A natural history of the.., p.1
A Natural History of the Senses, p.1Diane Ackerman
A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES
“This is one of the best books of the year—by any measure you want to apply. It is interesting, informative, very well written. This book can be opened on any page and read with relish.… thoroughly delightful … Don’t miss it.”
—St. Petersburg Times
“This book is pure ecstasy. It is a treasure trove of information, diverse in space and time and culture but all related to the pleasures of sensory experience.”
“Ms. Ackerman is an athlete of the senses.… To think our way back into feeling: this is [her] mission, and she’s very persuasive. On every other page, there’s a nice apercu.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“[Ackerman’s] fascinating book inspires an enthusiasm for the diversity of human experience and is a tribute to the amazing power of our senses. It’s both a sensual feast and a celebration.”
“A Natural History of the Senses is as voluptuous a volume as its subject matter cries out for. The charm of Diane Ackerman’s book is that it arouses awareness and appreciation of sensual life. In small, tasty morsels, it will delight you.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“An intriguing, knowledgeable and compelling book on the science, mood, character and geography of the human senses. But … it is [Ackerman’s] inquiry into the temper and disposition of the senses that endures and settles irresistibly just beneath the reader’s skin. In exploring the extreme diversity of the human senses and their incredible variegation from culture to culture, Ms. Ackerman manages to reveal just how exceptional, rather than common, human senses are.”
—Atlanta Journal and Constitution
“Often funny, often poignant … The synthesis here—Ackerman’s ability to help us see that the sum of our senses is greater than the individual parts, and to do so in language that often resembles a prose poem—is all the more impressive for her finesse in linking science with our loftier aspirations.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
BOOKS BY DIANE ACKERMAN
A Natural History of Love
The Moon by Whalelight and Other Adventures
Among Bats, Crocodilians, Penguins, and Whales
A Natural History of the Senses
On Extended Wings
Twilight of the Tenderfoot
The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral
Wife of Light
Reverse Thunder: A Dramatic Poem
Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems
A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES
Diane Ackerman was born in Waukegan, Illinois. She received her B.A. from Pennsylvania State University and an M.F.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University. Her poetry has been published in many leading literary journals, and in the books The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (1976), Wife of Light (1978), Lady Faustus (1983), Reverse Thunder: A Dramatic Poem (1988), and Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems (1991).
Her works of nonfiction include, most recently, A Natural History of Love (1994); The Moon By Whalelight and Other Adventures Among Bats, Crocodilians, Penguins, and Whales (1991); A Natural History of the Senses (1990); and On Extended Wings (1985), a memoir of flying. She is at work on a second book of nature writings, The Rarest of the Rare.
Ms. Ackerman has received the Academy of American Poets’ Lavan Award, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, among other recognitions. She has taught at several universities, including Columbia and Cornell, and she is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker.
VINTAGE BOOKS EDITION, FEBRUARY 1995
Copyright © 1990 by Diane Ackerman
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Random House, Inc., New York, in 1990.
Portions of this work were originally published as first-serial contributions to Parade magazine. Portions of this work were originally published in different form in The New York Times Book Review and Condé Nast Traveler.
Owing to limitations of space, all acknowledgments for permission to reprint previously published material may be found on this page.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A natural history of the senses / Diane Ackerman. —
1st Vintage Books ed
1. Senses and sensation 2 Manners and customs
3 Human behavior I. Title
152 1—dc20 91-50048
Marbled art © 1993 Ashley Miller
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:
JUDITH R. BIRNBERG: Excerpts from the “My Turn” column from the March 21, 1988, issue of Newsweek. Reprinted by permission of Judith R. Birnberg.
HARCOURT BRACE JOVANOVICH, INC., AND FABER AND FABER LIMITED: Three lines from “The Dry Salvages” from Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot. Copyright 1943 by T. S. Eliot.
Copyright renewed 1971 by Esme Valerie Eliot. Rights throughout the world excluding the United States administered by Faber and Faber Limited. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., and Faber and Faber Limited.
DAVID HELLERSTEIN: Excerpt from article about skin from the September 1985 issue of Science Digest. Copyright © 1985 by David Hellerstein. Reprinted by permission of the author.
LIVERIGHT PUBLISHING CORPORATION: “i like my body when it is with your” and two lines from “notice the convulsed orange inch of moon” from Tulips & Chimneys by e. e. cummings, edited by George James Firmage. Copyright 1923, 1925 by e. e. cummings. Copyright renewed 1951, 1953 by e. e. cummings. Copyright © 1973, 1976 by the Trustees for the e. e. cummings Trust. Copyright © 1973, 1976 by George James Firmage. Rights throughout the British Commonwealth, excluding Canada, are controlled by Grafton Books, a division of the Collins Publishing Group. These poems appear in Complete Poems, Vol. I by e. e. cummings, published by Grafton Books. Reprinted by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation and Grafton Books, a division of the Collins Publishing Group.
THE MEDIA DEVELOPMENT GROUP: Excerpt from an advertisement for Chinese Exercise Balls from The Lifestyle Resource. Copyright © 1989 The Lifestyle Resource, The Media Development Group, Norwalk, Conn. Reprinted by permission.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY: Chapter entitled “How to Watch the Sky” by Diane Ackerman from The Curious Naturalist. Copyright © 1988 by the National Geographic Society. Reprinted by permission of the National Geographic Society.
THE NEW YORK TIMES: Excerpt from an article by Daniel Goleman from February 2, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission. STERLING LORD LITERISTIC, INC. Excerpt from Curious World by Philip Hamburger. Copyright © 1987 by Philip Hamburger. Reprinted by permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
VINTAGE BOOKS, A DIVISION OF RANDOM HOUSE, INC.: Excerpts from Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov. Copyright © 1967 by Vladimir Nabokov.
The initial mystery that attends any journey is: how did the traveller reach his starting point in the first place? How did I reach the window, the walls, the fireplace, the room itself; how do I happen to be beneath this ceiling and above this floor? Oh, that is a matter for conjecture, for argument pro and con, for research, supposition, dialectic! I can hardly remember how. Unlike Livingstone, on the verge of darkest Africa, I have no maps to hand, no globe of the terrestrial or the celestial spheres, no chart of mountains, lakes, no sextant, no artificial horizon. If ever I possessed a compass, it has long since disappeared. There must be, however, some reasonable explanation for my presence here. Some step started me toward this point, as opposed to all other points on the habitable globe. I must consider; I must discover it.
—Louise Bogan, Journey Around My Room
A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes
Many friends and acquaintances have sent me useful books and articles, or shared reminiscences with me about the senses. I’m indebted especially to Walter Anderson, Ronald Buckalew, Whitney Chadwick, Ann Druyan, Tiffany Field, Marcia Fink, Geoff Haines-Stiles, Jeanne Mackin, Charles Mann, Peter Meese, the Monell Chemical Institute, Joseph Schall, Saul Schanberg, Dava Sobel, Sandy Steltz, and Merlin Tuttle. My special thanks to Dr. David Campbell and Dr. Roger Payne, who were generous enough to cast an eye over the manuscript, looking for infelicities.
Almost every week, a familiar buff-colored envelope would arrive from my editor, Sam Vaughan, whose leads, suggestions, and questions I grew to rely on, and whose friendship I’ve come to cherish.
Parade magazine first published four excerpts from “Touch,” “Vision,” and “Smell.”
“Courting the Muse” appeared in The New York Times Book Review. Part of “Why Leaves Turn Color in the Fall” appeared in a different form in Condé Nast Traveler.
“How to Watch the Sky” was initially prepared for the National Geographic Society’s book The Curious Naturalist and is reproduced here with my gratitude for their understanding.
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
IN EVERY SENSE
THE MUTE SENSE
A MAP OF SMELL
OF VIOLETS AND NEURONS
THE SHAPE OF SMELL
BUCKETS OF LIGHT
THE WINTER PALACE OF MONARCHS
THE OCEANS INSIDE US
NOTIONS AND NATIONS OF SWEAT
THE PERSONALITY OF SMELL
SMELL AS CAMOUFLAGE
THE FALLEN ANGEL
PRODIGIES OF SMELL
A FAMOUS NOSE
AN OFFERING TO THE GODS
THE FEELING BUBBLE
SPEAKING OF TOUCH
WHAT IS A TOUCH?
THE CODE SENDERS
THE INNER CLIMATE
THE SKIN HAS EYES
ADVENTURES IN THE TOUCH DOME
THE POINT OF PAIN
THE SOCIAL SENSE
FOOD AND SEX
THE OMNIVORE’S PICNIC
OF CANNIBALISM AND SACRED COWS
THE BLOOM OF A TASTE BUD
THE ULTIMATE DINNER PARTY
THE HEART OF CRAVING
THE PSYCHOPHARMACOLOGY OF CHOCOLATE
IN PRAISE OF VANILLA
THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUFFLES
GINGER, AND OTHER MEDICINES
HOW TO MAKE MOOSE SOUP IN A HOLE IN THE GROUND, OR DINE IN SPACE
ET FUGU, BRUTE? FOOD AS THRILL-SEEKING
BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS
THE HEARING HEART
PHANTOMS AND DRAPES
JAGUAR OF SWEET LAUGHTER
THE LIMITS OF HEARING, THE POWER OF SOUND
QUICKSAND AND WHALE SONGS
THE VIOLIN REMEMBERS
MUSIC AND EMOTION
IS MUSIC A LANGUAGE?
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
CATHEDRALS IN SOUND
THE BEHOLDER’S EYE
HOW TO WATCH THE SKY
WHY LEAVES TURN COLOR IN THE FALL
THE PAINTER’S EYE
THE FACE OF BEAUTY
WATCHING A NIGHT LAUNCH OF THE SPACE SHUTTLE
THE FORCE OF AN IMAGE: RING CYCLE
THE ROUND WALLS OF HOME
COURTING THE MUSE
IN EVERY SENSE
How sense-luscious the world is. In the summer, we can be decoyed out of bed by the sweet smell of the air soughing through our bedroom window. The sun playing across the tulle curtains gives them a moiré effect, and they seem to shudder with light. In the winter, someone might hear the dawn sound of a cardinal hurling itself against its reflection in a bedroom windowpane and, though asleep, she makes sense enough of that sound to understand what it is, shake her head in despair, get out of bed, go to her study, and draw the outline of an owl or some other predator on a piece of paper, then tape it up on the window before going to the kitchen and brewing a pot of fragrant, slightly acrid coffee.
We may neutralize one or more of our senses temporarily—by floating in body-temperature water, for instance—but that only heightens the others. There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses. We can extend our senses with the help of microscope, stethoscope, robot, satellite, hearing aid, eyeglasses, and such, but what is beyond our senses we cannot know. Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste. In Japan, chefs offer the flesh of the puffer fish, or fugu, which is highly poisonous unless prepared with exquisite care. The most distinguished chefs leave just enough of the poison in the flesh to make the diners’ lips tingle, so that they know how close they are coming to their mortality. Sometimes, of course, a diner comes too close, and each year a certain number of fugu-lovers die in midmeal.
How we delight our senses varies greatly from culture to culture (Masai women, who use excrement as a hair dressing, would find American women’s wishing to scent their breath with peppermint equally bizarre), yet the way in which we use those senses is exactly the same. What is most amazing is not how our senses span distance or cultures, but how they span time. Our senses connect us intimately to the past, connect us in ways that most of our cherished ideas never could. For example, when I read the poems of the ancient Roman poet Propertius, who wrote in great detail about the sexual response of his ladyfriend Hostia, with whom he liked to make love by the banks of the Arno, I’m amazed how little dalliance has changed since 20 B.C. Love hasn’t
If we were to go to Africa, where the bones of the petite mother of us all, Lucy, lie, just where she fell millennia ago, and look out across the valley, we would recognize in the distance the same mountains she knew. Indeed, they may well have been the last thing Lucy saw before she died. Many features of her physical world have changed: The constellations have shifted position a little, the landscape and weather have changed some, but the outlines of that mountain still look much the same as when she stood there. She would have seen them as we do. Now leap for a moment to 1940 in Rio de Janeiro, to an elegant home owned by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, whose music, both rigorous and lavish, begins with the tidy forms of European convention and then explodes into the hooting, panting, fidgeting, tinkling sounds of the Amazon rain forest. Villa-Lobos used to compose at the piano in his salon—he would open the windows onto the mountains surrounding Rio, choose a vista for the day, draw the outline of the mountains on his music paper, then use that drawing as his melodic line. Two million years lie between those two observers in Africa and Brazil—their eyes making sense of the outline of a mountain—and yet the process is identical.
The senses don’t just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern. They take contingency samples. They allow an instance to stand for a mob. They negotiate and settle for a reasonable version and make small, delicate transactions. Life showers over everything, radiant, gushing. The senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscopic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When enough “pieces” assemble, the brain says Cow. I see a cow. This may happen before the whole animal is visible; the sensory “drawing” of a cow may be an outline, or half an animal, or two eyes, ears, and a nose. In the flatlands of the Southwest, a speck develops a tiny line at the top. Cowboy, the brain says, a person who has turned his head, revealing the silhouette of a hat brim. Sometimes the information arrives second- or thirdhand. A roll of dust in the distance: a pickup truck at speed. Reasoning we call it, as if it were a mental spice.
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