If you want to read about wild adventures with fireflies, narwhals, vampire squids, corpse flowers, dragon fruits, dancing frogs, axolotls and other astonishing denizens of this earth, then pick up a copy of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “World of Wonders.”
Nezhukumatathil is a fascinating nature writer. She is quite observant about the different kinds of flora and fauna that some people might have never heard of, or might never have been interested in, until they would hopefully become inspired by her sensitive, powerful, humorous and intelligent essays.
A Kansas Notable Book, “World of Wonders” shares something in common with the writings and nature documentaries of Annie Dillard (“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”), David Attenborough and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Through their contributions and the works of Nezhukumatahil, people are able to learn more about the environment around them, to take time and notice all of the strange and beautiful living things on land, in the air or in the oceans.
Nezhukumatathil also opens our minds to understand her world. In childhood, she and her sister lived in a district close to the Larned State Hospital in Kansas, where their mother had been employed. At such an early stage in her life, she knew how patients could suffer, just like animals and plants. She developed a sense of curiosity about the patients at Larned and treated them with kindness as she did all living creatures.
As she matured, Nezhukumatahil and her family traveled a great deal. They lived in Kansas, Arizona, Mississippi, India and Greece. Due to all of the traveling and being a shy child, she found it hard to establish permanent friendships. However, she was fortunate to have formed friendships that were compassionate and endearing.
Unfortunately, she often encountered prejudice and teasing from other children who were “white” and confused by her nationality and “brown” skin. She found herself becoming more and more devoted to studying the characteristics of wildlife.
She learned from the axolotl (pronounced ax-oh-lot-ull), an odd-looking amphibian, that “the tighter your smile, the tougher you become.” Her essay of the axolotl, along with the fabulous illustration by Fumi Mini Nakamura (who adorns this book with many other engaging illustrations), brims with exciting detail.
It seems that the axolotl is always smiling, in a good mood, you could say. At school in the classroom, Nezhukumatathil would marvel at its rose gold shade of pink and gentle nature as it kept house in an aquarium. But she soon discovered that its smile can be deceiving, especially when devouring its meal. It wasn’t so pretty then.
Her tales of the narwhal are just as incredibly written. And her sense of humor truly shows when she writes of moving from Arizona to Kansas, where the only things she knew of were “Dorothy and the wizard and the tornados pointing their creepy fingers all over the state.”
She elaborates by writing, “What better animal than the narwhal to blend in with all that Kansas ice, all that white, all that snow? And what better animal to hold its own there?”
The narwhal’s “horn” is actually a tooth with about 10 million nerve endings, a long, helix-spiraled tooth that pokes through its upper left “lip” into the chilly ocean. The tooth is used to spear fish and other prey. Scientifically, it also helps the narwhal to see underwater. Strange, but true, as her essays reveal.
Through her essays, it is amazing to grasp what she has learned. Whether writing about a seductive, but dangerous flower, a monsoon or the ribbon eel, Nezhukumatathil is one of the most interesting “tour guides” in this world of wonders.
An award-winning poet, Nezhukumatathil is a teacher to be praised. Children, parents and adults could all be enraptured by her brilliant and clever nature essays and her astute observations. I only wish I could have had a teacher like her in my own youth. But I find her words, her prose and poetry just as captivating as if I were a child again.
Nezhukumatathil serves as poetry faculty for the “Writing Workshops” in Greece. She is also professor of English and creative writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
Carol A. Wright is a freelance writer and K-State graduate residing in Winfield.