A Natural History of the Senses Summary

Diane Fink

A Natural History of the Senses

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Diane Ackerman is a woman intoxicated with the marvels of sensory experience. She keeps a wide plank by the tub so that she can write while luxuriating in a long bubble bath; she spends an hour each morning cutting and arranging a bowl of flowers from her own garden (though she does not say what she substitutes during the long winter months—her home is in Upstate New York); she drops casual references throughout her book to her many exotic adventures ("On a cruise to Antarctica ... “; “When I worked on a cattle ranch in New Mexico ... “; “When I was scuba- diving in the Bahamas ... .” This is a breathless book.

A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES is bursting with quirky facts and statistics about the way humans and other animals use their senses to interact with the environment. For example: Animal musk is so similar in chemical composition to human testosterone that a person can sniff out as tiny an amount as 0.000000000032 ounce. Among the Pygmies of Zaire, a mother keeps direct physical contact with her infant at least 50 percent of the time. The colors red and green are not visible to prairie dogs.

Such tidbits are interwoven with personal reflections, memories, descriptions of landscapes and the night sky, and—only once—a rather petulant outburst against “sensory misers.” There is much here to entertain, to surprise, to delight. Ackerman’s images are often dazzling (autumn: “Soon the leaves will start cringing on the...

(The entire section is 408 words.)