Sunday, May 6, 2012

Oliver Sacks on Cycads

'We moved past great coral canyons, with their endless forms and colours and their gnarled and twisted branches, some shaped liked mushrooms, some like trees, being nibbled at by tetrodons and filefish. Clouds of tiny zebra fish and fish of an iridescent blue swam through them, and around me. We saw flatworms waving like tiny scarves in the water and plump polychaetes with iridescent bristles. Large starfish, startlingly blue, crawled slowly on the bottom, and spiny sea urchins made me glad my feet were protected by fins'..................... Oliver Sacks from The Island of the Colour-blind.

The idiosyncratic and wonderfully humorous Dr Oliver Sacks had a reason for snorkeling in Pacific coral reefs. He was in search of the perfect shade of indigo blue, a colour which he saw in a vision while partaking in illicit substances during his younger days. This aspect of his crowded mind was not included in this book as the focus was on bringing attention to those who suffer from colour-blindness or Achromatopsia, where it is a hereditary condition on the islands of Pingelap and Pohnpei. The second half of the book centres on the Cycad islands of Guam and Rota where a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disorder afflicts a high proportion of the inhabitants.

Picador books (published by Pan Macmillan Australia in 1996)

While visiting Pohnpei, Sacks partook in a ceremony of drinking Sakau or what we call by the Fijian name of Kava. The video is included below.The sakau plant, Piper methysticum, was named by father and son German naturalists, Johann and Georg Forster, who accompanied Captain James Cook on his second voyage to the South Pacific in 1772 after Joseph Banks withdrew at the last moment. They called it rauschpfeffer or intoxicating pepper and in their diaries they recount the preparation of the sakau for drinking by Islander men inside Cook's cabin: It is made in the most disgusting manner...the root is cut very small, and the pieces chewed by several people who spit the macerated mass in a bowl when some water of coconuts is poured over it.
Sacks describes his encounter with sakau eloquently. It brought on an 'unctuous mellifluous flow of thought so far from my anxious, querulous frame of mind.'

 Kava, Piper methysticum (photo by Forest and Kim Starr on Wikimedia)
Another species of Piper from New Zealand was named in Cook's honour, P captaincookia.

German naturalists Johann Forster (1729-1798) and Georg Forster (1754-1794) 
Portrait from 1775 in Tahiti.

Cycas revoluta  
Japanese Sago Palm
 The Cycad botany from this book is equally as interesting though since it was written the origin and age of Cycad species is no longer considered to be from the Jurassic age.The most common species grown here and widely used in the landscaping industry is Cycas revoluta. Eminent Australian naturalist David Jones is quoted on this species and he recounts how the seeds of this plant are used on the Ryukyu Islands of Japan to make a form of Sake. Drinking it is almost as deadly as a game of Russian roulette, since it is slightly poisonous and occasionally a potent batch kills all those who partake. Eat with a meal of puffer fish or fugu!
Welcome to the wonderful world of plants Oliver Sacks style.
R.I.P Oliver Sacks 1933-2015

No comments:

Post a Comment