An Altered View of What It Means to be Human

Photos of Oliver Sacks by Angela Radulescu

Oliver Sacks is simply a delightful writer, and this essay partakes of that pleasure. Oaxaca Journal crackles with botanical and ecological information framed for its meaning, not merely presented as scientific factoids. Science, it has been remarked, has no meaning. It is up to wise scientists to frame the facts meaningfully, as Sacks does.

This is a short essay about Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal, published in National Geographic Directions (Washington, 2002).

A few days before I set out on a road trip to southern Mexico with my wife and two young sons, I noticed a copy of Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal, on a friend’s bookshelf. I reached for it eagerly. Just the day before, another friend, Paul Martel, was talking to me about the wonders of Oaxaca. With a twinkle in his eye he said,”How lucky you are to be going there. And you know Oliver Sacks has just written a book about ferns in Oaxaca?”. We agreed that Robin Williams was great as Oliver Sacks in the movie Awakenings. Aside from being a respected architect and urban park designer, Paul is a member of the Maya Society. With other kindred spirits he often visits the Maya lands of Guatemala, Belize and southern Mexico to explore the ruins, examine the artifacts and hang out with the Maya who still live in the region. He urged me to take the time to visit the Zapotec city of Monte Alban in the hills above the town of Oaxaca.

Sacks celebrates the pleasure of travel, inviting us along as he dives in for a seven-day journey. Stimulated by Otherness, he often writes with traveller’s euphoria—the endorphin rush of being in the moment in a completely unfamiliar, delightful cultural immersion. The book crackles with botanical and ecological information framed for its meaning, not merely presented as scientific factoids. Science, it has been remarked, has no meaning. It is up to wise scientists to frame the facts meaningfully, as Sacks does. I was drawn to this book and its subject, because I loved Sacks’ previous book about ferns and other fascinating ancient plants, The Island of the Colourblind. He turned me on to the special allure of the strange plants that reach out to us from the dawn of time, from “a flowerless, Paleozoic world, where insects play no role, and spores are dispersed by wind and water only.”

Early on in Sacks’ Journal, I notice that he is apolitical vis à vis the armed conflicts in Chiapas, Guerrero and also the spots of anarchic violence in Oaxaca state. On the Aeromexico flight from NYC to Mexico City he sits next to a “jolly businessman from Chiapas” and chats about Mexico without so much as a word about Commandante Marcos or the Zapatista struggle. Apparently, it doesn’t occur to him to ask if the intermittent violence and ongoing tension has any affect on business. Those of us who travel in oppressed places face a challenge, especially when the locals actually tell us, as a roadblocking crowd of families and schoolteachers in rural Chiapas told me, that the cause of their suffering is “a government that takes orders from el Norte, where you and the World Bank come from.” Sacks travels with a funky group of botany specialists from the American Fern Society, describing them as “enthusiastic, innocent, uncompetitive, united in our love of ferns.” It seems an impossible, even disingenuous innocence in the context, but it is true that the culture conspires with the charming setting to hide its pain from outsiders most of the time.

Though Sacks chooses not to talk much politics, there are fine examples of politically aware nature writing from the region, the classic being Maslow’s memoir of Guatemala, Bird of Life, Bird of Death: A naturalist’s journey through a land of political turmoil. The most remarkable writings about the ecstasy and tragedy of life among the highland Maya in the time of the Guatemalan genocide in the 1980’s are the works of Martín Prechtel, such as The Toe Bone and The Tooth.

Sacks describes flying above Mexico City and marvels at the majesty of the volcanoes but he doesn’t learn much about them from anyone on the plane. His musing triggers me to remember what my friend Fabio told me as we sat looking at those volcanoes from his hillside balcony above the valley of Cuernavaca at sunset. Fabio said that for some people the volcanoes are gods, and the big one, Popacatepetl, is active and usually emits a thin plum of grey smoke from its caldera, hence its Nahuatl name, smoky mountain. The lower peak, with its reclining character, is called sleeping woman, Ixtaccihuatl. Popacatapetl has erupted in recent years, so the locals keep a eye on it. The image of these volcanoes is seared into the brain of anyone who has read Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, or seen Donald Brittain’s biographical film about Lowry, Volcano, for it is in shadow of Popacatapetl that the main character of that book wallows in his mezcal delerium and is finally gunned down by contemptuous locals. Now there is an image of the outsider in Mexico.

Sacks writes warmly about the origin of the American Fern Society and the intense enthusiasm of the botanists, both pro and amateur, who are its members. He reminds us that amateurs continuously advance exploration and discovery in the natural sciences. “A special power of observing and remembering particulars, a special memory for places, allied to a love, a lyrical feeling for nature, is characteristic of this naturalist’s sort of mind.”

His notes on tobacco’s New World origin, and rapid assimilation as a controversial drug in Europe, are intriguing. He describes the gift of tobacco to Christopher Colombus, who threw it in the sea, and to Walter Raleigh, who quickly became addicted. Again, Sacks provokes me to muse about the other side of the story. I was a heavy smoker for over ten years, from my late teens to my late 20s, and it was an arrogant, appetitive habit based on some misplaced notion of self-defense, without the slightest respect for the plant. In recent years I’ve been trying to learn more about how tobacco is used in indigenous ceremonial traditions. The people who made first contact must have been deeply puzzled and insulted by the European ignorance of the meanings and values of tobacco. The giving of bundles of tobacco was a highly charged gesture fraught with sacred and social portent for the natives who offered it. “Inexplicably, to them [the Europeans],” writes Johannes Wilbert in his encyclopedic study, Tobacco and Shamanism in South America (1987), “the natives seemed to have endowed some ungainly, shriveled leaves with the power to seal bonds of friendship between strangers.” In indigenous American spiritual practices tobacco is a sacred plant, commonly offered to the spirits in ceremonial settings and in private prayer, and it has power to forge social bonds through sharing and exchange. Wilbert explains that there is a close connection between tobacco and shamanism, and that tobacco permeates practically all cultural institutions in some tribes, with religious and secular tobacco practices coexisting side by side. From pre-Colombian times up to the 1700’s “tobacco seems primarily to have served magico-religious and more or less related medicinal ends.” Ritual tobacco uses date back 8,000 years in the archeological record, and continue today. It may be the oldest plant cultivated by humans in the Americas, grown by Indians from Chile to Quebec. Strong uncured tobacco smoked in quantity by the shaman is an intoxicant that can achieve powerful effects without the aid of hallucinogens. It was often found to grow in quantity on the disturbed and enriched soil of grave sites, and was identified with the ancestors. “Receiving the gift of the plant from the ancestors’ graves, shamans transform it into an offering of tobacco to serve as a means of communion between mankind and the supernaturals.” It seems to me that there is some room for more subtlety in our understanding of this plant we love to hate.

Sacks offers a beguiling short history of chocolate, which originates in the Oaxaca region. “The chocolate drink was a special hit at the French court, where its aphrodisiac qualities were highly esteemed—Madame de Pompadour mixed I with ambergris, Madame du Barry gave it to her lovers, and Goethe would travel nowhere without his own chocolate pot.” It is especially interesting how he approaches chocolate’s mystique from his hybrid neuroscientific/botanical perspective, reminiscent of his botanical detective work in Island of the Colourblind.

Describing a botanical foray to the mountains, he actually makes ferns interesting. He gets our attention by dwelling on the sexual life of plants. Ferns are survivors from “the world as it was before the coming of flowers. A world, too, with charming modesty, where reproductive organs—stamens and pistels—are not thrust out flamboyantly but concealed, with a certain delicacy, on the undersides of leafy fronds.”

He follows his flashing thoughts like brilliant sparks wherever they lead. The sight of morning glory vines in their native habitat triggers a memory of using the seeds of the Heavenly Blue variety as hallucinogens in the 60’s. A couple of seed packets ground up and mixed with vanilla ice cream worked like LSD. He offers a fascinating reflection about sacred hallucinogen use across all indigenous cultures.

On a mountain excursion, their guide is an expatriate American botanist and ecologist in his 70’s dedicated to helping the locals to understand and practice ecosystem preservation and regeneration. He tells them something that lucky gringos learn to appreciate about Mexico, though most visitors find it frustrating —”Here in Mexico, you have to use your brains to know what’s going on. In the States everything is published, organized, known. Here it is under the surface, the mind is challenged all the while.” It is the beauty of an oral vernacular culture, and to appreciate it takes instincts, and exercise of neural pathways, that have atrophied in most of us.

In Mexico one feels the presence of peoples and ways of being that have been suppressed and denied for centuries, spirits impatient with the burden of an alien, abusive power. As a counterpoint to Sacks’ travel diary, I had Ronald Wright’s Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes, Wright is a generous Virgil to guide the traveller among the shades of these conquered lands. His book is a revelation-filled interpretation of the history of indigenous peoples of the Americas before and after the European conquest. It strikes an authentic tone of indignation against the savagery our European ancestors, grounded in honest respect for the indiginas. Iconoclastic books like Stolen Continents suggest to us that our challenge is not just, as Sacks does, to celebrate the exotic, but also to learn from the wisdom traditions of indigenous peoples the subtlety that we need to live more reverently on this earth.

It seems that there is no substitute for being there. With respect to Mexico and the Eurocentric bias of our education, armchair travelling cannot take you anywhere close to the glorious indigenous cultures that live and breathe in a place like Oaxaca. Sacks read some good books about Mexican history before he went, but Oaxaca gave him a kind of culture shock for which he felt utterly unprepared. “I had imagined, ignorantly,” he writes, “that civilization started in the Middle East. But I have learned that the New World, equally, was a cradle of civilization. The power and the grandeur of what I have seen has shocked me, and altered my view of what it means to be human.”

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