The Island of the Colour Blind
Author: Oliver Sachs
Publisher: Picador, 1996; 1st Edition, 345pp
What a delightful paperback! Rarely can one find such a diversity of up-to-date scientifically-accurate material portrayed with such enthusiasm in so readable a manner. The author, British-born Oliver Sacks, a neurologist at New York's Albert Einstein College of medicine, has produced half-a-dozen books - including An Anthropologist on Mars - prior to this.
In 345 pages, Sacks takes us on a robust travel in both time and space. Geographically his tour covers four little-known Pacific islands of Micronesia. Sacks' intrepid aeroplane - with its suspect undercarriage - first goes to Pingelap, a tiny atoll where one-third of the population carries the gene for maskun which, when manifested, results in the inability to distinguish colour - the medical condition of achromatopsia - and hence the title of the book. Next, he progressed to the high volcanic island of Pohnpei, and takes the opportunity to chastise variously the Spanish, the Dutch, the British and the Japanese for their misguided introduction of inappropriate education, culture and religion - the combination of which destabilised, to the point of near destruction, the very fabric of age-old native societies. Add to this the unwelcome gifts of western diseases and the wholesale exploitation of resources, the colonists have a lot to answer for. Even the American military machine comes in for a well-deserved lashing for its arrogant secrecy and bullying tactics.
The second section of the book, subtitled Cycad Island, is a "must-read" for every cycadologist. Sacks presents a succinct and deeply compassionate summary of the epidemiology of the debilitating conditions called lytico and bodig by the Chamorro people on Guam, and variously discussed in western medicine as expressions of ALS - Parkinsonism-dementia complex. The cycad-hypothesis is revealed in the sense of a great detective story with key-players in the debate, still unresolved, being people personally know to many of us - e.g. Leonard Kurland, Peter Spencer. The essence of the cycad hypothesis remains in the preparation and consumption of the cycad-derived meal known as fadang by the Chamorro peoples on Guam and Rota - and the presence of the cycasin and BMAA toxins. Apart from this, Sacks weaves all sorts of other delightful anecdotes into the clinical discussion.
On the fourth and final island, Rota, he takes us on a tour of the cycad forest (correctly using the new name Cycas micronesica ) and gives his accompanying traveller a comprehensive discourse on the life-cycle of cycads and their place in the great scheme of nature. Here too we travel, in time, back to the Jurassic and beyond - the imagery is powerful and the reader returns to the present with a new respect for those lowly Psilotum relics from the Silurian.
The book is constructed with a usefull series of 94 reference notes which in themselves made good reading - and here we encounter our friends Dennis Stevenson, Douglas Goode, Encephalartos woodii , Charles Chamberlain, Ken Hill, Knut Norstog, Priscilla Fawcett, Andrew Vovides - its like a whose's who in the cycad world. The work ends with an extensive bibliography, revealing just how widely the author must have researched his topic.
This book certainly gets my nomination for Best Botanical Book of 1996.
Reviewed by: Roy Osborne (from Palms & Cycads, No. 54, Jan-Mar 1997).