Oaxaca Journalby Oliver Sacks, Oliver Sacks
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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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.
Meet the Author
Oliver Sacks was a neurologist, writer, and professor of medicine. Born in London in 1933, he moved to New York City in 1965, where he launched his medical career and began writing case studies of his patients. Called the “poet laureate of medicine” by The New York Times, Sacks is the author of thirteen books, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia, and Awakenings, which inspired an Oscar-nominated film and a play by Harold Pinter. He was the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, and was made a Commander of the British Empire in 2008 for services to medicine. He died in 2015.
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- London, England
- B.M., B.Ch., Queen's College, Oxford, 1958
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