Oaxaca Journal: In Mexico, Oliver Sacks Looks at Ferns; Hilarity Ensues
Well, not exactly hilarity. You will never see a film adaptation of Dr. Oliver Sacks' Oaxaca Journal in your Netflix queue*. But this quirky little book is a romance -- about nature, knowledge, and camaraderie. It offers a glimpse into the disappearing society of amateur scientists, where botanists climb out on ledges to look at rare ferns out of love and curiosity.
Dr. Sacks, of course, is the neurologist, psychologist, amateur chemist, and author behind such books as Uncle Tungsten and Musicophilia. He is best known for writing case studies that describe patients with interesting illnesses. He is also an amateur pteridologist, which means he studies ferns. In a way, he is a professional observer -- and, as with John McPhee's books, we read along to see what he sees that we would have missed.
Oaxaca Journal presents Sacks' notes from a weeklong visit to Mexico with other members of the American Fern Society. It shares some geekiness with Susan Orleans' brilliant The Orchid Thief, which chronicled an unlikely criminal among the South Florida orchid collectors. These characters also love plants, and they love to share what they have found, like a filmy fern that is only one cell thick. Of course, Sacks says it better, without trying for art: "There are at least ten species of these lovely, diaphanous, infinitely delicate Hymenophyllum growing in the Oaxaca rain forest."
Sacks' incidental observations, though, make this a keeper -- such as when he muses about humans' apparent need to categorize things, or whether there is a neurological basis for art that includes recurring geometric patterns, or what is the physiology behind the "ready, resting state" of a dog, just 'chilling' (my term, not his) but ready to respond instantly to a stimulus.
This is because Oaxaca Journal lets us peer into a brilliant mind, to see how it thinks and what connections it makes. Yes, it is interesting to learn about latex and the importance of the agave plant, cochineal dyes, and the role of the Zapotecs in MesoAmerican history. But the real message is one of the power of observation, where seeing and sharing and comparing and describing matters more than finding an answer via Google.
Sacks implies that the natural world is full of amazing things all around us, visible everywhere, every day, if we'd only take the time to look. Hilarity ensues.
*Actually, Sacks' book Awakenings was adapted for an acclaimed 1990 film starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.