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.


PS: Martha Stewart talks ferns (and this book) with Oliver Sacks. Bonus: he brings along a resurrection fern


  1. Ferns are the oldest plants aren’t they? Which is a bit creepy!

    What a multi talented man Dr Sacks is, knowing about all these things and being able to write about them.


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