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book.jpgOaxaca Journal

By Oliver W. Sacks


Chapter OneOliver Sacks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7922-6521-1


I am on my way to Oaxaca to meet up with some botanical friends for a fern foray, looking forward to a week away from New York`s icy winter. The plane itself-an AeroMexico flight-has an atmosphere quite unlike anything I`ve ever seen. We are scarcely off the ground before everyone gets up-chatting in the aisles, opening bags of food, breast-feeding babies-an instant social scene, like a Mexican cafe or market. One is already in Mexico as soon as one boards. The seat-belt signs are still on, but nobody pays any attention to them. I have had a little of this feeling on Spanish and Italian planes, but it is far more marked here: this instant fiesta, this sunny laughing atmosphere all round me. How crucial it is to see other cultures, to see how special, how local they are, how un-universal one`s own is. What a rigid, joyless atmosphere there is, in contrast, on most North American flights. I begin to think I will enjoy this visit. So little enjoyment, in a sense, is "permitted" these days-and yet, surely, life should be enjoyed?

My neighbor, a jolly businessman from Chiapas, wishes me "Bon appetit!" then the Spanish version of this, "¡Buen provecho!" when the meal comes. I cannot read anything on the menu, so I say yes to what I am first offered-a mistake, for it turns out to be an empanada whereas I wanted the chicken or fish. My shyness, my inability to speak other languages, alas, is a problem. I dislike the empanada, but eat some as part of my acculturation.

My neighbor asks why I am visiting Mexico, and I tell him I am part of a botanical tour headed for Oaxaca, in the south. There are several of us on this plane from New York, and we will meet up with the others in Mexico City. Learning that this is my first visit to Mexico, he speaks glowingly of the country, and lends me his guidebook. I must be sure to visit the enormous tree in Oaxaca-it is thousands of years old, a famous natural wonder. Indeed, I say, I have known of this tree and seen old photos of it since I was a boy, and this is one of the things that has drawn me to Oaxaca.

The same kind neighbor, noticing that I have torn out the end pages, and even the title page, of a book proof in order to write on them, and that I am now looking worried and out of paper, offers me two sheets from a yellow pad (I stupidly placed my own yellow pad and a notebook in my main luggage).

Observing that I said yes when asked about the empanada, obviously having no idea what it was, and then as obviously disliking it when it came, my neighbor has again lent me his guidebook, suggesting that I look at the bilingual glossary of Mexican foods and the illustrations that go with this. I should be careful, for example, to distinguish between atún and tuna, for the Spanish word tuna does not denote tuna fish, but the fruit of a prickly pear. Otherwise I will keep getting fruit when I want fish.

Finding a section in the guidebook on plants, I ask him about Mala mujer, bad woman, a dangerous-looking tree with nettlelike stinging hairs. He tells me that youths in small-town dancing halls throw branches of it around to get the girls, everyone, scratching. This is something between a joke and a crime.

"Welcome to Mexico!" my companion says as we touch down, adding, "You will find much that is unusual and of great interest." As the plane draws to a halt he gives me his card. "Phone me," he says, "if there is any way I can be of help while you are visiting our country." I give him my address-I have to write it on a coaster, not having a card. I promise to send him one of my books, and when I see his middle name is Todd ("my grandfather came from Edinburgh"), I tell him about Todd`s palsy-a brief paralysis which sometimes follows an epileptic seizure-and promise to include a short bio of Dr. Todd, the Scottish physician who first described it.

I am very touched the sweetness and courtesy of this man. Is this a characteristic Latin American courtesy? A personal one? Or just the sort of brief encounter which happens on trains and planes?

* * *

We have a leisurely three hours in Mexico City airport-lots of time before our connection to Oaxaca. As I go to have lunch with two of the group (scarcely known to me as yet-but we will know each other well after a few days), one of them casts an eye on the little notebook I am clutching. "Yes," I answer, "I may keep a journal."

"You`ll have plenty of material," he rejoins. "We`re as odd a group of weirdos as you`re likely to find."

No, a splendid group, I find myself thinking-enthusiastic, innocent, uncompetitive, united in our love for ferns. Amateurs-lovers, in the best sense of the word-even though a more-than-professional knowledge, a huge erudition, is possessed a good many of us. He asks me about my own special fern interests and knowledge. "Not me ... I`m just going along for the ride."

In the airport we meet up with a huge man, wearing a plaid shirt, a straw hat and suspenders, just in from Atlanta. He introduces himself-David Emory-and his wife, Sally. He was at college with John Mickel (our mutual friend, who has organized this trip), he tells me, back in `52, at Oberlin. John was an undergrad then, David a grad student. He was the one who turned John onto ferns. He is looking forward to meeting up with John when we get to Oaxaca, he says. They have only seen each other two or three times since they were schoolmates, nearly fifty years ago. They meet, each time, on botanical expeditions, and the old friendship, the old enthusiasm, is back straightaway. Time and space are annulled as they meet, converging as they do from different time zones and places, but at one in their love, their passion, for ferns.

I confess that, even more than ferns, my own preference is for the so-called fern allies: clubmosses (Lycopodium), horsetails (Equisetum), spike mosses (Selaginella), whisk ferns (Psilotum). There would be plenty of those, too, David assures me: A new species of lycopodium was discovered on the last Oaxaca trip in 1990, and there are many species of selaginella; one, the "resurrection fern," is to be seen in the market, a flattened, seemingly dead rosette of dull green which comes to startling life as soon as it rains. And there are three equisetums in Oaxaca, he adds, including one of the largest in the world. "But psilotum," I say eagerly, "what about psilotum?" Psilotum, too, he says-two species, no less.

* * *

Even as a child, I loved the primitive horsetails and club-mosses, for they were the ancestors from which all higher plants had come. Outside the Natural History Museum (in London, where I grew up) there was a fossil garden, with the fossilized trunks and roots of giant clubmosses and horsetails, and inside were dioramas reconstructing what the ancient forests of the Paleozoic might have looked like, with giant horsetail trees a hundred feet high. One of my aunts had shown me modern horsetails (only two feet high) in the forests of Cheshire, with their stiff, jointed stems, their knob little cones on top. She had shown me tiny clubmosses and selaginellas, too, but she could not show me the most primitive of all, for psilotum does not grow in England. Plants resembling it-psilophytes-were the pioneers, the first land plants to develop a vascular system for transporting water through their stems, enabling them to stake a claim to the solid earth 400 million years ago, and paving the way for everything else. Psilotum, though sometimes called whisk fern, was not really a fern at all, for it had no proper roots or fronds, just an undifferentiated forking green stem, little thicker than a pencil lead. But despite its humble appearance, it was one of my favorites, and one day, I had promised myself, I would see it in the wild.

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. We also had a glassed-in conservatory, always warm and humid, where a great tassel fern hung, and delicate filmy ferns and tropical ferns could be grown. Sometimes on Sundays, my mother or one of her sisters, also botanically inclined, would take me to Kew Gardens, and here for the first time I saw towering tree ferns crowned with fronds twenty or thirty feet above the ground, and simulacra of the fern gorges of Hawaii and Australia. I thought these places the most beautiful I had ever seen.

My mother and my aunts had acquired their enthusiasm for ferns from their father, my grandfather, who came to London from Russia in the 1850s, when England was still in the throes of pteridomania-the great Victorian fern craze. Innumerable houses, including the one they grew up in, had their own terraria-Wardian cases-filled with varied and sometimes rare and exotic ferns. The fern craze was largely over 1870 (not least because it had driven several species to extinction), but my grandfather had kept his Wardian cases till his death, in 1912.

Ferns delighted me with their curlicues, their croziers, their Victorian quality (not unlike the frilled 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 splitting coal balls. Ferns had survived, with little change, for a third of a billion years. Other creatures, like dinosaurs, had come 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 stimulated ferns and fossil ferns.

* * *

"What gate do we go from?" everyone is asking. "It`s Gate 10," someone says. "They told me it was Gate 10."

"No, it`s Gate 3," someone else says, "It`s up there on the board, Gate 3." Yet another person has been told we are leaving from Gate 5. I have an odd feeling that the gate number is still, at this point, indeterminate. One thought is that there are only rumors of gate numbers until, at a critical point, one number wins. Or that the gate is indeterminable in a Heisenbergian sense, only becoming determinate at the final moment (which, if I have the right phrase, "collapses the wave function"). Or that the plane, or its probability, leaves from several gates simultaneously, pursuing all possible paths to Oaxaca.

Slight tension, hanging around, the gate finally resolved, awaiting the boarding call. Our plane was supposed to leave at 4:45 p.m., and now it is 4:50 and we have not even been boarded. (The plane, though, is here, waiting outside.) More meetings, encounters. There are nine of us now, or rather, eight of them-and me. For I have now retracted a little from the group, and am sitting a few yards from them, scribbling in my notebook.

There is almost always this doubleness, that of the participant-observer, as if I were a sort of anthropologist of life, of terrestrial life, of the species Homo sapiens. (This, I suppose, is why I took Temple Grandin`s words as the title of An Anthropologist on Mars, for I, no less than Temple, am a sort of anthropologist, an "outsider," too.) But is this not so of every writer as well?

Finally, we board. My new traveling companion, not part of our group, is an elderly bald man, heavy-lidded, with an Edward VII beard, who asks for a Diet Coke with rum (I am sipping a tomato juice, primly). I raise my eyebrows. "Keeps the calories down," he jokes.

"Why nor a diet rum, too?" I rejoin.

* * *

5:25 p.m.: We taxi endlessly about the monstrous tarmac, joltingly, too jokingly for me to write. This giant city, God help it, has a population of 18 million (or 23 million, according to another estimate), one of the largest, dirtiest cities in the world.

5:30 p.m.: We`re off! As we rise above the smear of Mexico City, which seems to stretch from one horizon to the other, my companion suddenly says, "See that ... that volcano? It is called Ixtaccihuatl. Its summit is always covered in snow. There, next to it, is Popocatépetl, its head in the clouds." Suddenly, he is a different man, proud of his land, wanting to show it, explain it, to a stranger.

It is an incredible view of Popocatépetl, its caldera nakedly visible and next to it a range of high peaks covered with snow. I am puzzled that these should be snow-covered, while the higher, volcanic cone is not-perhaps there is sufficient volcanic heat, even when it is not erupting, to melt the snow. With these amazing, magical peaks all around, one sees why the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was established here, at 7,500 feet.

My companion (now on his second rum and coke, in which I join him) inquires why I have come to Mexico. Business? Tourism? "Neither, exactly," I say. "Botany. A fern tour." He is intrigued, speaks of his own fondness for ferns. "They say," I add, "that Oaxaca has the richest fern population in Mexico."

My companion is impressed. "But you will not confine yourself to ferns?" He speaks then, with eloquence and passion, of pre-Columbian times: the astonishing sophistication of the Maya in mathematics, astronomy, architecture; how they discovered zero long before the Greeks; the richness of their art and symbolism; and how the city of Tenochtitlán had more than 200,000 people. "More than London, Paris, more than any other city on Earth at the time, except the capital of the Chinese empire." He speaks of the health and strength of the natives, how athletes would run in relays four hundred kilometers without stopping, from Tenochtitlán to the sea, so that the royal family could have fresh fish every day. About the Aztec`s amazing communication network, surpassed only that of the Inca in Peru. Some of their knowledge, some of their achievements, he concluded, seem superhuman, as if they were indeed Children of the Sun, or visitors from another planet.

And then-does every Mexican know, dwell in, his own history like this, this aching consciousness of the past?-and then came Cortés and the conquistadors, bringing not only new weapons but new sicknesses to a people who had never known them: smallpox, tuberculosis, venereal diseases, even flu. There were fifteen million Aztec in Mexico before the Conquest, but within fifty years only three million-poor, degraded, enslaved-were left. Many had been killed outright, but even more had succumbed, defenseless, to the diseases imported the Europeans. The native religion and culture were diluted and impoverished too, replaced the foreign traditions and churches of the conquistadors. But along with this came a rich and fertile mixing, a miscegenation which was cultural as well as physical. My neighbor goes on to speak of the "double nature, the double culture," of Mexico, the Mexicans, the complexities, positive and negative, of such a "double history." And then, as we are landing, he speaks of Mexico`s political structures and institutions, their corruptness and inefficiency, and the extreme inequity of income, how Mexico has more billionaires than any other country save the U.S., but also more people living in desperate poverty.

* * *

As we descend from the plane in Oaxaca city I can see John and Carol Mickel-my friends from the New York Botanical Garden-waiting in the airport. John is an expert on the ferns of the New World, of Mexico in particular. He has discovered more than sixty new species of fern in the province of Oaxaca alone and (with his younger colleague Joseph Beitel) described its seven hundred-odd species of fern in their book Pteridophyte Flora of Oaxaca, Mexico. He knows where each of these ferns is to be found-their sometimes secret, or shifting, locations-better than anyone. John has been to Oaxaca many times since his first trip in 1960, and it is he who has arranged this expedition for us.

While his special expertise lies in systematics, the business of identifying and classifying ferns, tracing their evolutionary relationships and affinities, he is, like all pteridologists, an all-round botanist and ecologist too, for one cannot study ferns in the wild without some understanding of why they grow where they do, and their relationship to other plants and animals, their habitats. Carol, his wife, is not a professional botanist, but her own enthusiasm, and her many years with John, have made her almost as knowledgeable as he is.



Excerpted from Oaxaca Journal by Oliver W. Sacks Copyright © 2002 by Oliver Sacks
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



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