The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island by Oliver Sacks

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 35)

Readers who are familiar with Oliver Sacks’s earlier works will find familiar echoes of each of them in this new volume of casually related essays. Sacks, the unconventional, humanistic neurologist of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) and Awakenings (1973), has chosen to examine the rare and exotic condition of the congenitally color-blind community on the islands of Pingelap and Pohnpei in Micronesia, in addition to studying the high incidence of lytico-bodig, a many-symptomed disease common among the Chamoffos, which mysteriously disappeared from Guam in 1952. Not surprisingly, Sacks brings to his study of the insular achromatopes of Micronesia the same powers of observation and empathy that he displayed in his study of deaf culture in Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf(1989); to his exploration of the causes of the paralysis and the motor dysfunctions of the sufferers of lytico-botig, he brings the same philosophical rumination and human warmth that he showed toward the patients with neurological deficits in his collection of casebook studiesThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The last section of The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island, which describes a journey to Rota, Guam’s closest geological sibling in the Marianas chain, is a highly personal and nostalgic reminiscence of Sacks’s richly botanical childhood and a paean to the cycads of his youth and the massive and plentiful cycads of the jungles of Rota. This descent into the intimately biographical will not seem unusual to readers of Sacks’s earlier autobiographical work A Leg to Stand On (1984), in which he detailed, in sometimes embarrassing detail, his own highly emotional experience of a leg injury that left him both incapacitated and contemplative.

The first essay in book 1, entitled “Island Hopping,” is perhaps the only key to whatever slim thread of continuity is to be found in this volume.The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island is in some ways a book about Sacks’s lifelong fascination with islands and the insular experience. It is a book about the ways that islands both isolate and intrigue. It is a book about the ways they bring forth extinction as well as new life forms. It is a book about the ways they heighten the vagaries of nature and provide the curious scientist with fascinating objects of study, both human and botanical.

Sacks is as passionately interested in the beauty of palms and ferns as he is in the human cost of color blindness. He finds the tenacity of the cycads in their ever dwindling ecological niche as interesting for reflection as the condition of the mute sufferers of lytico-bodig. His scientific curiosity is at once extremely narrow (only the unique and the unusual arrest his attention) and extremely catholic (anything exotic might come within its purview). Sacks is in the distinguished company of Ferdinand Magellan, Herman Melville, and Charles Darwin; he is an explorer with a lust for knowledge that would be Faustian if it were not so eminently good-natured.

For his visit to the islands of the color-blind, Pingelap and Pohnpei, Sacks assembled a small team of scientists: Knut Norby, an expert on color blindness, who was himself color-blind; Bob Wasserman, an ophthalmologist with an interest in visual anomalies; and Sacks himself, a neurologist and successful popularizer of medical casebook studies. Sacks’s hope was to study an achromatic community, an entire group of people whose experience of the world would be individually unique and whose collective daily interactions might exhibit signs of their special condition. The focus of the expedition was anthropological and humanitarian, equally divided between observation and ministration. The distribution of spectacles and dark glasses was as important to the team of investigators as was the careful recording of findings.

While one-third of the population of Pingelap carries the gene for “maskun” (color blindness), only...

(The entire section is 1,722 words.)