“There is no end to the odd things that New Yorkers do on Saturday mornings,” neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015 of a metastatic melanoma in one of his eyes, writes in his last book, “Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales.” In this case, he speaks as a member of the American Fern Society about one of its weekend field trips, this time on foot below Park Avenue’s viaduct. Armed with magnifying glasses, the group travels along a busy route whose traffic doesn’t deter them from botanizing.
All his long life, Sacks’ wide-ranging curiosity served him and his readers well. Here, he explains that the structure’s crevices and crumbling mortar are the perfect habitat for xerophytic ferns, that is, those that tolerate long dry spells. Not all ferns are delicate, requiring constant moisture. Surprisingly, they are among the “toughest plants on the planet,” and often the first to sprout on new lava.
The city’s old concrete yields everything from tiny specimens demanding close inspection with a hand lens to a gigantic cliff fern almost 6 feet across. Some botanical gardens house ferns more than a century old. They die if they run out of food or, as the cliff fern sometimes does, because it grows so big and heavy, it falls to the ground.
Sacks, perhaps best known for his book “Awakenings,” which was made into a movie with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” also wrote many short pieces for The New Yorker and The New York Times magazine and book review, as well as literary and scientific journals. While the fern foray appeared originally in “The New Yorker” — and another book, “Oaxaca Journal,” chronicling a marvelous fern field trip in southern Mexico — several pieces in the new book are previously unpublished.
Fans of Sacks’ writing will find his favorite topics revisited here. In “Water Babies,” for example, he admits to being “self-conscious, nervous, and also rather clumsy,” but while swimming, he experiences a “delicious transformation in myself.” When he moved to New York, he began swimming circuits of City Island. One time, he came ashore to see a gazebo, walked farther, “found a little red house for sale” and, dripping wet, made an offer in his swim trunks.
In “Libraries,” he recalls his parents’ library, where he began reading at age 3 or 4. His public library was only five minutes away. Since he disliked school and “was not a good pupil,” books and reading were personal passions. At Oxford, he saw all Darwin’s books in their original editions. But in the 1990s, he noticed fewer books on shelves, more computers and electronic readers, devices he never took to. Books were being thrown away.
Late in life as his vision was failing, he writes in “Reading the Fine Print” that he still wanted “a real book made of paper.” But now there were fewer large print books, no poetry, no biographies, no science, mostly “how-to books and trashy novels.” He asks, “ … did publishers think the visually impaired were intellectually impaired, too?”
In “Elephant,” he explores photography that captured motion, and in “Orangutan,” he shares a strong connection with a female great ape, who returns his touch on the glass separating them. “Filter Fish” recalls his delight in gefilte fish while “Tea and Toast” reveals the perils of a diet lacking vitamin B12.
Another essay, “Cold Storage,” tells of a family with someone called Uncle Toby, who had pretty much stopped moving and stood quietly in a corner, doing nothing. Another doctor told Sacks that the man had been in this unconscious state for seven years. His temperature was only 68 degrees. In fact, he was in a hypothyroid coma. Magically, as medications were given, Uncle Toby warmed and came out of cold storage.
Several essays deal with neurological subjects. “The Seduction of Madness” examines bipolar disorder, “Kuru” the cause of mad-cow disease, and “Aging Brain,” dementia. Some pieces discuss chemistry, which Sacks loved since childhood, while another, “The Night of the Ginkgo,” takes a quick look at a “living fossil.” All this writing shares his well-known charm and self-effacing kindness.
“Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales” by Oliver Sacks, Knopf, 278 pp., $26.95