In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

A beautiful book, worth savoring slowly, chapter by chapter.

Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil considers various stages and turning points in her life, while describing the “creamy blossoms” of the catalpa tree, the “glimmer-pop” of firefly light, the remarkable regenerative properties of axolotls, and much more. The spectacles and surprises of the plants and animals she introduces invoke potent memories and reveal a growing assurance of her own place in the world.

A brown-skinned girl living in a series of white communities, the author acknowledges the gift of parents (her Filipina mother and her Indian father, both scientists) who took the time to nurture her appreciation of the natural world, no matter where their careers took them across the U.S. Introducing the potoo, a well-camouflaged bird of Central and South America, for example, Nezhukumatathi writes:

Like the potoo, I grew up wanting to blend in—in my case, with my blonde counterparts—and why would I know anything else? I felt most seen in my childhood not by any television shows or movie but rather when I was in the outdoors, in forest or fields, by lake or ocean

There were chapters where I felt an easy connection with Nezhukumatathil, as she described wonders I also love—the catalpa tree, elegant guardian of my own childhood yard in an urban neighborhood; the firefly, dazzling emblem of my transformation from city girl to country parent. Finding the places where reader and author intersect is a significant pleasure in reading a memoir, for this is where understanding begins.

However, Nezhukumatathil has been blessed with a much broader knowledge of the natural world than I. As she rhapsodized about dragon fruit, the vampire squid, and the corpse flower (among others), she also revealed so much about herself, from childhood and adolescence to relationships with her parents, husband, and sons. The ultimate reward of reading a memoir is the opportunity to know, and understand, another, completely unique, human being. And what a wonder that is.

Nezhukumatathil’s aim in writing her book goes beyond memoir. As she highlights these plants and animals (which range from humble to beautiful to bizarre), she exhorts us to re-prioritize the natural world in our own lives, and in the lives of the next generation.

It is this way with wonder: it takes a bit of patience, and it takes putting yourself in the right place at the right time. It requires that we be curious enough to forgo our small distractions in order to find the world.