Oliver Sacks and the Comforts of Metal

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of Awakenings (brainpickings.org)

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of the film Awakenings
(brainpickings.org)

I was first aware of Oliver Sacks with the publication in 1985 of his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The descriptions of his mentally ill patients were as intriguing as the title. A few years later, Robin Williams played Sacks in Awakenings, the story of the kind and idealistic doctor who finds a drug that revives his catatonic patients at a hospital in the Bronx.

Sacks died of cancer in 2015. He had been writing for a few months for the New York Times about his struggle. One of these wrenching and beautiful pieces is “My Periodic Table.” In it, Sacks describes three aspects of nature in which he sees different sides of himself.

“Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.” With death approaching, “I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.” These include element 81, Thalium, a souvenir of last year’s 81st birthday; Lead, 82, for the birthday just celebrated; and Bismuth, 83. “I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having ‘83’ around.”

(Reading this touched off my own memory of how, as a boy, I tried with my father’s help to collect all 92 natural elements. In a display case on the wall over my bed I placed some sulfur and carbon from my chemistry set, small bottles of hydrogen, nitrogen and other gases that I had made, and bits of lead, iron, and other metals. Bringing together in my room the building blocks of nature felt like a commanding achievement, though the final display came to only about 20 items.)

While Sacks finds consolation in the basic metals, he responds differently to the stars. About viewing the starry sky one night, he writes that “It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience—and death.”

Lastly, when he “wanted to have a little fun” before beginning immunotherapy, he visited the lemur research center in North Carolina. “Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose, and I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today. I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature.”

A lively ancestor, mortality among the stars, deathless birthday metals—a sacred trinity of sorts, Sacks’ selection of holy companions. We select from nature according to our joys and fears. The chemical elements mean little to me now and I don’t have thoughts one way or the other about metals and their durability. But I share sometimes Sacks’ sense of feeling belittled by the stars; they do inspire awe, but in contemplating my life and death, I’m in need of something friendlier. For me, Sacks’ lemurs are on a better track. I find consolation by including myself among the mass of organisms of all kinds—not just humans—living and dying now, the wave of rising and falling life as the current of beings sweeps on, out of its billion-year past.

What Is the “Nature” In Naturalism?

Religious or spiritual naturalism (I’ll use spiritual for both) is a subject dear to my heart. But sometimes I wonder about what exactly we have in mind when we use the word nature. In what I read and even in what I’ve written, the meaning of nature seems prone to being shifted or narrowed to suit the discussion. I bring up the topic with some trepidation because nature is at the core for groups I am happily part of. But maybe that’s a good reason to raise it.

Virtually everyone values nature in the form of the woods, the fields, the mountains and ocean, the animals, plants, the air and water around them. But if asked for a definition of nature, spiritual naturalists offer up a generally accepted definition that is much broader than any of this earthly scenery. Nature as spiritual naturalists conceive of it is all that would not be considered supernatural. Nature refers to the universe of materials and forces that we perceive with our senses and that scientists infer from their observations.

But the breadth of this definition may take us places we had not planned on going. We often reiterate, for example, that we humans are part of nature. But many people might be reluctant to include our cities, cars, computers, pollution and other human products as part of nature, even though all of these fall within the category of things in the universe.

Another complication in labeling the whole universe as nature is that this natural vastness possesses almost none of the characteristics that we often attribute to it. The light at sunset shines in various wavelengths, but without humans to admire those sunsets, they would not be so famously gorgeous. Similarly, while the universe may resemble organic life in its evolution and its cycles, the universe—nature in its totality— is not “alive” in our usual sense of the word. In short, apart from certain principles of physics, nature has no universal characteristics at all, no living qualities, no values.

(dsarichphotography.com)

(dsarichphotography.com)

Still, so many of us seek meaning and understanding from nature at large or from some piece of it. We take strength from our traditions of gratitude and reverence for the universe. In doing so we select from nature according to our spiritual needs. We value the land, sea, and sky for the transcendence they offer from our rough-and-tumble society (even though that society too is natural). And we cherish the cooperation and interconnection that we find in the cosmos and among living things—even though such collaboration is not always benign, for animals and humans often cooperate in order to prevail over others. We find in nature what we need and we set other parts of it aside.

Up into my middle age, I was intrigued by accounts of how the universe began and how it unfolded. But for the last couple of decades, that question has faded and others have moved to the foreground. These are questions related to reviewing my life, anticipating death, and trying to grasp the flow of daily life. Today, the universe story no longer raises the hair on the back of my neck. But the history of living things still does. I too have sliced nature my own way.

Loyal Rue has written, “Nature is enough.” I sometimes think that “nature is too much.” It is big, it is both unchanging and in constant transformation, and it is easy for us to read into it without realizing that we are doing so. Perhaps inevitably, we carry a double vision of nature. We need to hold in mind the totality of nature that is beyond easy description at the same time that we revere the portions of it that move us.