From Oaxaca to Blackheath in Ferns

Oliver Sacks was many things—neurologist, author, essayist, swimmer, thinker, partner to Bill, fern enthusiast. Sacks' fascination with ferns is chronicled in his 2002 book, Oaxaca Journal. The book tells of Sacks' expedition to Oaxaca in southern Mexico in early 2000.

With a neurologist's eye for detail and an uninhibited sense of wonder we could all do with, Sacks recounts his 'fern foray' with 'botanical companions'. Companions Sacks characterises as "a splendid group...enthusiastic, innocent, uncompetitive, united in our love for ferns."

Sacks describes his trip as "a wonderful fern adventure, with novelties and surprises, great beauty at every point"—but of course, it becomes more than that. During his time in Oaxaca, Sacks—in discovering the region's botany, culture, people, and history—ponders the profundity of immersion in an unfamiliar place. 

"The fern tour is turning out to be much more than a fern tour," he writes. "It is a visit to another, a very other, culture and place."

While it is the Oaxaca fern foray we read of in Oaxaca Journal, Sacks' delight in ferns was nurtured in regular trips closer to home. Sacks often visited the botanical gardens of New York City. There he spent time "discharg[ing] the tensions of the day", and writing.

"I start to think among the plants," Sacks told PBS in a 1989 interview.

New York to Oaxaca to Blackheath in Ferns

It was Sacks and his ferns on my mind while walking at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains recently.

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Most of the way from Govetts Leap along the Cliff Top walking track to Evans lookout runs parallel to the cliff edge and offers dramatic panoramic views across the valley—the sort of views that makes you curse yourself for not journeying to the mountains every weekend.

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The Grand Canyon track, which starts (and ends) at Evans lookout, is a six kilometre loop of glorious greenery—big old moss-covered trees, running streams, a waterfall or two, and plenty of ferns.

The walk from Govetts Leap to Evans Lookout, around the Grand Canyon track and back to where you began at Govetts Leap is about 12km. Of course you needn't tackle the tracks together, but it does make a good full day walk—particularly if you're commuting via train and walking to the start of the track from Blackheath Station (Govetts Leap lookout, and the start of the Cliff Top track, is an easy 3km walk from the station). If you're driving, you'll find carparks at both Govetts Leap and Evans lookout.

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The dedication in Sacks' Oaxaca Journal reads:

For the American Fern Society
and for plant hunters, birders, divers, stargazers, rock hounds,
fossickers, amateur naturalists the world over.

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