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Oliver Sacks on Nature’s Beauty as a Gateway into Deep Time and a Lens on the Interconnectedness of the Universe

“The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life… a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.”

Oliver Sacks on Nature’s Beauty as a Gateway into Deep Time and a Lens on the Interconnectedness of the Universe

“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in contemplating what our arboreal companions can teach us about belonging and life, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Nearly a century later Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) — another titan of insight at the nexus of nature and human nature — explored how trees root us in deep time and absolute presence. In his superb 1997 book The Island of the Colorblind (public library), Sacks recounts to Micronesia on a journey “not part of any program or agenda, not intended to prove or disprove any thesis, but simply to observe.”

Oliver Sacks at the New York Botanical Garden. (Photograph by Bill Hayes, Dr. Sacks’s partner, from How New York Breaks Your Heart.)

Wandering the rain forest of Rota in a state of reverence, Sacks echoes Thoreau’s ideas about nature as a form of prayer and writes:

I find myself walking softly on the rich undergrowth beneath the trees, not wanting to crack a twig, to crush or disturb anything in the least — for there is such a sense of stillness and peace that the wrong sort of movement, even one’s very presence, might be felt as an intrusion… The beauty of the forest is extraordinary — but “beauty” is too simple a word, for being here is not just an esthetic experience, but one steeped with mystery, and awe.

Sacks traces this sense of awe in nature to his most formative memories. He felt it first as a child, lying beneath the ferns — a lifelong love of his; he felt it again upon entering the iconic Kew Gardens as a young man — a place he found to be not only of botanical fascination but endowed with “an element of the mystical, the religious too.” More than a century after the great nature writer Richard Jefferies — a compatriot of Sacks’s and a peer in the small group of writers who enchant the reader with the science of the natural world — considered how nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between us and the rest of the natural world, Sacks considers the smallness of the word beauty in holding this expansive sense of awe in nature:

The primeval, the sublime, are much better words here — for they indicate realms remote from the moral or the human, realms which force us to gaze into immense vistas of space and time, where the beginnings and originations of all things lie hidden. Now, as I wandered in the cycad forest on Rota, it seemed as if my senses were actually enlarging, as if a new sense, a time sense, was opening within me, something which might allow me to appreciate millennia or eons as directly as I had experienced seconds or minutes.

He finds a parallel of this awe-induced fathoming of deep time in the mating rituals of horseshoe crabs near his home on City Island, New York — something he would later revisit in his sublime memoir. Every June for the past 400 million years, the horseshoe crabs emerge from the water, mate, deposit their eggs onto the sandy shores, then quietly return to the sea in which life began on the primordial Earth. In sharing a beach and a moment in time with these “rugged models, great survivors which have endured,” Sacks finds the same sublime consolation found in an ancient forest — a sense of deep time and an awareness of the interconnectedness of life consonant with the pioneering naturalist John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Standing amid the rainforest — a place governed by the beauty of interrelation — Sacks reflects:

The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life. Seeing these volcanic islands and coral atolls, and wandering, above all, through this cycad forest on Rota, has given me an intimate feeling of the antiquity of the earth, and the slow, continuous processes by which different forms of life evolve and come into being. Standing here in the jungle, I feel part of a larger, calmer identity; I feel a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.

Complement this particular fragment of the thoroughly fantastic Island of the Colorblind (public library) — which also gave us Sacks’s wisdom on evolving our notions of normalcy and treating the chronically ill with dignity — with Walt Whitman, a poet beloved by Sacks, on the wisdom of trees, then revisit Sacks on narrative as the pillar of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, the paradoxical power of music, and his stirring meditation on what makes for a life fully lived.

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Stephen Jay Gould’s Charming Poem for Oliver Sacks’s Birthday, Read by Bill Hayes

In loving praise of “this man, who’s in love with a cycad but once could have starred in a bike ad.”

“Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood,” Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) wrote in looking back on his extraordinary life during what he knew would be his final year. For decades, he celebrated his dual love of chemistry and birthdays by acquiring a physical form of the chemical element with the periodic table number corresponding to the age he was turning that year.

On Sacks’s gadolinium birthday in 1997, the great science writer Stephen Jay Gould composed a very bad, very lovely poem celebrating his friend’s scientific loves and lovable eccentricities. This playful cascade of allusions to Sacks’s influential books and the singular enchantments of his personhood appears in On the Move (public library) — Sacks’s sublime memoir of a life fully lived, in which he recounts Gould’s warm generosity in hosting birthday parties, writing birthday poems, and always baking a birthday cake using his mother’s recipe.

Stephen Jay Gould (left) and Oliver Sacks (photograph by Bill Hayes from Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me.)

At the inaugural Universe in Verse, science writer and photographer Billy Hayesthe love of Sacks’s life and the author of the beautiful memoir Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me — read Gould’s charming poem and prefaced it with an affectionate remembrance of its subject. Please enjoy:

FOR OLIVER’S BIRTHDAY, 1997
by Stephen Jay Gould

This man, who’s in love with a cycad
But once could have starred in a bike ad
King of multidiversity
Hip! Happy birth-i-day
You exceed what old Freud, past head psych, had.
One legg’d, migrained, color blinded
Awak’ning on Mars, and hat-minded
Oliver Sacks
Still lives life to the max
While his swimming leaves dolphins behinded.

For more of Sacks’s extraordinary and irreplaceable spirit, revisit his wisdom on narrative as the pillar of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, and the paradoxical power of music, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse, including astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to pioneering astronomer Caroline Herschel, Rosanne Cash reading Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie, poet Marie Howe reading her touching tribute to Stephen Hawking, and Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, generously composed bespoke for The Universe in Verse and a winner of the 2018 Rhysling Award for best long poem.

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The Building Blocks of Personhood: Oliver Sacks on Narrative as the Pillar of Identity

“Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives — we are each of us unique.”

The Building Blocks of Personhood: Oliver Sacks on Narrative as the Pillar of Identity

“A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote in his brilliant treatise on personhood, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” In thinking about how identity politics frays that parchment and fragments the essential wholeness of our personhood, I was reminded of a poignant passage by neurologist Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015), the poet laureate of the mind, from his 1985 classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (public library).

In the twelfth chapter, titled “A Matter of Identity,” Dr. Sacks recounts the case of a patient with a memory disorder that rendered him unable to recognize not only others but himself — unable, that is, to retain the autobiographical facts which a person constellates into a selfhood. To compensate for this amnesiac anomaly, the man unconsciously invented countless phantasmagorical narratives about who he was and what he had done in his life, crowding the void of his identity with imagined selves and experiences he fully believed were real, were his own, far surpassing what any one person could compress into a single lifetime. It was as though he had taken Emily Dickinson’s famous verse “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and turned it on himself to answer with a resounding “I’m Everybody!”

But just as depression can be seen as melancholy in the complex clinical extreme and bipolar disorder as moodiness in the complex clinical extreme, every pathological malady of the mind is a complex clinical extreme of a core human tendency that inheres in each of our minds in tamer degrees. By magnifying basic tendencies to such extraordinary extremes, clinical cases offer a singular lens on how the ordinary mind works — and that, of course, is the great gift of Oliver Sacks, who wrests from his particular patient case studies uncommon insight into the universals of human nature.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Adam Scourfield)

“Such a patient,” Sacks writes of the inventive amnesiac man, “must literally make himself (and his world) up every moment.” And yet that is precisely what we are all doing in a certain sense, to a certain degree, as we continually make ourselves and our world up through the stories we tell ourselves and others.

A decade after philosopher Amelie Rorty observed that “humans are just the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves,” Sacks examines the building blocks of that self-conception and how narrative becomes the pillar of our identity:

We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative — whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a “narrative,” and that this narrative is us, our identities.

If we wish to know about a man, we ask “what is his story — his real, inmost story?” — for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us — through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives — we are each of us unique.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Sacks considers the basic existential responsibility that stems from our narrative uniqueness:

To be ourselves we must have ourselves — possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must “recollect” ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat remains a classic of uncommon illumination. Complement this particular portion with Rorty on the seven layers of personhood and Borges on the nothingness of the self, then revisit Dr. Sacks on the three essential elements of creativity, the paradoxical power of music, what a Pacific island taught him about treating ill people as whole people, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.

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Inside Oliver Sacks’s Creative Process: The Beloved Writer’s Never-Before-Seen Manuscripts, Brainstorm Sheets, and Notes on Writing, Creativity, and the Brain

Inside the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of a brilliant mind at work.

Inside Oliver Sacks’s Creative Process: The Beloved Writer’s Never-Before-Seen Manuscripts, Brainstorm Sheets, and Notes on Writing, Creativity, and the Brain

“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself,” Oliver Sacks wrote as he reflected on storytelling and the curious psychology of writing. Indeed, what makes his writing so singular and splendid is that it makes the reader feel like she is listening to the inner song of the writer’s very consciousness, where concepts are syncopated, ideas harmonized, and divergent associations strummed into a smooth melody of meaning.

What a privilege, then, to witness the raw rhythm of that consciousness in Dr. Sacks’s notes to himself — the creative sandbox in which he worked out his ideas and sketched the skeletons of what he would later flesh out into essays and entire books.

Oliver Sacks writing in his seventies (Photograph by Bill Hayes from On the Move)

“The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks,” he professes in his indispensable memoir. “It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand.” That miscellany of canvases for informal thought is what I have the grateful chance to share here — a rare glimpse of an extraordinary mind at work, courtesy of Bill Hayes, Dr. Sacks’s partner (who has written beautifully about their love and life together in his memoir Insomniac City), with special thanks to Dr. Sacks’s editor, Dan Frank, and his longtime assistant and collaborator, Kate Edgar, currently heading the Oliver Sacks Foundation and putting together the Oliver Sacks archive of which these papers will one day be a part.

Using whatever paper and writing instrument he had on hand, Dr. Sacks jotted down ideas as they occurred to him — unedited, un-self-censored flights of fancy, captured before they flew away and later domesticated into the thoughtful, exquisitely structured, immensely insightful formal writings for which he is so beloved.

Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam’s busy train station (Photograph by Lowell Handler from On the Move)
Another thought recorded atop a car roof on the side of the road (Photograph from On the Move courtesy of Kate Edgar)

On a plain piece of legal paper, he ponders the mysteries of consciousness. In a lengthy diary entry snaking around the cartoon airplanes on an airline menu, he records with childlike wonder the thrill of being allowed to go inside the cockpit and marvels at the “hundreds! thousands of dials” inside the “tiny cabin.” On the inside of a folder, he contemplates what it means to be alive. On hotel stationery, he contrasts fancy and imagination. On two loose leaves stapled, he distinguishes between the two modes of creativity.

After countless hours of deciphering his archetypal doctorly handwriting, and with greatly appreciated help from Bill Hayes, I’ve transcribed the most notable of Dr. Sacks’s notes.

In one set of notes — part of what would become “The Creative Self,” one of ten essays in the forthcoming posthumous anthology The River of Consciousness — he appears to be offering a wonderful taxonomy of the two types of creative work: making and birthing, reminiscent of Lewis Hyde’s dichotomy of work vs. labor.

Dr. Sacks characterizes making as “elementary,” “primitive,” “juvenile,” and “pathological,” and birthing as “deep,” “motivated,” “personal,” “not immediate,” and “not conscious,” underlining “theoretical/structural.” Where making is driven by association and memory, birthing “needs ‘incubation'” and is marked by intuition. But before we hasten to assume that he valued the latter type of creative work more highly than the former, he lists Darwin as an example of a writer who makes and Rilke as one who births, which strongly suggests that he saw the two not as a hierarchy but as distinct, complementary forms of creative work — Darwin was, after all, one of Dr. Sacks’s great heroes.

He continues on a second page, contrasting the “quick” and “funny” thought process of making with the “pondering,” “weighing,” “judgment,” and “reflecting” of birthing. Where the former is aimed at “learning,” the latter is “concept-driven” or “self-driven.”

On another page, beside the circled exclamation “the miracle of language,” he considers the eternal question of why writers write, making his own contribution to the canon of excellent answers by writers like Jennifer Egan, W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner. Among his reasons, Dr. Sacks lists:

To:

understand
put in perspective
describe
explain
share
express myself
speak for others
recollect
tell stories
relate
narrate
“fix” in words
find verbal equivalent
define
categorize
generalize
create beauty
seduce
evoke

Next to “fun” and “wit,” he jots down a parenthetical example: “I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son” — a line from the memoirs of the great historian Edward Gibbon, which must have impressed itself upon Dr. Sacks’s literary imagination in the course of his lifetime of voracious reading.

In red ink, he adds another set of motives which differs from the first in seeming to be aimed more at the effect of writing than at its cause:

to praise
to condemn
to lament
to thank
to palliate
to reinforce
to solicit

On another piece of paper, he lists the categories of writing under the bold heading “The Writing Life”:

“PIECES”
BOOKS
JOURNALS
THINKS
LETTERS
PATIENT NOTES
PORTRAITS ~ bios
MEMOIR — AUTOBIO.
School or college “essays”

LIMERICKS
APHORISMS
EXHORTATIONS

On the inside of a folder, Dr. Sacks considers what it means to be alive:

Alive — hence universals of activity, organizing, adapting, but equally of individuality, identity, diversity.

He circles in red an insight he perhaps deemed most worthy of preservation and further development:

Organisms are not machines, computers, automata, replicas, factories, “standard models,” or identities (like atoms!).

Opposite it, he contrasts inner concerns (“passion, curiosity, concern, tenacity, audacity”) with the outer ones, among them “community” and two other illegible words. He then lists the encouraged qualities — in all organisms? in humans? in himself? — “adventure, novelty, risk, error, stimulation, support, adventure, freedom.”

On the back of the folder, he further crystallizes these wonderings and ponderings under the heading “Creativity and the Brain”:

The brain is alive, incessantly active, seething — physiologically — from the moment of birth to the moment of death. All brains — of idiots or geniuses, human beings or dogs. This is most evident in unusual/abnormal conditions.

He proceeds to consider the chief function of the brain:

ORDER OUT OF CHAOS. The brain is in an organism which has to negotiate a complex world, from adequate representation of the world. To understand the world — to seek or make meanings — categorize.

On can almost see the characteristic enthusiasm animating his beaming face as he adds, in two different colors for special emphasis:

BUZZING, BLOOMING CHAOS — literally chaos.

On a piece of stationery from the Ritz Carlton in Chicago, Dr. Sacks ponders memory and creativity, contrasts fancy and imagination, and lists as “The Neural Basis”:

Consciousness, creativity, sensibility, talent, personal… identity…

On a page from a yellow legal pad, he pours out, almost fully formed — as Hayes notes Dr. Sacks was apt to do — what would become the following passage in On the Move:

They called me Inky as a boy, and I still seem to get as ink stained as I did seventy years ago.

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs.

On another legal pad page, he jots down a short autobiographical sketch under the title “The Joy of Writing,” reminiscent of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince in its warmhearted contrast between the penchant for writing and the comical incapacity for drawing:

Words came to me early and easily, and I was reading and writing by the age of four or earlier.

On the other hand, I could not (and cannot) draw anything recognizably — my dogs look like insects, my elephants like amoebae. I seem to have almost no voluntary visual imagery. I cannot conjure up scenes of people or animals in my mind. I cannot “see” my parents or the house where I was born. And yet, I am told, my writing is often very “visual” — may call up vivid images in other people’s minds.

And indeed it does — how can one read Dr. Sacks’s vivid descriptions of the island of the colorblind or his vibrant account of nearly dying in a Norwegian fjord without being fully, sensorially transported to those scenes?

Complement with Dr. Sacks’s uncommonly moving memoir of his uncommon life on the move, then join me in donating to the Oliver Sacks Foundation to help make the preservation of his archive possible.

All manuscript photographs courtesy of Bill Hayes

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