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Oaxaca Journal Paperback – March 6, 2012
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From The New Yorker
The eminent neurologist is also a fern lover, and this book is his record of a ten-day "fern foray" in southern Mexico. It is light and fast-moving, unburdened by library research but filled with erudition. Some of his fellow-foragers are professional pteridologists; others are amateurs, and there is a certain romance in the sight of smitten fern hunters crawling through the Mexican dust exclaiming in Latin. Among the botanical and anthropological observations, one catches glimpses of Sacks's inner life: his preoccupation with dualities, his nearly Victorian sense of modesty, his fascination with the world around him. He could be speaking of himself when he comments on a colleague peering through a hand lens at a small mountain flower: "Is it the artist or the scientist in him which is aroused by the Lobelia? Both, clearly, and they are utterly fused."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Sacks is--besides a neurologist and a splendid stylist with a shelf of marvelous books to his credit, most recently Uncle Tungsten [BKL S 1 01]--a ferner. That is to say, not that he is an Englishman living in New York, but that he is an amateur pteridologist, one whose hobby is appreciating the ancient class of plants called ferns (and "the so-called fern allies"--clubmosses, horsetails, spike mosses, and whisk ferns--"my own preference," he says). In 1999, that avocation led him to spend 10 days in Oaxaca, Mexico, with other members of the American Fern Society, to whose greater pteridological erudition he modestly defers. He kept a diary, the basis for this book. Fortunately for most readers, he doesn't just describe the rare fern species he gets to see. He notes the exotic birds that two of his companions find as thrilling as the ferns; he admits, however, that he never saw any avians smaller than hawks and vultures, for he hasn't developed a birder's eyes. 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! Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
Why four stars instead of five? We found the book to be very good, but we like to save five stars for the truly outstanding.
According to the author, his "sense of a prehistoric world, of immense spans of time, was first stimulated by ferns and fossil ferns."
For someone like myself who loves both ferns and the writings of Dr. Sacks, this journal is a treasure. It was composed under the blue sky of Oaxaca and filled with an emotion that Dr. Sacks admits is usually foreign to him: joy.
The author is fond of reading natural history journals and he has created a multi-faceted gem of his own, out of observations on lost civilizations, mescal, cochineal insects, plants as rare as horsetails a hundred feet high, and others as common as the bracken fern.
Half of our property in Michigan is covered with bracken ferns and I was always curious as to why insects didn't seem to bother them. According to this author, bracken is regarded as the 'Lucrezia Borgia' of the fern world: "the young fronds release hydrogen cyanide as soon as the insect's mandible tears into them, and if this does not kill or deter the bug, a much crueler poison lies in store. Brackens, more than any other plants, are loaded with hormones called ecdysones, and when these are ingested by insects, they cause uncontrollable molting."
The Romans used bracken on their stable floors because it arrested or perverted the development of fly larvae, although Dr. Sacks doesn't specify how the ancients kept the horses from eating their bedding. Bracken also poisons mammals, and humans who eat too many fiddle-heads over a long period of time are apt to develop stomach cancer.
It is tempting to open up "Oaxaca Journal" and reread an essay equally as vivid as the riff on the 'Lucrezia Borgia of ferns.' There are so many choices. By writing a journal for the National Geographic 'Literary Travel Series,' Dr. Sacks has opened himself up to every conceivable subject under the blazing Mexican sun.
There is indeed joy in this book.