It wasn’t always so, but in modern times, there has been a tendency to put “good writers” and “good scientists” into separate boxes, as if the same brain were not capable of both analytical and ecstatic thinking when it comes to the natural world. The intellectual rigor of popularizers of science for the layperson is automatically suspect, it seems, and authors who can achieve that combination with great fluency – biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Lewis Thomas spring quickly to mind – are seen as a rare species indeed.
There was a time when being a “naturalist” also typically implied being a writer – sometimes a best-selling one, as in the case of our own West Park superstar of the 19th century, John Burroughs. These days it’s a woman writer who successfully conveys the wonders of the natural world to millions of eager readers: Diane Ackerman, best-known for her 1990 opus The Natural History of the Senses, which PBS turned into a five-part miniseries for Nova titled Mystery of the Senses.
Ackerman is also a poet and essayist whose musings on the intersections between nature and human nature appear regularly in The New York Times, not to mention The New Yorker, National Geographic and Smithsonian magazine. Technically, her academic credentials qualify her as an expert manipulator of the English language, not as a scientist; but when she pursued her PhD at Cornell University in the 1970s, she made sure that astrophysicist Carl Sagan would be one of her dissertation advisors. Besides being probably the most famous of all modern purveyors of popular science, Sagan was also an energetic debunker of pseudoscience and advocate for evidence-based inquiry, so his imprimatur on Ackerman’s doctorate carries some pragmatic weight. The scientific community seems to agree, if the fact that a molecule has been named after her is any indication.
But when reading Ackerman’s writings, it’s more the visionary poet William Blake – who saw “a world in a grain of sand/and Heaven in a wild flower,” and whose walks in the countryside were apt to include such observations as a treeful of angels – who seems her mentor than any earnest labeler of laboratory specimens. She has described herself as “an Earth ecstatic,” “excessively curious about nature” whose mission is to remain immersed in “the gorgeous fever that is consciousness.” Her prose style is so drop-dead gorgeous and punctuated with memorable and original turns of phrase that we have to keep pinching ourselves to remember that this stuff is non-fiction.
Ackerman’s most recent best-seller was One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage and the Language of Healing (2011), a memoir of her campaign to restore the use of his beloved English language to her husband, poet/novelist Paul West, after a massive stroke obliterated his ability to speak. Just a few years earlier, Ackerman had educated herself intensively about human neurology to write An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain (2004), so the experience of watching West as he suffered “the detonation of a virtuoso brain” was particularly excruciating for her. Happily, her husband can once again speak coherently, and the book was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.
The folks at SUNY-Ulster aren’t saying what works Ackerman will be reading from next Tuesday afternoon, November 5, when she appears there as part of the community college’s Herbert H. and Sofia P. Reuner Library Writers’ Series. Is a new volume gestating in her fertile mind? If so, you can bet that WAMC Radio’s interviewer extraordinaire (and unabashed book-lover) Joe Donahue, host of The Roundtable and The Book Show, will worm it out of her in his inimitably affable way. An audience discussion will follow the book-reading and interview.
This event, which will take place at the College Lounge in Vanderlyn Hall beginning at 1:15 p.m., is free and open to the public. For more information, call (845) 687-5262 or visit www.sunyulster.edu.
Diane Ackerman reading/interview with Joe Donahue, Tuesday, November 5, 1:15 p.m., free, College Lounge, Vanderlyn Hall, SUNY-Ulster, 491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge; (845) 687-5262, www.sunyulster.edu.