A poet celebrates the wonders of nature in a collection of essays that could almost serve as a coming-of-age memoir.
The daughter of an Indian father and Filipino mother, Nezhukumatathil was often the only brown face in her classrooms, and she sought lessons from nature on how to adapt, protect herself, and conform or fit in but still be able to stand strong on her own. She shares those lessons throughout these frequently enchanting essays. Take the axolotl, from whom the author learned the “salamander smile”: “If a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup, just remember the smile of an axolotl. The best thing to do in that moment is to just smile and smile, even if your smile is thin. The tighter your smile, the tougher you become.” Nezhukumatathil’s investigations, enhanced by Nakamura’s vividly rendered full-color illustrations, range across the world, from a rapturous rendering of monsoon season in her father’s native India to her formative years in Iowa, Kansas, and Arizona, where she learned from the native flora and fauna that it was common to be different. The corpse flower guided the author when she met her future husband, helping her to “clear out the sleaze, the unsavory, the unpleasant—the weeds—of the dating world” and “find a man who’d be happy when I bloomed.” Nezhukumatathil isn’t only interested in nature as metaphor. She once devoted most of a year’s sabbatical to the study of whale sharks, and she humanizes her experience of natural splendor to the point where observation and memory merge, where she can’t see or smell something without remembering the details of her environment when she first encountered it. Among other fascinating species, the author enlightens readers on the vampire squid, the bonnet macaque, and the red-spotted newt.
The writing dazzles with the marvel of being fully alive.