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Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks
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Oaxaca Journal (2002)

by Oliver Sacks

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This one, my mom badgered me into reading. It's about a trip he took to Mexico in 2002 (I think) with some wild and crazy members of The American Fern Society. Crazy bunch of kids! The trip is a plant-hunting one, apparently Oaxaca is the fern capital of the planet. But Sacks, being the kind of guy he is, wanders from topic to topic, interested in anything and everything. It's a little unusual for Sacks in that the book isn't focused on a particular question or neurological curiosity. It's more meandering than that. There are heated discussions on the relationship of knowledge to perception:

I tell him of the amazing plant drawings I have seen by autistic savants--drawings based purely on perception, without any botanical knowledge. Dick, however, insists that knowledge and understanding only sharpen his perceptions, do not compromise them, so he now sees plants as more interesting and more beautiful, more miraculous, than ever before, and he can convey this, emphasize one aspect or another in a way which would b impossible in a literal drawing or in a photograph, impossible without knowledge and intention.

Sacks also gets into a discussion with others on the trip about what he calls "our primordial need to catagorize, to organize." They wonder how much of this is hardwired into our brain and how much is learned. Animate/inanimate? The reaction of primates to snakes? And he wonders, as they tour some of the more famous ruins, about the geometric patterns that decorated the doors and walls:

...like the visual "fortification" patterns one may get during a migraine. I am reminded of patterns in Navajo rugs, or Moorish arabesques. Normally one of the more silent members of the group--who am I to speak up in so erudite a group?--I am stimulated by the geometric figures around us to speak of neurological form-constants, the geometrical hallucinations of honeycombs, spiderwebs, latticeworks, spirals, or funnels which can appear in starvation, sensory deprivation, or intoxications, as well as migraine.

In the end Sacks is defeated by the complexities and contradictions of the ancient civilization whose ruins he is walking among. How they could be so advanced astronomically, and yest not have invented the wheel. So clever about architecture, but never discovered the compass even though magnetite was so abundant they polished it into mirrors. he realizes that it is futile to compare Rome or Athens or Babylon or Egypt (or India) to such cultures: "...there is no scale, no linearity in such matters. How can one evaluate such a culture? We can only ask whether there were the relationships and activities, the practices and skills, the beliefs and goals, the ideas and dreams, that make for a fully human life."

All in all, typical curious and constantly wondering Sacks.
1 vote southernbooklady | May 5, 2017 |
Note: Traduzione di Maurizio Migliaccio - Serie: Luoghi d'autore Caratteristiche: brossura, copertina plastificata Note di Copertina Il grande neurologo tesse un affascinante arazzo del Messico, con uno sguardo che abbraccia la biologia, la storia, la cultura di un paese che è la meta ideale del viaggio Il grande neurologo Oliver Sacks, già autore di Risvegli e de L’uomo che scambiava sua moglie per un cappello, abbandona per una volta il suo campo d’azione della neurologia e si avventura in un viaggio scientifico e letterario nel cuore del Messico. Motivo ufficiale del viaggio è la ricerca di una specie rara di felce, ma trattandosi di Sacks la missione scientifica si tinge ben presto di un’infinità di sfumature. Con un tono spumeggiante e personale, il grande neurologo tesse un affascinante arazzo del Messico con uno sguardo che abbraccia la biologia, la storia, la cultura del paese. Insieme ad alcuni botanici e a un manipolo di appassionati, Sacks affronta una ricerca che presto assume le caratteristiche di un’avventura ben più complessa e ricca di sorprese. Scritto in forma di diario, Oaxaca, Messico ci restituisce in presa diretta l’atmosfera del viaggio in tutte le sue possibili variazioni, ci mette a parte delle riflessioni dell’autore con l’intimità riservata a un confidente e ci rende suoi compagni di viaggio. Prefazione / Introduzione Mi è sempre piaciuto leggere i diari di storia naturale del diciannovesimo secolo, che avevano come denominatore comune l’esperienza personale e scientifica dell’autore, in modo particolare The Malay Archipelago di Wallace, Naturalist on the River Amazon di Bates, Notes of a Botanist di Spruce, e naturalmente l’opera che li aveva ispirati tutti (compreso Darwin), Personal Narrative di Humboldt. Mi piaceva l’idea che i loro percorsi si fossero incrociati, che fossero stati amici e che tutti e tre avessero trascorso nel 1849 un certo periodo di tempo nella stessa zona della foresta amazzonica. (Anche in seguito continuarono a mantenere un contatto epistolare, e Wallace curò la pubblicazione postuma di Notes of a Botanist di Spruce.) In un certo senso erano tutti dilettanti, autodidatti spinti dalla semplice passione e non appartenenti a nessuna istituzione; talvolta avevo l’impressione che vivessero in un mondo idilliaco, una sorta di eden, non ancora turbato dalle tremende rivalità professionali che avrebbero segnato di lì a poco il mondo scientifico (e di cui il racconto La tarma di H.G. Wells è un vivido esempio). Quest’atmosfera professionale discreta, incontaminata, governata dal piacere dell’avventura e della conoscenza, piuttosto che dall’egoismo e dall’ambizione sfrenata, sopravvive ancora oggi da qualche parte, per esempio in certe associazioni di naturalisti, o in certe associazioni di astronomi o archeologi dilettanti, le cui vite tranquille, ma essenziali, sono sconosciute al grande pubblico. È stato questo tipo di atmosfera ad attirarmi per la prima volta verso l’American Fern Society e, all’inizio del 2000, a spingermi a condividere l’esperienza di un viaggio di ricerca nell’affascinante regione di Oaxaca, in Messico. Ed è stato il desiderio di esplorare quell’atmosfera che mi ha spronato a tenere questo diario. C’era dell’altro, naturalmente: l’incontro con un popolo, un paese, una cultura e una storia dei quali conoscevo ben poco, un’esperienza straordinaria e un’avventura vera e propria, oltre al fatto che tutti i viaggi mi spingono a scrivere un diario. È un’abitudine che ho dall’età di quattordici anni; nei diciotto mesi successivi alla visita a Oaxaca, mi sono recato in Groenlandia e a Cuba, alla ricerca di fossili in Australia, e in Guadalupa per osservare un singolare caso neurologico. In tutte quelle occasioni ho tenuto altrettanti diari di viaggio. Nessuno di questi diari ha la pretesa di essere esaustivo o didascalico; si tratta di appunti leggeri, frammentari, ma, soprattutto, personali, dettati dall’impressione del momento. Non saprei dire cosa mi spinge a tenere un diario. Forse serve innanzi tutto a chiarirmi le idee, a organizzare le impressioni in una sorta di narrazione, e mi aiuta a farlo in "tempo reale", e non "a posteriori", con le trasformazioni dettate dall’immaginazione, come avviene in un romanzo o un’autobiografia. E mentre scrivo, non penso a un’eventuale pubblicazione (i diari tenuti in Canada e Alabama sono stati pubblicati per puro caso, sotto forma di articoli, nella rivista "Antaeus", trent’anni dopo la loro stesura). Mi sono anche posto il problema se abbellire questo diario, elaborarlo, renderlo più sistematico e coerente – come avrei fatto in seguito con i miei diari sulla Micronesia – o lasciarlo così come l’avevo redatto, come i diari tenuti in Canada e Alabama. Ho trovato una via di mezzo, facendo qualche piccola aggiunta (i paragrafi riguardanti la cioccolata, l’albero della gomma e la cultura mesoamericana in generale) e qualche digressione qua e là, ma restando fedele alla struttura originale. Non mi sono neppure sforzato di dargli un titolo particolare. È nato come Oaxaca Journal nei miei appunti, e tale è rimasto fino alla pubblicazione.
  Rexshaphiro | Apr 27, 2017 |
Originally posted at http://olduvaireads.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/oaxaca-journal-by-oliver-sacks/

This is the fourth book in the National Geographic Directions series that I’ve read. If you haven’t seen any of these yet you’re in for a treat. Jamaica Kincaid writes about Nepal, Jan Morris about Wales, Louise Erdrich about books and islands in Ojibwe County, and here, neurologist Oliver Sacks writes about his journeys in Oaxaca.

And ferns.

Yup. Ferns.

For Sacks is a member of the American Fern Society (AFS), which has been around since the 1890s.

Most of the thirty people on the Oaxaca tour are members of the AFS.

They are quite a different breed of tourist.

“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.”

Instead they are scanning the roadside for ferns or the skies for birds.

Sacks writes a good travel journal. He throws in some facts about ferns and other plant life, but not too much that it would throw off those with black thumbs (i.e. me). For instance, his own fascination with ferns:

“Ferns delighted me with their curlicues, their croziers, their Victorian quality (not unlike the grilled antimacassars and lacy curtains in our house). But at a deeper level, they filled me with wonder because they were of such ancient origin. All of the coal that heated our home, my mother told me, was essentially composed of ferns or other primitive plants, greatly compressed, and one could sometimes find their fossils by splitting coal balls. Ferns had survived, with little change, for a third of a billion years. Other creatures, like dinosaurs, had done and gone, but ferns, seemingly so frail and vulnerable, had survived all the vicissitudes, all the extinctions the earth had known. My sense of a prehistoric world, of immense spans of time, was first simulated by ferns and fossil ferns.”

It intrigues me, this interest in ferns. A passion for a plant that leads them to hike and travel and observe.

I wonder what it would be like to have a love for plants. I so very admire people with green thumbs, who grow fruits and vegetables, whose gardens bloom with every shade of the rainbow. While I like to look at plants, I just don’t care very much for taking care of them. Insects and bugs and mud and all that (I know I know…).

So the idea of devoting a trip (and for many of Sack’s fellow fern-lovers, many other trips past and future) to plants is rather fascinating.

And it made for a fun read too. ( )
  RealLifeReading | Jan 19, 2016 |
Piacevolissimo. Non c'è nulla di neurologia in questo diario, ma c'è tutto il suo autore con tutta la sua curiosità per ogni particolare del mondo che lo circonda. Così un diario di viaggio di osservazione delle felci diventa occasione per ritrarre con efficacia e spirito la civiltà con cui viene in contatto, per riflettere sulla storia della conquista del Sud America da parte degli spagnoli, l'eccidio che ne è risultato della popolazione indigena. L'amore di Sacks per la bellezza della natura non è estetico ma dettato dalla sete di conoscere quello che vede, tutto dall'aspetto macroscopico a quello microscopico lo affascina e lo condivide con i compagni di viaggio. Insomma, una bella lettura per chi ama questo scrittore che è mancato poco fa, e che rimpiangerò sempre. ( )
  LdiBi | Oct 24, 2015 |
Ostensibly this is a diary about a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico to see ferns. The ferns end up being incidental, and Dr. Sacks spends far more time on his insights into his traveling companies, their interests, and the history and culture of the places he visits. It is a very fast and very good read, much more interesting than I really expected it to be. ( )
  austin.sears | Mar 15, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0792242084, Paperback)

The best-selling author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks is well know as an explorer of the human mind—a neurologist with a gift for complex, insightful portrayals of people and their conditions. However, 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 in many climates.

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, Mexico. Bringing together Sacks's passion for natural history and the richness of human culture with his sharp eye for detail, Oaxaca Journal is a captivating evocation of a place, its plants, its people, and its myriad wonders.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:03 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"Ferns are what lured Oliver Sacks to Oaxaca, but those who know him will expect his journal to be filled with much more - and they won't he disappointed." "It's a diverse, casually erudite assemblage of professional and amateur botanists who gather in this extraordinary corner of Mexico, each bringing a different perspective and fresh insights to the endeavor. And what a richly varied part of the world! Whereas New England has a hundred fern varieties, the Oaxaca area boasts nearly seven hundred; village marketplaces sell at least two dozen kinds of chili pepper, from mild to mind-bogglingly hot. Here too is a bird-watcher's paradise teeming with avian life, and an archaeologist's dream filled with ancient ruins that echo with pre-Columbian legend. And this is where the New World gave the Old World the delicious gift of chocolate, once reserved - on pain of death - for Aztec royalty." "Day by day, as Sacks and his colleagues explore, new sights and discoveries spark surprising, enlightening connections. By the time their all-too brief adventure - and this journal - is complete, we have toured not merely Oaxaca itself, but a whole world of history, science, and wonder."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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