Oaxaca Journalby Oliver Sacks
Since childhood, Oliver Sacks has been fascinated by ferns: an ancient class of plants able to survive and adapt in many climates. Along with a delightful group of fellow fern aficionados—mathematicians, poets, artists, and assorted botanists and birders—he embarks on an exploration of Southern Mexico, a region that is also rich in human history and… See more details below
Since childhood, Oliver Sacks has been fascinated by ferns: an ancient class of plants able to survive and adapt in many climates. Along with a delightful group of fellow fern aficionados—mathematicians, poets, artists, and assorted botanists and birders—he embarks on an exploration of Southern Mexico, a region that is also rich in human history and culture. He muses on the origins of chocolate and mescal, pre-Columbian culture and hallucinogens, the vibrant sights and sounds of the marketplace, and the peculiar passions of botanists. What other species would comb ancient Zapotec ruins on their hands and knees, searching for a new type of fern? Combining Sacks's enthusiasm for natural history and the richness of humanity with his sharp and observant eye for detail, Oaxaca Journal is a rare treat.
“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
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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- Random House
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Read an Excerpt
I used to delight in the natural history journals of the nineteenth century, all of them blends of the personal and the scientific -- especially Wallace's The Malay Archipelago, Bates's Naturalist on the River Amazon, and Spruce's Notes of a Botanist, and the work which inspired them all (and Darwin too), Humboldt's Personal Narrative. It pleased me to think that Bates, Spruce, and Wallace were all crisscrossing in one another's paths, leapfrogging, on the same stretch of the Amazon during the selfsame months of 1849, and to think that all of them were good friends. (They continued to correspond throughout their lives, and Wallace was to publish Spruce's Notes after his death.)
They were all, in a sense, amateurs -- self-educated, self-motivated, not part of an institution -- and they lived, it sometimes seemed to me, in a halcyon world, a sort of Eden, not yet turbulent and troubled by the almost murderous rivalries which were soon to mark an increasingly professionalized world (the sort of rivalries so vividly portrayed in H. G. Wells's story "The Moth").
This sweet, unspoiled, preprofessional atmosphere, ruled by a sense of adventure and wonder rather than by egotism and a lust for priority and fame, still survives here and there, it seems to me, in certain natural history societies, and amateur societies of astronomers and archaeologists, whose quiet yet essential existences are virtually unknown to the public. It was the sense of such an atmosphere that drew me to the American Fern Society in the first place, and that incited me to go with them on their fern-tour to Oaxaca early in 2000.
And it was the wish to explore this atmosphere which, in part, incited me to keep a journal there. There was much else, of course: my introduction to a people, a country, a culture, a history, of which I knew almost nothing -- this was wonderful, an adventure in itself -- and the fact that all journeys incite me to keep journals. Indeed, I have been keeping them since the age of fourteen, and in the year and a half since my visit to Oaxaca, I have been in Greenland and Cuba, fossil hunting in Australia, and looking at a strange neurological condition in Guadeloupe -- all of these travels have generated journals, too.
None of these journals has any pretension to comprehensiveness or authority; they are light, fragmentary, impressionistic, and, above all, personal.
Why do I keep journals? I do not know. Perhaps primarily to clarify my thoughts, to organize my impressions into a sort of narrative or story, and to do this in "real time," and not in retrospect, or imaginatively transformed, as in an autobiography or novel. I write these journals with no thought of publication (journals which I kept in Canada and Alabama were only published, and that by chance, as articles in Antaeus, thirty years after they were written).
Should I have prettied up this journal, elaborated it, made it more systematic and coherent -- as I was to do with my book-sized Micronesian and "leg" journals -- or left it as written, as with my Canadian and Alabaman ones? I have, in fact, taken an intermediate course, adding a little (on chocolate, rubber, things Mesoamerican), making little excursions of various sorts, but essentially keeping the journal as written. I have not even attempted to give it a proper title. It was Oaxaca Journal in my notebook, and Oaxaca Journal it remains.
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