Oaxaca Journal by Oliver SacksOaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks

Oaxaca Journal

byOliver Sacks

Paperback | March 6, 2012

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"I have been an inveterate keeper of journals since I was 14 especially at times of adventure and crisis and travel. Here, for the first time, such a journal made its way to publication, not that much changed from the raw, handwritten journal that I kept during my fascinated 9 days in Oaxaca." Dr. 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 bestselling 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. Oaxaca Journal is Sacks's spellbinding account of his trip with a group of fellow fern enthusiasts to the beautiful, history-steeped province of Oaxaca. Bringing together Sacks's passion for natural history and the richness of human culture with his penetrating curiosity and trammeling eye for detail, Oaxaca Journal is a captivating evocation of a places, its plants, its people and its myriad wonders.
Oliver Sacks is a practicing physician and the author of 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 a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and the first Columbia Univers...
Title:Oaxaca JournalFormat:PaperbackDimensions:176 pages, 7.98 × 5.12 × 0.43 inPublished:March 6, 2012Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307402150

ISBN - 13:9780307402158

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another great read Always enjoy having a journey with this author as he provides an interesting,and often different, perspective on humanity and our world.
Date published: 2015-07-19

Read from the Book

FridayI 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. Amateurs—lovers, 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.

Editorial Reviews

“He lovingly relays what the group’s excellent guide imparted of Oaxaca’s history, its indigenes, the Zapotecs, and their ancient culture; he rhapsodizes over ruins and the technological and intellectual powers they bespeak; and he admires the people, the many exotic foods, the vistas, and the age-old industries of the towns he visits—all of this while his fellow travelers mostly keep on ferning. He says he wants to go back. Take us along, Dr. Sacks—please!” —Booklist “Light and fast-moving, unburdened by library research but filled with erudition.... Among the botanical and anthropological observations, one catches glimpses of Sacks’s inner life.” —The New Yorker “Like all the best journals, [Oaxaca Journal] has a rich immediacy…. A rare treat.” —The Globe and Mail