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Oaxaca Journal

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Oliver Sacks is best known as an explorer of the human mind, a neurologist with a gift for the complex, insightful portrayals of people and their conditions that fuel the phenomenal success of his books. But he is also a card-carrying member of the American Fern Society, and since childhood has been fascinated by these primitive plants and their ability to survive and adapt. Now the best-selling author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat brings his ceaseless curiosity and eye for the wondrous...
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Oaxaca Journal

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Overview

Oliver Sacks is best known as an explorer of the human mind, a neurologist with a gift for the complex, insightful portrayals of people and their conditions that fuel the phenomenal success of his books. But he is also a card-carrying member of the American Fern Society, and since childhood has been fascinated by these primitive plants and their ability to survive and adapt. Now the best-selling author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat brings his ceaseless curiosity and eye for the wondrous to the province of Oaxaca, Mexico.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The neurologist who gifted the reading world with Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat has made a career of deliciously appropriate detours. Now he offers us one more. Ever since he was a child, Sacks has been a fern fancier. Recently, he took leave from his very busy professional life and ventured into the wilds of Oaxaca, Mexico, to search for these primitive plants. Sacks being Sacks, he discovered much more than ferns in this fertile, history-steeped province. Brimming with wit and curiosity, his journal of the trip is the latest spellbinding addition to the much-publicized National Geographic Directions series.
New Yorker
The eminent neurologist is also a fern lover, and this book is his record of a ten-day "fern foray" in southern Mexico. It is light and fast-moving, unburdened by library research but filled with erudition. Some of his fellow-foragers are professional pteridologists; others are amateurs, and there is a certain romance in the sight of smitten fern hunters crawling through the Mexican dust exclaiming in Latin. Among the botanical and anthropological observations, one catches glimpses of Sacks's inner life: his preoccupation with dualities, his nearly Victorian sense of modesty, his fascination with the world around him. He could be speaking of himself when he comments on a colleague peering through a hand lens at a small mountain flower: "Is it the artist or the scientist in him which is aroused by the Lobelia? Both, clearly, and they are utterly fused."
Providence Journal
Oaxaca Journal whipped up my appetite for a visit to Mexico, as the best travel writing does.
New York Times
Sacks’s boundless curiosity is always a reward.
Globe and Mail
Like all the best journals, it has a rich immediacy…the book is a rare treat.
From the Publisher
“A delightful work.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Sacks’s boundless curiosity is always a reward.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Sacks doesn't waste a word. . . . He deftly characterizes people he meets along the way, smoothly slips facts from his wide-ranging reading into his narrative, expertly describes landscapes and raises up a hero: Boone Hallberg, a U.S.-born scientist who has lived in Oaxaca since the 1940s, working to conserve the priceless diversity of the natural world.” –San Francisco Chronicle

"Light and fast-moving. . . . Among the botanical and anthropological observations, one catches glimpses of Sacks's inner life: his preoccupation with dualities, his nearly Victorian sense of modesty, his fascination with the world around him." —The New Yorker
 
"Like all the best journals, it has a rich immediacy, a sense that we share the moment of the author’s perceptions. Since Sacks is such a lovely writer, and he and his fellow travelers such fonts of knowledge about everything from Mexican history to Mayan culture to chocolate making to the workings of fern evolution, the book is a rare treat. . . . It makes you want to strap on your field glasses and catch the first flight south." –The Globe and Mail
 
“Relaxed yet observant. . . . [Sacks’] thoughtful, sometimes wistful ruminations, no matter how expansive they may grow, are always rooted in the concrete details he has observed. . . . Those who read Oaxaca Journal will appreciate Sacks’ own diligence as an observer and his skill in translating the wonders of the material world into words.” —Los Angeles Times
 
"Oaxaca Journal whipped up my appetite for a visit to Mexico, as the best travel writing does." —The Providence Journal
 
“The combination of his insatiable curiosity and rigorous scientific observation makes him an excellent travelling companion. . . . Mexico past and present emerges from these bursts of association and digression. . . . With so much of the world made superficially familiar by tourism, Oliver Sacks’s dogged pursuit of the exotic is especially welcome. He has, moreover, succeeded in striking that elusive balance of input between traveler and culture that makes for good travel writing.” —Times Literary Supplement (London)
 
“Bittersweet and profound. . . . Truly a lovely book.” —The Chicago Tribune

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307402158
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada
  • Publication date: 4/1/2002
  • Pages: 159
  • Product dimensions: 5.12 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Meet the Author

Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks is a practicing physician and the author of more than ten books, including Musicophilia, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings (which inspired the Oscar-nominated film). He lives in New York City, where he is professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and the first Columbia University Artist.

Biography

"I think writing and language are not just to articulate or communicate, but they are also to investigate," the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks once said. "For me, writing and medicine, writing and science, are not separate: they entail each other." Sacks grew up in a large and prodigiously gifted family of scientists; with their encouragement, he set up his own chemistry lab and spent his days in a swirl of sulfurous fumes and smoke. He was also fascinated by biographies, and spent hours poring over the lives of great scientists like Dmitri Mendeleev, Humphrey Davy,and Marie Curie. When the chaos of World War II and traumatic experiences at boarding school intruded on the "lyrical, mystical perceptions" of Sacks' childhood, he clung to scientific knowledge as a means of ordering and understanding the universe.

After his medical training at Oxford, Sacks migrated to the States to pursue a career in neurology research. But he made a clumsy lab researcher. "I was always dropping things or breaking things," he explained in a lecture, "and eventually they said: 'Get out! Go work with patients. They're less important.'" Sacks went to work at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, where he was struck by the sight of patients who had survived encephalitis lethargica, the "sleeping sickness." The patients were nearly immobile, but the nurses who cared for them insisted that there were living personalities behind the frozen masks, and Sacks believed the nurses. The story of his work with these patients is told in Sacks' 1973 book Awakenings, which inspired a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro and also formed the basis of a play by Harold Pinter.

But Sacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars et al.), which probe the experiences of people with disorders and rare neurological conditions. In telling their stories, he often questions our assumptions about the nature of human consciousness. Part what distinguishes Sacks' work from the traditional case study is his interest in how a patient functions with a disorder, not just how he or she is impaired by it.

Sacks has also drawn on personal experience for wonderfully resonant scientific memoirs that recall his remarkable family, people who have influenced and inspired him, and his lifelong love of medicine and physical science. Meanwhile, he continues to work with patients, to understand them through writing about them, and to point his readers toward new ways of understanding themselves. As Thomas P. Sakmar, interim president of Rockefeller University, said in awarding Sacks the Lewis Thomas Prize: "Sacks presses us to follow him into uncharted regions of human experience -- and compels us to realize, once there, that we are confronting only ourselves."

Good To Know

As a child, Sacks was fascinated by the periodic table of the elements at the Science Museum in London. His boyhood love of chemistry hasn't waned: according to an article in Wired, Sacks owns half a dozen T-shirts with the periodic table printed on them, along with periodic-table coffee mugs, tote bags and mousepads.

Sacks's memoir Uncle Tungsten inspired the creation of Theodore Gray's Periodic Table Table, a wooden table representing Mendeleev's table of the elements and containing samples of each element. Sacks later paid a visit to see the Periodic Table Table -- wearing, of course, one of his periodic-table T-shirts.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      1933
    2. Place of Birth:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      B.M., B.Ch., Queen's College, Oxford, 1958

Read an Excerpt

Friday
I am on my way to Oaxaca to meet up with some botanical friends for a fern foray, looking forward to a week away from New York’s icy winter. The plane itself—an AeroMexico flight—has an atmosphere quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We are scarcely off the ground before everyone gets up—chatting in the aisles, opening bags of food, breast-feeding babies—an instant social scene, like a Mexican café or market. One is already in Mexico as soon as one boards. The seat-belt signs are still on, but nobody pays any attention to them. I have had a little of this feeling on Spanish and Italian planes, but it is far more marked here: this instant fiesta, this sunny laughing atmosphere all round me. How crucial it is to see other cultures, to see how special, how local they are, how un-universal one’s own is. What a rigid, joyless atmosphere there is, in contrast, on most North American flights. I begin to think I will enjoy this visit. So little enjoyment, in a sense, is “permitted” these days—and yet, surely, life should be enjoyed?
 
My neighbor, a jolly businessman from Chiapas, wishes me “Bon appetit!” then the Spanish version of this, “¡Buen provecho!” when the meal comes. I cannot read anything on the menu, so I say yes to what I am first offered—a mistake, for it turns out to be an empanada whereas I wanted the chicken or fish. My shyness, my inability to speak other languages, alas, is a problem. I dislike the empanada, but eat some as part of my acculturation.
 
My neighbor asks why I am visiting Mexico, and I tell him I am part of a botanical tour headed for Oaxaca, in the south. There are several of us on this plane from New York, and we will meet up with the others in Mexico City. Learning that this is my first visit to Mexico, he speaks glowingly of the country, and lends me his guidebook. I must be sure to visit the enormous tree in Oaxaca—it is thousands of years old, a famous natural wonder. Indeed, I say, I have known of this tree and seen old photos of it since I was a boy, and this is one of the things that has drawn me to Oaxaca.
 
The same kind neighbor, noticing that I have torn out the end pages, and even the title page, of a book proof in order to write on them, and that I am now looking worried and out of paper, offers me two sheets from a yellow pad (I stupidly placed my own yellow pad and a notebook in my main luggage).
 
Observing that I said yes when asked about the empanada, obviously having no idea what it was, and then as obviously disliking it when it came, my neighbor has again lent me his guidebook, suggesting that I look at the bilingual glossary of Mexican foods and the illustrations that go with this. I should be careful, for example, to distinguish between atún and tuna, for the Spanish word tuna does not denote tuna fish, but the fruit of a prickly pear. Otherwise I will keep getting fruit when I want fish.
 
Finding a section in the guidebook on plants, I ask him about Mala mujer, bad woman, a dangerous-looking tree with nettlelike stinging hairs. He tells me that youths in small-town dancing halls throw branches of it around to get the girls, everyone, scratching. This is something between a joke and a crime.
 
“Welcome to Mexico!” my companion says as we touch down, adding, “You will find much that is unusual and of great interest.” As the plane draws to a halt he gives me his card. “Phone me,” he says, “if there is any way I can be of help while you are visiting our country.” I give him my address—I have to write it on a coaster, not having a card. I promise to send him one of my books, and when I see his middle name is Todd (“my grandfather came from Edinburgh”), I tell him about Todd’s palsy—a brief paralysis which sometimes follows an epileptic seizure—and promise to include a short bio of Dr. Todd, the physician who first described it.
 
I am very touched by the sweetness and courtesy of this man. Is this a characteristic Latin American courtesy? A personal one? Or just the sort of brief encounter which happens on trains and planes?
 
We have a leisurely three hours in Mexico City airport—lots of time before our connection to Oaxaca. As I go to have lunch with two of the group (scarcely known to me as yet—but we will know each other well after a few days), one of them casts an eye on the little notebook I am clutching. “Yes,” I answer, “I may keep a journal.”
 
“You’ll have plenty of material,” he rejoins. “We’re as odd a group of weirdos as you’re likely to find.”
 
No, a splendid group, I find myself thinking—enthusiastic, innocent, uncompetitive, united in our love for ferns.
 
Amateurslovers, in the best sense of the word—even though a more-than-professional knowledge, a huge erudition, is possessed by a good many of us. He asks me about my own special fern interests and knowledge. “Not me…I’m just going along for the ride.”
 
In the airport we meet up with a huge man, wearing a plaid shirt, a straw hat and suspenders, just in from Atlanta. He introduces himself—David Emory—and his wife, Sally. He was at college with John Mickel (our mutual friend, who has organized this trip), he tells me, back in ’52, at Oberlin. John was an undergrad then, David a grad student. He was the one who turned John onto ferns. He is looking forward to meeting up with John when we get to Oaxaca, he says. They have only seen each other two or three times since they were schoolmates, nearly fifty years ago. They meet, each time, on botanical expeditions, and the old friendship, the old enthusiasm, is back straightaway. Time and space are annulled as they meet, converging as they do from different time zones and places, but at one in their love, their passion, for ferns.
 
I confess that, even more than ferns, my own preference is for the so-called fern allies: clubmosses (Lycopodium), horsetails  (Equisetum), spike mosses (Selaginella), whisk ferns (Psilotum). There would be plenty of those, too, David assures me: A new species of lycopodium was discovered on the last Oaxaca trip in 1990, and there are many species of selaginella; one, the “resurrection fern,” is to be seen in the market, a flattened, seemingly dead rosette of dull green which comes to startling life as soon as it rains. And there are three equisetums in Oaxaca, he adds, including one of the largest in the world. “But psilotum,” I say eagerly, “what about psilotum?” Psilotum, too, he says— two species, no less.
 
Even as a child, I loved the primitive horsetails and clubmosses, for they were the ancestors from which all higher plants had come. Outside the Natural History Museum (in London, where I grew up) there was a fossil garden, with the fossilized trunks and roots of giant clubmosses and horsetails, and inside were dioramas reconstructing what the ancient forests of the Paleozoic might have looked like, with giant horsetail trees a hundred feet high. One of my aunts had shown me modern horsetails (only two feet high) in the forests of Cheshire, with their stiff, jointed stems, their knobby little cones on top. She had shown me tiny clubmosses and selaginellas, too, but she could not show me the most primitive of all, for psilotum does not grow in England. Plants resembling it—psilophytes—were the pioneers, the first land plants to develop a vascular system for transporting water through their stems, enabling them to stake a claim to the solid earth 400 million years ago, and paving the way for everything else. Psilotum, though sometimes called whisk fern, was not really a fern at all, for it had no proper roots or fronds, just an undifferentiated forking green stem, little thicker than a pencil lead. But despite its humble appearance, it was one of my favorites, and one day, I had promised myself, I would see it in the wild.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 4 of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2003

    A tourist but not an initiate

    Oliver Sack's description of Oaxaca clearly indicates that he's a scientist and not an alchemist. He got the facts, but he missed the magic of Oaxaca. The journal betrays his observer's stance and his lack of intimacy with the place.The ruins of Monte Alban and Mitla are replete with magic and a musical unity with Nature. However, there wasn't one dulcet description or unheard melody that accompanied the cadence of a paragraph--not even the cadenza of a lone sentence. And yet, perhaps the journal will be held as a superlative example of locative writing. Oaxaca should be experienced in his pages, but I feel that it was only written about.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2002

    Charming Tales of Travels in Mexico

    Dr Sacks has found the pulse of this wonderful place in Mexico. Describing the sites and sounds of another culture so well he transports his readers into this world steeped in history that is 1000s of years old.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2010

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