Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Pen Pal, Oliver Sacks

As a kid, I dreamt of having a pen pal in a faraway place. A pen pal who could be a confidant, and with whom I could share ideas and experiences, and who would teach me about the strange world he lived in. In those days before Facebook and WhatsApp, before chatrooms and discussion groups, the words “Dear Pen Pal”, which I had seen romanticized on television and in cinema, seemed to me magical, as did the closing “your friend, “.

I did try a few times, through organized school activities, to write to a pen pal, but I don’t remember these efforts lasting more than one exchange. This need for an unknown pen pal probably found a proxy after age 11, in the numerous letters I wrote to friends across the country I had made while away at camp each summer.

Until I turned 51 that is.

One day, while sifting through the mail in my office, I found a letter with a hand-written address to me, and in the return address was printed “Dr. Oliver Sacks, New York”. I remarked to a friend who happened to be visiting in my office at the time, “Olive Sacks. Who is Oliver Sacks? Isn’t that the neurobiologist who wrote The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat?”. Why would he be writing me?

Inside I found a 3-page letter, hand-written by fountain pen in a flowing script. I admit that I had to remember for a second how to read script, I’d grown so use to email. Oliver wrote to tell me how much he enjoyed reading What a Plant Knows” and then went on to tell me of his own experience as a botanist, his quest for understanding what consciousness is, and how he related to my book.

Needless to say I was flabbergasted. I spent the next six hours crafting a reply, which I realized would also have to be written by hand. Numerous attempts found their way to the trash bin as I scratched out mistakes and misspellings. How did we survive without spell-check and backspace? I wanted to come across as erudite, but not pompous, casual, but not disrespectful. What could I write to the great Oliver Sacks which would at all interest him?

As the letter was hand-written, and I didn’t think to snap a picture of it, I don’t recall what I wrote. I’m sure it had to do with plant biology and plant intelligence.  I signed it, “Sincerely yours, Danny Chamovitz”, put it in an envelope (after I found one of those arcane things) and sent it off to New York.

3 weeks later I received another hand-written letter, again 3 pages long, and with a copy of his soon-to-be-published piece in the New York Review of Books, “TheMental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others” where he gave some mention to my book. Again I was flabbergasted, especially as he signed it this time, “your friend, Oliver”. 

There it was. I had a pen pal.

Oliver and I corresponded several more times. I visited with him in Jerusalem, where I had the honor of interviewing him as a public lecture. He hosted my wife Shira and I for lunch in his apartment in New York. We corresponded after his announcement of his impending doom, and we corresponded a few weeks ago. In his letters he was full of life and wonder of our world, questioning me on any new studies on the abilities of plants, and telling me of his latest projects. I would write back with some details of obscure experiments, and comment on articles he quoted to me, and I would close with “Your friend, Danny”.

In our short friendship I learned humility, curiosity and the importance of intellectual honesty. And courage. Many people will mourn the loss of one of our age’s great communicators of the mind. I mourn the loss of my pen pal.