In days of old, books about nature were often as treasured for their illustrations as they were for their words. "World of Wonders," American poet and teacher Aimee Nezhukumatathil's prose ode to her muses in the natural world, is a throwback that way. Its words are beautiful, but its cover and interior illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura may well be what first moves you to pick it up in a bookstore or online.
Nakamura's paintings form wreaths of the flora and fauna Nezhukumatathil celebrates in these brief, gemlike essays — catalpa trees. Fireflies. Peacocks. Cactus wrens. Corpse flowers. Bonnet macaques, whale sharks, monarch butterflies and more.
The book's magic lies in Nezhukumatathil's ability to blend personal and natural history, to compress into each brief essay the relationship between a biographical passage from her own family and the life trajectory of a particular plant or animal. As the daughter of a South Asian American father and a Filipina-American mother, and as a "brown" American girl who grew up in Kansas, Arizona and New York and who now lives with her husband and two sons in Mississippi, she has experienced many a habitat and culture.
Her kaleidoscopic observations pay off in these thoughtful, nuanced, surprise-filled essays.
In "Catalpa Tree," she writes of her childhood urge to hide beneath the great trees' "green umbrella" leaves as she walked from her school bus to her physician mother's office on the grounds of a Kansas mental hospital.
In "Firefly," she mourns the shadows that eager flashlights and relentless city lights cast on fragile, bioluminescent firefly displays, leading to their diminishment.
In "Whale Shark," she swims with one of the great creatures in captivity and is moved to tears by its magnificence and looming early death in a cramped artificial environment.
Nezhukumatathil is an accomplished poet, and her gifts with economy and precision of language pay off here. We come to know much about the creatures and plants she writes of even as we get to know her and her uniquely global, yet very American, family. "We are all connected," she tells us time and again.
Her book is a reminder not only of the power and beauty of the natural world, but of how we are inextricably a shaper of it, for better or worse.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
By: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, illustrated by Fumi Mini Nakamura.
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 148 pages, $25.