Non-fiction
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More Than Ferns: Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal

When I finished the preface to Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal and found that the late neurologist and author shared my love for natural history travelogues, I knew I was in for a treat. What I was not expecting to discover was a potential new writing muse and a possible kindred spirit. If you harbour no interest for ferns, travel writing, or Oliver Sacks as a person, this slim tome may not be for you. Luckily, I’m fascinated by all of three elements, and so found Oaxaca Journal an Ekostory well worth exploring.

Summary

Oaxaca Journal CoverAt less than 160 pages, Oaxaca Journal comprises Sacks’ notes taken over a ten-day trip to Oaxaca with a group of amateur and professional fern enthusiasts. But while fern sighting was the primary reason for Sacks’ trip, it was by no means his sole interests. Having never been to Mexico, his vast curiosity sought to understand the region through the lens of botany, history, anthropology, and psychology. Over the course of his brief journey there, he opens himself up to explore the wonders of the local flora, past Mesoamerican civilizations, along with local culture and traditions.

The Ferns

My first encounter with Sacks’ writing was ironically one of his last – a New York Times essay titled My Periodic Table. Facing terminal metastatic cancer, he wrote about death through his love for the eternal mineral world. Moved by his sensitive and poignant musings, I sought out more of his non-medical publications and came across Oaxaca Journal. I was delighted to learn that his lifelong attraction to ferns and fossils, cultivated during his formative years, stemmed from a prehistoric fascination:

“Ferns delighted me with their curlicues, their croziers, their Victorian quality (not unlike the frilled antimacassars and lacy curtains in our house.) But at a deeper level, they filled me with wonder because they were of such ancient origin… My sense of a prehistoric world, of immense spans of time, was first stimulated by ferns and fossil ferns…”

– Oaxaca Journal, p.9

Botanical illustrations ferns

Alpine cliff fern. From wikipedia.

Like him, I am drawn to the ferns in Oaxaca Journal not only because of their strangeness or diversity, but also to their longevity. I hold special regard for species that have weathered through earth’s many whims and tumults. Like sharks and crocodiles, horseshoe crabs and coelacanths, many of Sacks’ beloved ferns and fern allies (horsetails are another favourite of his) are living fossils that anchor me to an otherwise unfathomable past, to a world before humans or flowers or anything recognizable. They bridge vast spans of time by their existence.

The Notes

What also impressed upon me from Oaxaca Journal was Sack’s style of note-taking. The constancy of his musings, generated by scribbling close to the points of experience, is admirable to one who writes primarily out of reflection. Too often I use time and hindsight as exploratory tools, but with that delay the source material is inevitably transformed. A measure of control is usually gained, but a sense of natural spontaneity and surprise is often lost.

“None of these journals has any pretension to comprehensiveness or authority; they are light, fragmentary, impressionistic, and above all, personal.”

– Preface, Oaxaca Journal, xiv

Like many writers, Sacks uses his writing to organize impressions into a coherent narrative, but he does so in a way where the observations, however brief and casual, retain their immediacy and authenticity. Even the tangents inserted later on, such as the described processes of making dye or chocolate, emerges organically out of initial nodes of inquiry piqued by genuine curiosity. Nothing comes across as forced or manufactured.

“The fern tour is turning out to be much more than a fern tour. It is a visit to another, a very other, culture and place; and (so saturated is everything, everyone, here in the past) it is as much a visit, in a profound sense, to another time.”

– Oaxaca Journal,  p. 85

After finishing Oaxaca Journal, I went back to read the entries I kept during my trip to the Himalayas now years past. My recorded days read like achievements (kilometers travelled, elevations gained, locale names), highlighting the hard facts, but with few of the soft details. Where was my conversation with the porter I spent hours on the road with? What about the feeling at the end of the longest day of the trek when I was grimed with dust, giddy and footsore? Where was the description of the first morning rays lighting the dozen snow-capped peaks across the horizon as we moved across a certain ridge, that late October day?

Magnificent unfurling young leaves of male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)

Fern unfurling. By Dominicus Johannes Bergsma

I can go back now to attach words to those memories, happy, exhilarated, frustrated, joyous. But that would not ring true. They have gone on, those moments lost in time, as Rutger Hauer so famously monologues at the end of Blade Runner, like tears in rain.

Recent readings of works by Sacks and Peter Matthiessen (whose work I hope to feature in a future Ekostory), authors who are skilled at experiencing the present while streaming vitality onto the page, have been instructive and inspirational. I hope that in future writings I can not only capture the essence of the moment, but also the surrounding glints and flashes, the quiet murmurs.

The Man

As I read through Oaxaca Journal, I grew more and more interested in the man behind the words. In his breezy thoughts on nature and culture, Sacks came across as a brilliant yet humble man whose keen wit was tempered by a self-effacing demeanour and deep emotional intelligence.

“Luis – our tour guide for the next week – points out the innumerable churches and the confines of the old colonial city. No one pays the least attention.”

– Oaxaca Journal, p. 21

Oliver-Sacks-Oaxaca

Oliver Sacks in Oaxaca. Image from the New York Botancial Garden Blog.

While his nerdish tendencies for the floral and mineral world were in full display throughout Oaxaca Journal (his greetings with a plant biochemist through names of obscure sulphides is a recurring highlight), Sacks never becomes singularly obsessed with them like many of his fellow fern lovers. His curiosity encompasses all, transcends narrow borders of expertise, and stems from a pure passion of mind. His comfort with ignorance and openness to wonder help him achieve that delicate balance as a travel writer who doesn’t merely come upon a place to exploit or extract, but as a receptive vessel that is shaped and changed by it. This is the type of exploration I want to read about. This is the type of person I want to share an adventure with.

Indeed, Sacks’ self-reflections are what elevates Oaxaca Journal beyond conventional travel musings. My favourite passage in the book is also one of the most revealing:

“I myself may be the only single person here, but I have been single, a singleton, all my life. Yet here this does not matter in the least, either. I have a strong feeling of being one of the group, of belonging, of communal affection – a feeling that is extremely rare in my life, and may be in part a cause of a strange ‘symptom’ I have had, an odd feeling in the last day or so, which I was hard put to diagnose, and first ascribed to the altitude. It was, I suddenly realized, a feeling of joy, a feeling so unusual I was slow to recognize it. There are many causes for this joyousness, I suspect – the plants, the ruins, the people of Oaxaca – but the sense of this sweet community, belonging, is surely part of it.”

– Oaxaca Journal, pp. 99-100

Here he acknowledges himself as a lonely soul, despite his many astonishing achievements and hobbies. It is this man that I most connected with, having some knowledge of the nature of this solitude, along with that rare thrill of discovering connection and community. I appreciate how he is able to recognize this joy for what it is, as wholeness that can’t be earned or kept, as something to be noticed and treasured, ere it slips away.

***

Nitobe Japanese Zen Garden - Douglas Fir

Last week, a friend and I were walking through Pacific Spirit Regional Park near the University of British Columbia. Only minutes into the trail, we were among the towering company of western hemlocks and cedars, surrounded by salmonberries and salal, all verdant, all silent.

“You realize this isn’t normal right? This, all this. The trees, the scenery,” she gestured, having moved to North America from South Africa several years earlier.

I admitted that I did think of it as normal, that there are many people and places I took for granted. We walked on. But I did not mention that I had begun to notice the sword and deer ferns, bunched and strewn on the forest floor, fully unfurled in the late spring. Those ancient reminders.

Related Ekostories

Reference

Sacks, Oliver. (2002). Oaxaca Journal. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Featured image of a Great Horsetail by Luc Viatour at www.lucnix.be

5 Comments

  1. Maria K says

    Isaac, I like how you are writing 🙂 I should also read this Oaxaca journal, sounds like a very personal and interesting read.

    • Thanks! Yes, Oaxaca Journal is a pretty breezy read. I would also recommend the New York Time essay I noted in the piece. Really moving stuff.

  2. You recognize Oliver Sacks’ loneliness. Perhaps it is what, after all, drove him to achieve so much. Your write clearly. I enjoy your blog. Thanks, Muriel Kauffmann

  3. A wonderful read – many thanks – and I found the entry about how he found joy as a lonely spirit really moving. Fascinating to see how we all have difficulty anchoring ourselves in the world. And Oliver Sacks had such a wonderful contribution to make to the world.

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