Oliver Sacks: Fern Crazy

Neurologist and best-selling author, Oliver Sacks, died on August 30 at the age of 82, after learning in February this year he had terminal cancer. Much has been written about Dr Sacks since his death, touching on his legacy to medicine, his humanity, his great storytelling. But rather than summarise a life, I’d like to celebrate Dr Sacks by talking about one of his true obsessions … ferns.

When I heard of Dr Sacks’ death I did two things relatively quickly. Firstly, I watched the film ‘Awakenings’ starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, which is based on Sacks’ work with ‘sleepy sickness’ patients (it has nothing to do with plants, but is wonderful regardless). Secondly, I read, for the fourth or fifth time, his book, ‘Oaxaca Journal’ (2002). This book is about ferns, and that’s why I want to recommend it.

English born Sacks was all number of things: he was an Oxford-trained medical doctor specialising in neurological disorders; a celebrated author of books like ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’ (1985); a motorcycle enthusiast; and for some time a champion bodybuilder at Muscle Beach in California. It’s a lesser-known fact that from 1993 until the end of his life, he was also a paid up member of the American Fern Society. ‘I had to be out of the country, or very sick, to miss the monthly AFS meeting,’ he once admitted.

I grew up in the 1930s in a house whose garden was filled with ferns. My mother preferred them to flowering plants, and though we had roses trellised up the walls, the greater part of the flower beds was given over to ferns.’

This began a lifetime’s fascination. In ‘Oaxaca Journal’, Dr Sacks explains his pteridomania – that’s fern craziness – and takes us on a 10-day tour, along with thirty or so other fern enthusiasts, to the south of Mexico. What starts as an informal diary, describing a botanical field trip, becomes a warm, engaging account of friendship, belonging, the joy of travel, and an open celebration of our human quirks.

‘The fern tour is turning out to be much more than a fern tour,’ says Sacks.

But why does this serious-minded bunch (‘bunch’, I think, is the most fitting collective noun for a group of travelling fern people) go in search of ferns in southern Mexico? Oaxaca, as it turns out, is one of the most botanically rich parts of the world, and is particularly abundant with fern life. There are something like 700 species of ferns in Oaxaca alone, whereas around 400 species in the whole of North America. It’s a kind of living playground for fern hunters.

In the early chapters of the book, the eyes and minds of the travellers are firmly focused on botany. There are field trips (‘Having ferned for an hour, we take a break for our lunch and I eat, unwisely, quite an enormous meal … A sandwich, two sandwiches, a third sandwich, dessert, and a couple of beers to top it off,’ moans Sacks) and exciting fern discoveries (‘John Mickel shows us a frond from a rare Elaphoglossum – he risked his life, apparently, crawling far out on a tree limb to get it’). Even amongst the colossal ruins of Monte Albán some in the group remain one-eyed, crouching in the grass fields ‘examining the minute flora of the region with their hand lens’.

But don’t forget this is Mexico we’re talking about – and it’s not long before the most hardened of fern fanatics are won over by its colour, food, culture and people. The group stops to sample some locally made mezcal (which is particularly good, and potent, in Oaxaca), and the transformation is instant:

A strange joviality overcomes everyone,’ writes Sacks. ‘We smile at each other, we laugh at nothing. We spend two hours tippling (and buying absurd trinkets) in the middle of the day. This is the first time I have seen our somewhat austere and intellectually dedicated group let themselves go, relax, giggle, be silly.’

The real pleasure of the book is seeing this silly side – and learning of the shared experiences of the travellers, who have jumbled together for the sake of their obsession. Dr Sacks was best known for exploring the human brain, but here we have access to his own emotional landscape: from darkly comedic moments (‘There is a huge amount of knowledge on this bus. It would be an irreparable loss to systematic botany, I think, if we crashed’) to the impact on him of a few days spent in Mexico:

‘I have a strong feeling of being one of the group, of belonging, of communal affection – a feeling that is extremely rare in my life, and may be in part cause of a strange “symptom” I have had, an odd feeling in the last day or so, which I was hard put to diagnose, and first ascribed to the altitude. It was, I suddenly realise, a feeling of joy, a feeling so unusual I was slow to recognise it. There are many causes for this joyousness, I suspect – the plants, the ruins, the people of Oaxaca – but the sense of this sweet community, belonging, is surely a part of it.’

Dr Sacks was always the visionary, and somehow even got the jump on his obituary writers. Only a few weeks after learning he had terminal cancer, he wrote a short opinion piece for The New York Times, sharing insights on his life, and describing how he planned to spend his last months (smartly, I think, by switching off the news). He observed how:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.’

In the ‘Oaxaca Journal’, Dr Sacks tells us how he managed a bit of all that in Mexico, amongst his motley gang of fern lovers. They meet, they form and deepen friendships; they gallivant around Oaxaca on a bus, and begin to understand what it is to be alive, and to say goodbye.

‘Tomorrow we will all have to leave this place and go back to our jobs in Los Angeles or Seattle or Atlanta or New York,’ Sacks says, in the final chapter. ‘But for now, there is nothing to do but sit under the great bald cypress by the river and enjoy the simple animal pleasure of being alive.’