A challenge I have set for myself in 2021 is to read more nonfiction books. This book was my first effort at achieving that challenge.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the American daughter of immigrants. Her mother is Filipina and her father is Indian. When she was growing up, her family moved around quite a bit in this country and she got to know different regions of the country well. She was always interested in the natural world and she was able to observe and gain some insight into it. She learned enough to realize that she preferred to live in an area where winters were not quite as harsh as in some of the eastern and midwestern areas where she had lived. It was for this reason that, as an adult, she turned her gaze southward. And that is how she and her husband and their two young sons ended up in Oxford, Mississippi, where she is a professor of English and writing at the University of Mississippi. Nezhukumatathil is a poet who has published four collections of poems to some renown.
Now she has given us this short book of a collection of nature essays that is just a bit more than that. Interwoven into her observations and appreciations of catalpa trees, fireflies, narwhals, newts, Cactus Wrens, and saguaro cactus are reflections on her own existence and on her experience of growing up as a "brown girl" in America. She experienced the feelings of not belonging, of being "other," and of searching for a place that she can feel is her perfect forever home. She relates this most vividly in her observations of the red-spotted newt. This little newt wanders the forest floor looking for the perfect pond, the one where it can feel at home. When it finds it, it stays there.
The essay which I found most affecting was the one about fireflies. She talks of the fireflies she remembers from her childhood and bemoans the poverty of experience of so many children today who don't see them, even if they are all around. I, too, remember those fireflies of childhood and playing outside on late summer evenings with their lights flashing all around me. It was a magical time of day and I, too, am sad that so many of today's children will never experience that.
She writes of the Cactus Wren that builds its nests in the saguaro cactus, a good protection against most predators. And then there is the whale shark that she encountered while scuba diving, a giant fish swimming with its mouth wide open as to filters food into its system. Even though intellectually she knew it wasn't going to eat her, it was hard to not feel fear as the critter brushed by her. She writes of monarch butterflies, flamingos, peacocks, and cassowaries, and all of these she relates to some aspect of her own story. After all, we, too, are a part of Nature.
This is just a lovely little book of memoir and reflections on the natural world. It was a wonderful respite for me from the news of the day. I am very glad I read it.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars