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Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks

Reviewed by Allan Cogan

Here's a rather unusual volume that certainly took me by surprise. It's a book about, of all things, ferns. However, as you get into it you soon find out it's about much more. Frankly, I couldn't care less about ferns but I have to add that I read this book in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. I suspect that someday I might read it again.

Oliver Sacks, who has written nine books on a wide variety of subjects, is a clinical professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He is also an amateur pteridologist, which is to say he's interested in ferns. Along with some thirty members of the American Fern Society he went on a conducted 11-day tour of Oaxaca, early in 2000. Out of such fairly humble beginnings comes this offbeat charmer of a travel book.

I should warn you that there are a few passages, especially early on in the journey, where you'll encounter text like this:

"When speaking on fern cultivation," he said, "I find myself citing the ostrich fern as my favorite, and a minute later the autumn fern is my favorite. In fact, I have three hundred favorite ferns. I love the ostrich fern for its great shuttlecock form and its wide-creeping runners, and the autumn fern for its red sori and dark lustrous fronds that remains standing upright and green all through the winter. I like the Himalayan maidenhair for its delicate beauty. Some of my favorites have special memories - I found the Mexican woodfern on top of Cerro San Felipe, here in Oaxaca, after its not having been collected anywhere for over a hundred years. For scientific study, Anemia and Elaphoglossum claim my vote, though Cheilanthes and Selaginella are close behind. How do you choose among your children?"

These quasi-technical passages can make for rather heavy going, especially when the Latin terminology gets bandied about. However, they do ease off considerably as the narrative progresses and Sacks responds more to other aspects of travel in Mexico. Also, the reader is assisted somewhat by a small collection of drawings of ferns interspersed throughout.

Why did these fern fanciers make the journey to Oaxaca? Seems it's an area that is richer in fern species than any other part of Mexico. There are some 690 species in Oaxaca state. In comparison, in the whole of North America there are perhaps 100 species.

But Oliver Sacks is obviously too seasoned a traveller and too astute an observer to confine himself to ferns. One encounters a host of pleasures as he ruminates on a variety of topics. He muses about the New World's contributions to civilization -cocoa, tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, chilies, gourds, pepper, maize, chewing gum, cochineal and exotic hallucinogens. In Monte Alban he considers the production of rubber which the Zapotec people used to make balls to play - would you believe - basketball. Yet the early conquerers from our world seemed only to care about the gold and the silver they found there. Throughout he responds positively to the civilization that obviously existed in the area many centuries ago.

The author's companions sound like an intelligent lot. There are thirty of them, with varied backgrounds - teachers, scientists, housewives, business people. They all seem like good travellers, linked by their enthusiasm and their shared interest in ferns, yet open to new experiences and sights.

Their guide, Luis, seems as though he was well able to keep up with this crowd. Throughout he gives them good coverage of the history of the area, dating back to the earliest settlements, probably around 5000 BC. Sacks is intrigued with "the sun-oriented, sky-oriented, wind- and weather-oriented culture" that he sees. What sort of poems and epics did these MesoAmerican civilizations produce, he wonders?

They visit the home of a family of master weavers whose carpets and blankets are famous outside Mexico. They see Don Isaac, the master weaver, at work. But they also see his mother, his wife, his brothers, his sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews, all working in different aspects of the business. This really intrigues Sacks. "All of them know who they are, have their identities, their places, their destinies….they belong." There are other weaver families in the village. And no experts are needed to help them. "How different from our own more 'advanced' culture," he muses, "where nobody knows how to make anything for themselves." He admits to a certain envy, as well as some concern. "Are such villages doomed to disappear in our super-specialized, mass market world?"

He evidently enjoys his food. He writes almost lovingly of the group's visit to La Escondida Restaurant where the buffet offers more than a hundred dishes, "some of them visually intriguing, surreal, and almost none of them recognizable." After sampling about twenty or so dishes he gives in. Oaxaca has the richest, most varied food in Mexico, he declares. "I think I'm beginning to fall in love with the place."

On one occasion the group was treated to a total lunar eclipse, which leads to an interesting rumination on what the ancients might have made of such a happening. How would their priests and magi have explained an event where their world was plunged into total blackness for five surprising minutes?

And, yes, occasionally there's the discovery of some ferns. "It takes a practiced eye to see dried-up, withered and contracted ferns, to pick them out from the brown earth, but most of the group have had experience with this, and now, lenses in hand, careless of their clothes, they are crawling all over the ground, climbing the slopes, picking out new ferns every second. 'Notholaena galeottii!' someone cries. 'Astrolepis sinuata!" cries another, and there are no fewer than five species of Cheilanthes."

But it isn't all a matter of crawling around on all fours looking for rare ferns. The group visit markets and spice shops and chocolate factories - and they're the kind of people who respond positively to the new sights and experiences all around them. This is all passed on to the reader by author Sacks.

Personally, I found this to be a book that had something of interest on almost every page. It's also something of an object lesson. It made me resolve, next time I take a trip, especially to an area that's new to me, to be more observant, more curious, to keep my eyes and ears open, to take notes, to perhaps do some research before leaving home. In other words, make the effort to enhance the total experience, as Sacks has done here.

In my humble O: If you enjoy a good travel book it's well worth looking for this one. You don't have to be a fern fancier.

Oaxaca Journal
By Oliver Sacks
National Geographic Directions. 2002. 162 pages

Available from Amazon Books: Paperback

Published or Updated on: February 15, 2002 by Allan Cogan © 2008
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