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Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca

Reading Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal in Oaxaca is a particularly sad experience because he died just about five years ago. That seems like yesterday, his influence is still so fresh, his ideas and books are still everywhere and yet, and yet he’s gone. He remains one of our great investigators of the human condition, someone who was such a fantastic translator of the obscure, alien and complex topics of neurology into language that anyone can understand. When my mom was in surgery for a brain tumor, my dad read The Husband Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat not knowing whether she’d ever recognize him again. Sacks was critical to getting through that experience and thinking about how to deal with a new and evolving reality. 

It took me a while to finally read it but after the hundredth time of seeing it on the shelf at Amate Books, Oaxaca’s big English bookstore, I bit. It’s always been one of the five or ten books that seems to be everywhere in the town, and for obvious reasons.

In classic fashion I brought it home and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished when I had to pinch myself because this is yet another book that I should have read earlier in my life. It’s full of such a rich experience and voice that we can all benefit from it no matter whether we care about Oaxaca – more than anything Sacks brings a clarity of tone and fun curiosity to every subject that he touches. Hell, he barely even mentions mezcal, the real reason he visited was to study ferns.

Unbeknownst to me ferns are a big thing with their own collection of obsessives. There is an 120 year old American Fern Society and an entire collection at the New York Botanical Garden which obviously must mean that there are people obsessed with ferns. The Oaxaca Journal introduces us to them as they trek around Oaxaca in search of all the rare species they only heard about previously. The group is composed of outsiders, Sacks among them, and his observations of their quirks, his own, and how they interact with Oaxaca is something obsessives of every stripe can appreciate.

That’s especially true of mezcal people because we tend to focus myopically on a single plant, the mysterious and crazy agave. Along the rides to agave fields, and while standing in them, I’ve grown used to states of constant shock at what else is growing around me. On my first trip to Hierve el Agua years ago the sight of bromeliads and orchids dripping from trees along the mountain track left me thinking, ‘wait, this stuff actually exists in the wild?’

Since then the biodiversity of Oaxaca just keeps surprising whether it be all the amazing fruit trees that grow in and around palenques or still more exotic species. One day a while back I was staring up at the sky absentmindedly in the centro when I realized that there were all these strange plants growing out of the power lines overhead. It too me a beat to realize that they were all air plants. The same ones go for $5 -$20 a pop in the San Francisco and there they were growing like weeds probably posing some form of hazard to local utilities. I’m surprised that enterprising Oaxacans haven’t made a business out of this yet, maybe they already have…

And that doesn’t even touch the diversity of the local culinary world. The variety of mushrooms make any mycologist blanch. The variety of local herbs make chef’s eyes grow wide. Plus there’s the chocolate, the coffee, and on and on and on. But most importantly it’s the culture that weaves it all together and the encounter that I always feel as I brush up against it. I’m always an outsider, always welcomed, but I know that I’m not really a part of it, I’m observing and interacting, trying to break through and that’s what Sacks really conveys so well.

Almost as important as all of this is that Oaxaca Journal conveys the joys and sensations of travel, how an encounter with different place and culture sweeps you off your feet. Sacks was in the area for a scant ten days and reminds me so exquisitely of what I miss about the place. As we’re fond of saying, when this is all over I’ll be back, until then I have my memories and shared memories like Sack’s journal to tide me over.

Max co-founded Mezcalistas with Susan way back in 2012. Before that he was a journalist at Salon.com and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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