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A Natural History of the Senses

Diane Ackerman

When you consider something like death, after which (there being no news flash to the contrary) we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly.

Diane Ackerman, poet and naturalist, weaves a delicious tour of the senses, those interfaces by which we come to know ourselves and the world around us. She begins:

“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…”

The senses are to Ackerman what the literature of awakening is to readers like me, what meditation is to adepts, what art is for so many: church bells ringing in the unconscious dark, reminding us that we are here, instruments of remembering this fact in all its richness:

“Both science and art have a habit of waking us up, turning on all the lights, grabbing us by the collar and saying Would you please pay attention! You wouldn’t think something as complexly busy as life would be so easy to overlook. But, like supreme racehorses, full of vitality, determination, and heart, we tend to miss sights not directly in our path…”

Her work is a blend both dense and light, rich with both fact and insight. It’s that blend of science and poetry where you both learn something about the world and your self, the exterior and the interior.