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

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Photo: Milkweed Editions

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

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.

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