World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
Milkweed Editions, 2020
This charming book threw me at first. It was not what I thought I had set out to read. The title seems like it should be attached to a book about the non-human world, about the magnificence of life on this planet. Perhaps a meditation on a generalized human relationship with the rest of nature. It seems like it might be a hymn to that which leaves us stunned and speechless.
That is not this book. I was many chapters in, not entirely enjoying the book in spite of gorgeous writing and deft story-weaving, before I understood that my prejudiced idea of what I was supposed to find in these pages was ruining what actually is there. As prejudice is wont to do, of course.
World of Wonders is a memoir of a life lived in metaphor. Other creatures, plants, even one meteorological phenomenon — these make up the chapters in the life story of a poet, mother, daughter, and deeply curious lover of this world. It is her story told through the lens of the non-human world.
Once I had reconciled with my own preconceptions, I lost myself in this book, starting over to savor that which I had missed. With visceral imagery Nezhukumatathil brings her curated list of wonders to you, wherever you are. The smell of the corpse flower, the smile of the axolotl, the subsonic boom of the cassowary — sense memories from her life, evoking her lived experience. She invites us to share not merely a walk in her shoes but in her body, to feel and thereby understand what it is to be in her skin.
She does give us plenty to chew on in the natural world, painting graphic pictures of the lives who share our planet in spare, elegant brushstrokes. She is after all a poet. And she gives us plenty to wonder at: the outrageousness of the peacock, the implacable indifference of the monsoons, the serenity of the whale shark, the very existence of a dancing frog. These wonders bubble up from the world, and with their being illustrate what it is to be human as well as what it is to be more-than-human. The world gives us wonder so that we must stop and consider and feel. So that we must be a part of the world for a few rooted moments.
Nezhukumatathil uses fireflies to close her tale. The firefly is a yet another wonder that is failing. Failing because humans are not stopping to consider, to feel, to wonder; and we are ruining what we no longer notice. She tells us that in her elementary school poetry workshops only a handful of children know that fireflies exist. These children have never experienced an evening of dancing lights; they don’t believe her when she describes these insects. How can they wonder? More importantly how can they protect wonder from disregard?
“What is lost when you grow up not knowing the names for different varieties of fireflies?” she asks. “All these names, silent, with still thousands and thousands more small silences…” And the silences become forgetting. Nezhukumatathil encourages us to remember. Re-member through the embodied, sensory experience of a firefly, of a cassowary, of the rain. In remembrance there is care and in care is hope for fixing what negligence has broken.
Go out in the evening with your childlike wonder — even better bring along a child or two — and experience the firefly. Then keep that experience in your heart. And when it is time to make decisions remember that firefly. How does what you do each moment affect the wonder of the world?
© Elizabeth Anker 2021