The marvels of the natural world have inspired artists throughout the ages. Poet and author Aimee Nezhukumatathilhas been fascinated by the natural world since childhood and says the smallest of creatures have given her insight into who she is. Her book “World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments ” is a poetic meditation on the natural world.
KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Aimee Nezhukumatathil about her book, her favorite cephalopod and why she believes the power of poetry and power of noticing can help us deal with things that we don't have words for.
KCRW: You've talked about how much you love reading field guides and how you spent much more time reading about the natural world than reading fiction or poetry. Do you remember when your interest in field guides started?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: “The easy answer is, I'm still a nerd and I love that stuff and I'm unapologetic about it. I remember as a younger girl, my parents would take me to the library and leave us in the kids section and I would always make my way over to the science and nature section. I was so bored with “this girl goes to the store, this girl tries on a dress, and this girl this” and that did nothing for me. Nothing against kids who love those kinds of books but I was just so interested in how volcanoes formed and lizards eating other lizards. To me there was drama in the outdoors and I didn't know who Dr. Seuss was, I thought he was one of my mom's co workers, I just remember that so vividly and I'm still that person today, at 46.
I realize this is so nerdy but my idea of a good time is reading about the Secret Life of ants, or the hunt for the giant squid, learning the different names and the musicality of different shells across the Florida sea shores. There's always something to marvel over and there's such a poetry and chance for metaphor making just by reading about the outdoors and just by being in the outdoors, too.
So it's been kind of my whole life's work to be able to say instead of just I love that tree over there, the way it shimmers, that's a cottonwood tree. So to me that's such an endless source of delight and that's how it's been since I was seven or eight”
It’s beautiful how you describe how things in nature and the language of nature teaches us or ask us bigger questions about who we are. Can you say more about that?
Nezhukumatathil: “I teach nature writing and environmental literature here at the University of Mississippi, in addition to poetry classes, but one of my favorite things is seeing the evolution of students over one semesters worth of doing deep studies of the outdoors just around them. You don't need to be having these hour long walks in the forest to get these epiphanies, you could be simply looking out of your window. So I want to make sure this is not a classist thing to be able to do. You don't need money, you can take a walk that's free, and hopefully be wearing a mask nowadays.
But going back to your question many of my students had not, at least in the last decade, taken the time to witness — and this was a class assignment — to have them actually watch either a sunrise or a sunset with no cell phones. So they had to be quiet and watch the sunset or the sunrise and then journal about it for about a half an hour afterwards, what they saw, what they smelled, what they heard. It was some of the most profound and moving insights that they gave just from this contemplation and it was just a 30 minute contemplation.
So many of them said they had been too busy to ever even notice. Or if they saw the sunset, they noticed it for two seconds, then took a picture and went on their way. So I was giving them a chance to reflect and take in one of the most spectacular, beautiful, natural occurring events and help them remember parts of their childhood, for some, their impending mortality, or questions about what the future holds. It was all dotted over with their observation as well; like ‘I'm hearing a skittering and I realize it's a brown Thrasher at my feet and I never realized that was a bird, who likes hanging out in the leaf litter. I wouldn't have noticed that had I not been outside and without a cell phone.’
They made little sketches to look it up, because I made them promise that they would not look up things on their cell phones, they just had to take it in. And in that careful studying, really, really looking they were all reminded of that's what they used to do as kids; they would stare at ladybugs for a half an hour or just let a ladybug crawl up there on your shoulder and not feel like they need to get it on Instagram.
And in that ‘close looking,’ they get to be reminded of a place where possibility and love is closer to them than the news might lead them to believe right now. This sounds like a Pollyanna-ish way of looking at this but I've seen it with my own eyes, the most jaded Mississippi students say they are taking this class for credit, I don't really like the outdoors. But they become so attentive to what's around them and I've seen a tenderness towards their fellow humans and I firmly believe that there's a connection there.
When you can name, ‘that's a monarch butterfly and watch how caterpillars turn from chartreuse green, into a chrysalis and then from that springs for the monarch butterfly.’ When you're given names and you actually take the time to watch that I feel like your heart becomes a little bit more tender, you have less of an appetite for destruction, less of an appetite for as Annie Dillard says ‘you become less hungry for violence.’ So I've just seen it with my own two eyes and I'm not saying be outside and there won't be any wars but I just feel like we can be a little bit more tender and understanding towards each other and we need it so much now.”
Annie Dillard, one of the great naturalist writers talked about the raw simplicity of noticing a place, a set of things. When the child just says, “look, look” and we don't know exactly the depth of what they're seeing, because we have our preconceived notions of what it is. Is this part of what you are talking about?
Nezhukumatathil: “Absolutely. You never have to teach a child how to wonder, just the verb ‘to wonder’ means just to have curiosity and one of the roots of the word ‘wonder’ means to smile. So what are you curious about that makes you smile and be almost childlike in that wonderment of wanting to know more, wanting to share it with other people. And I think that wonder is contagious. It’s humbling, you have to admit that you're not the lord of the planet and even if you've lived in one town all your life, maybe you might not know every bird or living thing in that town.
And what are you going to do about it? How can you learn a little bit more about something other than yourself? How do you share it with somebody? The beauty is you can start anytime you can start today and I firmly believe that once you have wonder in your life, once you make wonder of practice, you feel less alone. And oh my gosh, we're in the middle of a pandemic and I can't think of a more needed life skill than to help yourself feel not so alone by just looking outward, not inward, but looking outward to see what makes you smile, to see what makes you curious about this planet.
When you look outward, you actually can find a vocabulary for maybe what's going on inside of you. During April, national poetry month, I often go into elementary schools. And I've never been able to forget a third grader, who had lost his mother, maybe two, three months before my visit. And I had an exercise where we were talking about cloud shapes and I had to make metaphors for feeling. So for happiness, use a cloud shape that explains happiness, for sadness, use a cloud shape that explains sadness. And he said with sadness, ‘I carry four clouds in my pocket, when I think of my mom,’ and this eight year old child knew how to process sadness through metaphor, I didn't have to teach them anything. Isn't that such a life skill and what I mean, when I say the power of poetry and power of noticing is so helpful to process things that we don't have words for.”