In order to earn the optional extra credit, the professor required us to read a book and then write a review of it. Focusing on what we thought of it, what we understood, and so on. Then she asked us to meet with her to discuss the book. This was easily my favorite assignment to do for writing this past term.


Geneva Varga

WR 122 Extra Credit

3 May 2017

Eucalyptus & Monarch Butterflies

Senses are vital as they are how everyone experiences the world. Humans like to imagine that they are the only ones who use their senses, yet that is a misconception. Animals and plants also use senses to navigate their surroundings. For example, carnivorous plants rely entirely on touch to capture their prey. Another misconception is that other creatures do not have as many senses as us, this idea could not be more wrong. Animals experience hundreds of other senses that humans can not comprehend. Diane Ackerman’s book, A Natural History of the Senses is the perfect guide to discovering depths of our senses that we do not fully appreciate, including nostalgia and sexual attraction.

The most brilliant aspect about the book is Ackerman’s ability to vividly describe each sense and what the human body learns from it. She uses her personal experiences to connect with the readers on a nostalgic level; painting eloquent pictures of moonlit beaches, oranges, and eucalyptus with resting monarch butterflies. Ackerman begins her book with the sense of smell and reminisces of how she spent one Christmas season:

I traveled along the coast of California with the Los Angeles Museum’s Monarch Project, locating and tagging great numbers of overwintering monarch butterflies. They prefer to winter in eucalyptus groves, which are deeply fragrant. The first time I stepped into one, and every time thereafter, they filled me with sudden tender memories of mentholated rub and childhood colds…. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be proclamations left by some ancient scribe. Yet, to my nose, it was Illinois in the 1950s. (Ackerman, p. 18)

By allowing the reader to visualize a memory of hers, Ackerman cleverly draws her audience into a story of noses, ears, eyes, and tongues, which otherwise would have been dull and lifeless.

At the beginning of the section on taste, Ackerman states that taste is a social sense. “Humans rarely choose to dine in solitude, and food has a powerful social component.” (Ackerman, p. 127) Upon reading this statement, I quickly recall all my past gatherings with family members during which we have shared a meal, especially during the holidays. I envision couples leaning in towards one another at a table in a romantic restaurant; friends sipping a cup of chai tea as they catch up on the latest news. Even going out to eat alone is a more social occasion then eating in the solitude at home. Food is central to many social moments and our sense of taste is intimately involved.

When young writers are taught the nuances of writing and techniques to make their writing stand out from the rest, they are encouraged to use details and often to consider all of the senses. Ackerman’s book gives proof to why this is such a vital technique to learn and apply. To describe an apple, a writer should not only use words based around the color and shape of the fruit such as red, firm, and round. He should also consider the crisp sound an apple makes after biting into one, the tickle of the tart juice as it trickles down your chin, and the sweet floral fragrance that calls a perfect summer day to mind.

While A Natural History of Senses is written in an engaging style, rife with rich detail, I admit had to set the book down several times and return to it at a later time. Ackerman discussed in length each of our senses in the context of attraction to others (pheromones), kissing (taste), and sex (touch), which is something I am not fully comfortable with. Thankfully, the book was written in a scientific context.

Ackerman’s portrayal of our bodily senses from a natural history perspective is both informative and intriguing. Her colorful descriptions of each sense provide readers with a unique exploration of the depths of our senses. By using her memories, Ackerman easily communicates with the reader on a conversational tone. Our senses are how we comprehend and explore our surroundings, Ackerman’s book provides a useful in-depth analysis of them. Be keenly aware when our noses affect our sense of taste and remember the childhood memories of summer days, flower picking, and rushing waves.

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