I did not know Oliver Sacks, well not really. His was the face and voice of one of many of us who attended the New York Fern Society meetings usually held on the first Saturday of each month at the New York Botanical Gardens. I have been attending for about twenty years and Oliver Sacks sat among us fern lovers and plants enthusiasts, sometimes with a notebook in hand and at other times with a cane. He often wore a t-shirt illustrating ferns fronds. During show-and tell he sometimes informed us of upcoming book releases and postings in the New York Times, the New Yorker and other publications. Once we were treated to copies of a draft of an article about Darwin that was to soon after be published.
Oliver Sacks did not know me, well not really. I had addressed the group only briefly on a few occasions over the years and just for a few minutes. Mine was one of the many faces among the group at our monthly meetings, albeit the darkest face and for many years, the youngest face (It is strange to acknowledge one's own aging only after noticing the aging of others). We all strained our ears and necks around poles and potted fern to not miss a word of the many presentations done in power point in the often crowded, dark room as group leaders John Mickel and Robin Moran and various guest speakers presented images and chronicles of expeditions and research. Many were botanists and all were passionate plant lovers skillfully and often humorously displaying their interest in and knowledge of ferns and non-pteridophytes. Carol Gracie was one such presenter. She showcased her book Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast and inspired me to someday publish a book of photographs, observations and ramblings of the naturalist and plant geek that I have developed into. Our annual pot-luck meeting in December was always in attendance by members of the Society of Botanical Illustrators and by John from the gift shop, with copies of Oliver's books and many treats on ferns, fern allies and others on botanical illustration and plants in general. Oliver was available to autograph copies of his book with his signature green scrawl.
Our Fern Society group was the inspiration for Oliver's book titled Oaxaca Journal. I began to know him through reading this book, through his articles and posts and later through Hallucinations and lastly through On the Move. The shyness and extroversion that Oliver wrote about in On The Move was not often displayed in our group meetings. When he spoke it was often with much charm, clarity and humor though I rarely saw him interacting with individual group members and he seemed a bit reserved. I remember being a bit shocked to hear him speak of the cover photograph of On The Move where he described himself as "young and sexy". Indeed he is just that. He is quite a stud, clad in leather perched on his BMW.
Oliver Sacks did not know me, not well enough and this I understood as he explained in one of my last encounters with him. I was contemplating graduate studies at Cornell University and mustered up courage to ask him to write me a letter of recommendation. Oliver was very polite and respectfully declined. He explained that he would have to get to know me before he could write such a letter and since we had not worked together and that I was never his student or assistant it would take a time commitment that would not be organic or natural. I well understood from his writing that he was very selective about how and where his time was dispensed. I was a little peeved but understood. I was developing a bit of an online presence but since I had found out from his assistant years before that Oliver never used the computer, it seemed unlikely that he would ever read my blog posts, or look at my painting or garden design website online. If he did he would at least know a bit about me and on his own time, even if he never really got to know me. How does one know a person and what amount of time amounts to knowing them well? I never know and realize that I never knew people that I thought were close to me, even ones I had lived with for years. After that Saturday meeting Oliver and I exchanged smiles and brief hellos.
On March 7, the last day I saw Oliver, he was accompanied by an assistant who helped him up to the front of the group at our Fern Society meeting. The news of his diagnosis and then impending death was published just days before and he had so bravely come to the meeting to express his gratitude to the group for the many years of inspiration and excitement and to say goodbye. He was that kind of man; humble in his greatness. He explained that he first got an idea of his condition while in attendance at a Fern Society meeting earlier in February and realized that he was not feeling well. A trip to the bathroom indicated that something was seriously wrong and a subsequent visit to the doctor confirmed that his time was very limited. He would spend his last days with family and friends. I think everyone in the room silently cried.
I wrote a letter to Oliver hoping to see him at the following meeting, scheduled for April 11. Oliver never attended the meeting. He was with his family in England and I decided to make no effort to intrude on his time.
April 10, 2015.
I worked with Catherine to organize the summer fern foray trip to western Massachusetts that we made last June. We looked at ferns in and around the Hawley Bog, High Legends Nature Preserve, the garden of Elsa Bakalar in Heath and the garden of Jeffrey Farrel in Ashfield. Jeffrey is my mentor and long-time friend and was our guide. He is also the gardener who worked with Elsa for many years and now preserves her work. I garden with him whenever I can and Elsa's old garden is one of my favorite places to visit in New England. A few years before her death the property was sold to a painter named Scott Prior and his wife Nanette Vonnegut, who is also a painter. Scott and Nanette are very friendly people and whenever they were around they would reward Jeffrey and I with lemonade as we weeded in the open garden beds, surrounded by acres of deciduous forest. On a slope just meters from the garden sat a small frog and newt-happy pond in which we cool off. Scott had painted many pictures of his wife and family in and around that little pond that seemed very unused of late. Not many members of the Fern Society group attended that trip to MA which ended with a visit to the birth place of Mary Lyons, located just down the road from Jeffery Farrel's home. I wish you could have been there.
A few days before the trip to MA Scott notified Jeffrey that you were a good friend Nanettes's father, Kurt Vonnegut, and was a regular visitor near the end of his life. How small is the world after all?
I do hope that the doctor's predictions are wrong and that you are able to join us for many more Fern Society meetings. Thank you for educating, entertaining and inspiring us with your powers of observation, insight, wit and eloquence. It is my wish that you continue to live this extraordinary life you have been gifted and created for yourself and remain surrounded by people you love and who cherish you just as much.
Oliver Wolf Sacks died on August 30, 2015.
September 6, 2015
Many Happy Travels!