Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “oliver sacks memoir”

The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature

“In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature

“I work like a gardener,” the great painter Joan Miró wrote in his meditation on the proper pace for creative work. It is hardly a coincidence that Virginia Woolf had her electrifying epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking amid the flower beds in the garden at St. Ives. Indeed, to garden — even merely to be in a garden — is nothing less than a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life, so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity; a reminder that we are creatures enmeshed with the great web of being, in which, as the great naturalist John Muir observed long ago, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”; a return to what is noblest, which means most natural, in us. There is something deeply humanizing in listening to the rustle of a newly leaved tree, in watching a bumblebee romance a blossom, in kneeling onto the carpet of soil to make a hole for a sapling, gently moving a startled earthworm or two out of the way. Walt Whitman knew this when he weighed what makes life worth living as he convalesced from a paralytic stroke: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

Those unmatched rewards, both psychological and physiological, are what beloved neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) explores in a lovely short essay titled “Why We Need Gardens,” found in Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library) — the wondrous posthumous collection that gave us Sacks on the life-altering power of libraries. He writes:

As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.

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

Having lived and worked in New York City for half a century — a city “sometimes made bearable… only by its gardens” — Sacks recounts witnessing nature’s tonic effects on his neurologically impaired patients: A man with Tourette’s syndrome, afflicted by severe verbal and gestural tics in the urban environment, grows completely symptom-free while hiking in the desert; an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease, who often finds herself frozen elsewhere, can not only easily initiate movement in the garden but takes to climbing up and down the rocks unaided; several people with advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, who can’t recall how to perform basic operations of civilization like tying their shoes, suddenly know exactly what to do when handed seedlings and placed before a flower bed. Sacks reflects:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

Art by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali from The Forest by Riccardo Bozzi

More than half a century after the great marine biologist and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson asserted that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Sacks adds:

Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether delicious Everything in Its Place with naturalist Michael McCarthy on nature and joy, pioneering conservationist and Wilderness Act co-composer Mardy Murie on nature and human nature, and bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer on gardening and the secret of happiness, then revisit Oliver Sacks on nature and the interconnectedness of the universe, the building blocks of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.

BP

Oliver Sacks on Libraries

In praise of intellectual freedom, community, and the ecstasy of serendipitous discovery.

Oliver Sacks on Libraries

“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote as she celebrated the sacredness of public libraries. “A library is a rainbow in the clouds,” Maya Angelou exulted in reflecting on how a library saved her life. It was thanks to the library that James Baldwin read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon. “You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her lovely poems celebrating libraries and librarians.

Among the titans of mind and spirit shaped and saved by libraries was the great neurologist, author, and voracious reader Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015).

Oliver Sacks, 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)

In a short essay titled “Libraries,” found in the bittersweet posthumous collection Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library), Sacks recalls his childhood in England with the unsentimental sweetness that makes his autobiographical writings so delicious:

The oak-paneled library was the quietest and most beautiful room in the house, to my eyes, and it vied with my little chemistry lab as my favorite place to be. I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost. Whenever I was late for lunch or dinner I could be found, completely enthralled by a book, in the library. I learned to read early, at three or four, and books, and our library, are among my first memories.

But the ur-library, for me, was our local public library, the Willesden library. There I spent many of the happiest hours of my growing-up years — our house was a five-minute walk from the library — and it was there I received my real education.

Like many of us, Sacks found his natural curiosity unstimulated, blunted even, by the industrial model of education into which he was thrust. At the library, where he was master of his own time and mind, he found the antidote — the living substance of learning without the ill-fitting structure of schooling:

On the whole, I disliked school, sitting in class, receiving instruction; information seemed to go in one ear and out the other. I could not be passive — I had to be active, learn for myself, learn what I wanted, and in the way that suited me best. I was not a good pupil, but I was a good learner, and in the Willesden library — and all the libraries that came later — I roamed the shelves and stacks, had the freedom to select whatever I wanted, to follow paths that fascinated me, to become myself. At the library I felt free — free to look at the thousands, tens of thousands, of books; free to roam and to enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like myself, on quests of their own.

But it was at the majestic Oxford libraries that his belonging in place and time came fully abloom in the landscape of literature:

It was in the vaults of the Queen’s College that I really gained a sense of history, and of my own language.

While Sacks found at the library a locus of liberation via self-directed learning, he also found the seeming opposite — a surprising sense of community, which became a lovely complement to his newfound intellectual autonomy:

Though the library was quiet, whispered conversations might start in the stacks — two of you, perhaps, were searching for the same old book, the same bound volumes of Brain from 1890 — and conversations could lead to friendships. All of us in the library were reading our own books, absorbed in our own worlds, and yet there was a sense of community, even intimacy. The physicality of books — along with their places and their neighbors on the bookshelves — was part of this camaraderie: handling books, sharing them, passing them to one another, even seeing the names of previous readers and the dates they took books out.

Art by Mouni Feddag from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, benefiting the public library system.

When Sacks moved to New York City in 1965 and began working on his first book — the epoch-making Migraine, which not only revolutionized our understanding of one of the mind’s most mystifying frontiers but ushered in a whole new aesthetic of lyrical writing about medicine — the library became his escape from the notorious oppressions and privations of a young person’s first New York shoebox:

At that time I had a horrid, poky little apartment in which there were almost no surfaces to read or write on. I was just able, holding an elbow awkwardly aloft, to write some of Migraine on the top of the refrigerator. I longed for spaciousness. Fortunately, the library at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I worked, had this in abundance. I would sit at a large table to read or write for a while, and then wander around the shelves and stacks. I never knew what my eyes might alight upon, but I would sometimes discover unexpected treasures, lucky finds, and bring these back to my seat.

I have often wondered and worried about what rapturous rewards of such serendipitous discovery we relinquish when we surrender to search, that double-edged glory of the Internet. We may have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, but they are still appendages of our consciously informed intent — we reach for what we know to reach for. It is an odd question I live with daily, suspended and often sundered between these two strands of knowledge: Brain Pickings exists in the world of the Internet, but draws on the world of “unexpected treasures” found on bookshelves, unlooked for. My experience of it — of how I read what I read and how I write about it — is largely one of serendipitous discovery. It mirrors my childhood experience of pulling an encyclopedia off the shelf of my grandmother’s formidable library in Bulgaria, opening to a random page, learning about something I did not know to wonder about until I discovered it, then telling my parents about it with ecstatic enthusiasm. Sacks experienced this intimately — it was amid the stacks the library that he discovered Edward Liveing’s obscure 1873 book Megrim, which inspired him to write Migraine. Perhaps he never used a computer, not even as he continued to write prolifically into the twenty-first century, not out of some time-stilted Luddism but because he resisted, passionately and to the hilt, the relinquishing of this ecstasy of discovery.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Everything in Its Place is a wondrous read in its entirety, irradiating Sacks’s kaleidoscopic curiosity across subjects as varied as the joy of swimming, the pains of first love, the glories of the gingko tree, the surreal turns the mind takes under various rare neurological conditions, and the relationship between gardens and creativity. Complement this particular portion with an illustrated love letter to books by some of the greatest minds of our time, benefiting the public library system, then revisit Sacks on the building blocks of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, his formative reading list of 121 favorite books, the remarkable story of how he saved his own life by reciting poetry, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.

BP

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.

BP

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.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.