As a world-renowned neurologist and author, as well as a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Dr. Oliver Sacks suffers no shortage of credentials. And yet, in 2000, an encounter with a group of dedicated fern enthusiasts at The New York Botanical Garden welcomed him into an arena where his relative inexperience proved a boon. Written during a two-week expedition in Mexico, Oaxaca Journal blends the esoteric minutiae of one of the world’s oldest plant groups with an exploration of culture, history, and modern adventure.
Oaxaca Journal overcomes the din of scientific jargon through the ease of Sacks’ prose. Even its simplistic approach to storytelling plays to the experience through the self-effacing charm of the author’s pen. His is a travel narrative without any particular direction, admittedly and unapologetically listing sidelong into the native–and at times gritty–reality of Mexican life, just as it charts a course for botanical relevance.
Sacks’ primary interests are predominantly scientific; he sets aside the restraints of plot for authenticity. Still, for every scribbled joy in the presence of a paleolithic frond or a resurrection fern living up to its name, there are the moments of downtime, not quite comic relief, that Sacks inserts with Swiss timing. Afternoons people-watching in the zócalo of Oaxaca City, or sampling the cocoa libations concocted in the time of Montezuma; a moment reflecting on an ancient mineral spring as he and his colleagues crawl, on hands and knees, through waist-high forests of ferns. Sacks reflects on the food plants of local markets, ancient Zapotec ruins, and pre-Colombian astronomy with casual but focused acumen, just as he relays his youthful experiences with New World hallucinogens.
Released first in 2002, Oaxaca Journal fills the mold of the archetypal road story while moonlighting as a character study. Figures like the NYBG‘s Robbin Moran and John Mickel–fern experts, botanical curators, and the organizers of the Oaxaca trip–become players in Sacks’ “participant-spectator” experience as he discovers a rare sense of belonging with a group. Not only is the expedition the feeding of a horticultural hobby, if not an obsession, but a social venture that the author himself admits he did not see coming.
It would be easy to lean toward “the salt of the earth” in reference to Sacks’ portrayals–of gregarious tour guides, earnest amateur historians and hawkers vending handmade baubles–and yet the author’s cultural sensitivity is such that the gawp of the holiday tourist is nowhere to be found. His observations are apt and objective in the same breath that they are self-aware–drawing the feather-footed Oaxacan balloon peddler in contrast with his own comparison of himself to the outsider, a pale, would-be “Papa Hemingway.” And all the while tied firmly to the pursuit of botanical knowledge.
“It reveals Oliver Sacks at his best,” writes Dr. Robbin Moran, “absorbing and learning from his experiences, bringing his tremendous erudition into the mix and rendering every moment in beautiful prose.”
Now available from Vintage Books for the first time in trade paperback, Oaxaca Journal is less a dalliance in amateur botany and more a gate for the botanical enthusiast, humanizing the science of plants without sacrificing its significance.
Photo courtesy of OliverSacks.com.