World of Wonders
By Aimee Nezhukumatatkil
This is a book with gorgeous intent, and it regenerated my yearning for the natural world, a place I love so much but engage with so little. It laid new magic words in my lap (senescence, crepuscular!) and was a reminder and a motivation to be in the world more often, to know our fellow species more intimately, and receive their nourishing and sustaining lessons.
Completely inspired by Nezhukumatatkil's technique, I found myself thinking about the tiny personal stories I could tell—I think of the firefly (photinus pyralid), honeysuckle (lonicera), earthworm (lumbricina), to name a few—and falling into a bit of nostalgia recalling a trove of childhood memories I had forgotten...
Fireflies remind me of spending summer evenings with my family in the Bronx and holding my mom's hand on our late-night bus rides back to Queens. The first time I tasted honeysuckle, I remember the feeling of sweet surprise that something floral could give back to me in that way. Once my neighbor friend and I dug our hands into soil and encountered earthworms and felt gentle, awed and unafraid. And on.
I miss fireflies and what they remind me of: timeless youth, which I now know is at complete opposition to what their light means for their lives. It hadn't occurred to me that most children today will have a different experience of them, or none at all.
"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 hearts' content. When we see these beacons flashing their lights, they usually only have 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 bit 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."
("Firefly," photons pyralis, p. 12)
"Why all the fuss and euphoria over some greenery? Well, I still coo over its delightful pinnation, the double-leaf pattern feathering outward then inward from both sides of a single stem, and its spherical lavender-pink flowers, which bloom only in summer, and look as if someone crossed a My Little Pony doll with a tiny firework. But its best and most notable feature is that when you piano your fingers over the leaves of this plant, they give a shudder and a shake and quickly fold shut, like someone doesn't want to spill a secret."
("Touch-Me-Nots, mimosa pudica, p. 25)
"Bonnet macaques reminded me how good it felt to laugh, to keep laughing in love. To make my love laugh. To let my laughter be from a place of love."
("Bonnet Macaque," Macaca radiata, p. 74)
"I'm certain it's not any magic in my mouth, no special twist of tongue that only I have unlocked. But I think it's the quiet way you settle into the crook of a tree trunk, the still and slowdown of your heart in a world that wants to be quick and to move onto the next thing. The secret in talking to birds is in the steadiness of each limb as you make your way into their territory, in the deliberateness of each movement and bend of tree branch and grass blade. And just like the potoo, who is rewarded for her stillness by having her lunch practically fly right to her mouth—perhaps you could try a little tranquility, find a little tenderness in your quiet. Who knows what feathered gifts await?"
("Potoo," Nyctibius griseus, p. 97)
Reading about an animal's slow death delivers a specific kind of heartbreak, and I always notice it. I don't *like* it at all, but I'm drawn to it, maybe because the description taps into the most empathetic, deep feeling sides of me. (See Cheryl Strayed on a bird's death, Chris Jones on a massacre at a zoo, W.C. Heinz on the death of a racehorse.) Here is Nezhukumatatkil on her experience with a dying octopus, which is 100x sadder after she explains how smart and sensitive they are.
"Instead I focused on its golden eye, how it fixed upon my shape. How its arms wrapped and drooped around my wrist and up my forearm while it took me in, tasted me. In those moments I held it, how many things it might have felt or known about me. Could it sense the love and exhilaration I felt for it or my sheer despair once I realized it was dying in my hands? I only know that I had never been looked at, consumed, or questioned so carefully by another being."
("Octopus," Octopus vulgaris, p. 107)
"On those weeks in Mississippi when the air outside is like a napping dragon's exhalations, there's no sweeter cocktail to lull us out of a sleepy, slow summer evening. If you do catch a sunburn, you can mash up a bit of the dragon fruit flesh and apply it to the tender pink of your skin to help soothe it like an aloe. The dragon can be both the wildness we call out when we see this pink egg, and it can also be the balm. This is the fruit for a time of year when the sun and all its gallop don't merely feel as though they have nudged us from a static winter, but into a fully alive, roaring season—when everything you touch feels like it could give you a blister and a bit of wild burn."
("Dragon Fruit," Hylocereus undatus, p. 115)