On the Shelf: Aimee Nezhukumatathil

The week’s recommended reading and culture from Orion authors and artists.

I teach poetry and environmental literature during the academic year, and in summers I mainly love to read short stories, little worlds to get lost in and out of. I also catch up on stacks of literary and décor/cooking magazines that have been piling up—easier to pack on the road or to tuck into my beach bag as we gather up my young sons and head out to the lake for the morning. But these two titles were easy weekend reads that left me almost dizzy with delight, and also worry, wondering if these amazing animals will still be around when my sons are my age.

Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Ocean’s Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, by Ellen Prager

Just last week I read about the magical and mysterious blanket octopus and how the male actually gives up one of his arms to mate—it’s a detachable gift to a prospective partner. Females have been found with the arms of several males collected as a sort of “souvenir” in their mantles. But this book is not just a cabinet of curiosities; its closing, even inspirational, chapters offer very real and concrete suggestions on how to work with your community to ensure that these sea wonders are still around for future generations. Prager is the former chief scientist at Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s only undersea research station, and she combines this background with utterly enchanting storytelling throughout.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young

For both the advanced and novice birder, this book is a lyrical read on how not to just be a passive listener outdoors, but how to find and learn a “sit spot,” a place where one could go to observe nature with the understanding that “adopting” a space outside—even if it is just a courtyard or backyard—will allow one to develop a relationship with the beings that inhabit it. Young’s teachings on how to slow down and have “owl eyes & deer ears,” are lessons I plan on using with my writing students this fall, who readily admit they have to learn or re-learn the art of being silent after plugging in to sometimes three or more electronic devices at one time.


And, finally, I’m sheepish to admit that I’m still mourning the loss of D12, my favorite Decorah (Iowa) eaglet. This past spring, my five-year-old and I would check in from time to time on their nest via the magic of live-streaming cameras (now since disabled, but returning this fall).

We’ve been doing this since D12 and siblings were first eggs, when D12 became our easy favorite. Oh, we anthropomorphized the heck out of him—but it was hard not to: D12 was spunky, naughty, funny, and more engaging than any cartoon character on TV. We would check in a few times a week before I left for work in the morning, and again before bedtime:

From D12’s majestic mama being attacked by an owl (at the 1:20 mark); to having a sleepless night afterwards; to D12 gobbling up a squirrel tail whole (at the :27 mark); to the eaglets dancing in the rain; to D12 being the first to branch and hang out with mama—you can imagine how my heart sank as I tried to explain to my son that D12 had been accidentally electrocuted in early July as a result of an unprotected live power pole.

We’ve held off on the nature cams as we’re mostly outside these last languid days of summer, and I thought by now he’d forget D12, as we turn to school supplies and the excitement of starting kindergarten in just a few weeks, but every once in awhile when he sees a bird—even if it is just a robin or warbler in the backyard—he’ll ask if I know where its nest could be, and wonder aloud if I think it might be a little too close to an exposed power pole. And I, his mama bird who can always make him chitter with laughter just before he’s tucked in for the night in our own nest, only manage to say the same thing: I hope not. But I don’t know, Honey. I just don’t know.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three collections of poetry, including, most recently, Lucky Fish. An associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia, her poem “The Pepper Kingdom” was published in the March/April 2012 issue of Orion.


  1. Aimee, I am an avid follower of the Decorah eagles and I too was saddened by the death of D12. But I have to admit, D14 has always been my favorite and I’m so pleased that he seems to be doing well.

    I think your son is learning important truths, hard as they are. He will be a caretaker of the natural world because of it.

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