I’m not white, though.
So I guess what I would gently just say, and offer up to white folks in outdoor spaces, is that look around the next time you’re out. The next time you’re out bird watching, the next time you’re out fishing, if you don’t see anybody out there that looks or even moves around in the same ability as you, that should be kind of a red flag at this point.
It’s 2020, and we’re out here. So that means you’re participating in an area or a park that has not been probably welcome to others. And I would gently just say what can you do to make that a more welcoming, inclusive space. It kind of just bewilders me how very well-meaning white people will say, well, I, of course, I’m not a racist. And yet they’ll participate in the outdoors, they’ll participate in camping, and not once occur to them that they haven’t seen a brown person that whole weekend. It doesn’t occur to them.
But I think, nationally, the conversations have been occurring. And we’ve seen, just this past summer, with the African American birdwatcher in Central Park, how dangerous it can be when white people, in particular, are quick to judge who belongs outside and who doesn’t.
Growing up– I’m a child of the 80s– and I never saw any Asian American on TV, movies, music videos, ever outside, just even outside walking. If I did see an Asian American in a movie or a TV show, they were the science, you know, computer nerd. And that wasn’t me.
So, for the longest time, I got– I read, I was that girl on the floor of the library just reading, reading, reading, about the giant squid or the secret life of ants. I never saw books that featured anybody who looked like me, either. So, who gets to tell stories of the outdoors? And which stories get published? Which stories get bought and taught in classrooms, if you’re an educator? Why is your syllabus only filled with white people? These are questions that you can start asking yourselves that make a big, big difference later.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a reminder that this is Science Friday, and I’m Christie Taylor. We’re talking to writer Aimee Nezhukumatathil about her new book about finding wonder in the natural world.
I do want to pivot slightly to– one of my favorite essays, or lines, in this book is when you write about octopuses, which is “the horizontal slit of an octopuses eye is a door that judges us.”
And you go on to talk about the ocean being uninhabitable in the long run. And, over and over again, you’re touching also on the damage and loss in natural spaces. How do you put wonder and loss like this side by side?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Oh, that’s such a good question. Yeah, you know, I think they kind of do go side by side. Rachel Carson has this great quote. And I’m going to butcher it, but the gist of it is, the more we get to know about plants and animals that inhabit this planet, the less appetite we have for destruction.
And I think that’s so apt, in 2020. Once you get to know names of trees and birds– that they’re not just a tree, but they are a Cypress tree or a Catalpa the tree– once you get to know the names of the birds that are there, the names of creatures that you’re swimming with, I think that becomes contagious. And I think it makes you want to protect them a little bit.
At the same time, you also know that we’re so far advanced in destroying this planet. Hopefully, people find that wonder is contagious. That, oh, if you get to know about these 30 plants and animals, that makes you want to learn more about these animals or other animals or other plants or insects.
It’s easy to pull a blanket over your head and say forget it, there’s nothing I can do. Who am I, I’m just one person. I get that. I totally get that. At the same time, you don’t have to give up. There’s still so many miraculous and amazing, gorgeous, scary, bizarre, funny-looking creatures to know out there. And we have to fight for them because who else will. Who else will?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: What is giving you wonder during this pandemic?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: What gives me wonder is its hummingbird season, here in Mississippi. Oxford, in particular, is one landing spot before the ruby-throated hummingbirds make their way from the Eastern Seaboard. They take their last gulps of sugar water and nectar, and then they make that giant, giant leap over across the Gulf of Mexico.
And so we’re swarming with hummingbirds right now. And it’s like Top Gun out there. We just have a couple bird feeders. But I had to kind of stop– it took my breath away, just thinking, I don’t know if I’ll see these– even tomorrow– something happens like one day, and then they’re just gone. It goes from a Top Gun scene to just nothing. And it’s the silence and the stillness.
So a little bit of that wonderment makes me sad, but it also makes me excited and happy that I have been helping them, in my small way, giving them some sugar water and planting flowers that they would drink up, so they have energy to make it home and then come back hopefully next year.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I have one favor to ask which is that a little bird told me you can make cardinal noises, or you can talk to cardinals. And, by that, I mean you fessed up in your book.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Oh my goodness, well, Science Friday’s is– there’s so many amazing, talented, wise ornithologists out there. So please don’t write Christie angry letters. It’s the nerdiest party trick ever.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So, the birds actually come to you?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: They come to me. And the proof is in the pudding. So this may not be an official, correct one. But the words that I use are, “hurdy gurdy.” So don’t be mad at me. I’m just the messenger, here. And two or three cardinals will always come over to see what’s going on. So here we go.
“Hurdy, gurdy. Hurdy, gurdy. Gurdy, gurdy, gurdy. Hurdy, hurdy. Hurdy, gurdy. Hurdy, gurdy. Hurdy, gurdy. Hurdy, gurdy.” So that’s what I do. And it sounds crazy. And I’m sure I’m probably saying something offensive, in cardinal language.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: They’re coming over for a fight.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: They’ve come over to either argue or to have a conversation about the day. Yeah, anyway, I’m sure it’s not official at all. But it works for me. So there you go.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: All right, you heard it first, ornithologists. Thank you so much, Aimee. This was an amazingly fun conversation.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Oh, this was such a blast. Thank you, I so appreciate it. Thank you so much.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Aimee, you’re so welcome.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a poet and essayist and author of the new book, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. We have an excerpt of the book on our website. It’s all about ribbon eels. Go to sciencefriday.com/wonders. And, for Science Friday, I’m Christie Taylor.