Diane Ackerman

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It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

Diane Ackerman (born October 7, 1948) is an American author, poet, and naturalist most famous for her work A Natural History of the Senses. She has taught at various universities, including Columbia and Cornell, and her essays regularly appear in distinguished popular and literary journals.


  • “When I set a glass prism on a windowsill and allow the sun to flood through it, a spectrum of colors dances on the floor. What we call "white" is a rainbow of colored rays packed into a small space. The prism sets them free. Love is the white light of emotion.”[1]
  • I don't want to be a passenger in my own life.
    • On Extended Wings (1985)
  • I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I just lived the length of it. I want to live the width of it as well.
    • As quoted in Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much (1991) by Anne Wilson Schaef
  • Human beings are sloshing sacks of chemicals on the move.
    • An Alchemy of Mind : The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain (2004) ISBN 0743246721
  • ... you don't have to be larger than life to come to the aid of somebody in trouble. All you need to be able to be compassionate, put your own troubles on hold while someone else's are taking the forefront, and, maybe the toughest part, you have to be wholly nonjudgemental.
  • ... extinction is happening very fast, because we've been destroying habitats — and polluting things. And there may come a time when we want to bring back animals, or we could use the technology just to the enrich the gene pool of animals that are very close to extinction.
A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Vintage Books. 1990. ISBN 9780679735663. 
All quotes from this trade paperback edition
  • Why humans feel pain has been the subject of theological debate, philosophical schisms, psychoanalytical edicts, and mumbo jumbo for centuries. Pain was the punishment for wrongdoing in the Garden of Eden. Pain was the price one paid for not being morally perfect. Pain was a self-affliction brought about by sexual repression. Pain was dished out by vengeful gods, or was the result of falling out of harmony with nature…The purpose of pain is to warn the body about possible injury. Millions of free nerve endings alarm us; whenever they’re hit, we feel pain.
    • Chapter 2 “Touch” (p. 106; ellipsis represents the elision of the etymology of the word "pain")
  • What I’m really wondering is why notices were posted and invitations sent out at all: If it’s a psychics’ convention, shouldn’t everyone just know where and when to meet?
    • Chapter 2 “Touch” (p. 115)
  • We tend to see our distant past through a reverse telescope that compresses it: a short time as hunter-gatherers, a long time as "civilized" people. But civilization is a recent stage of human life, and, for all we know, it may not be any great achievement. It may not even be the final stage. We have been alive on this planet as recognizable humans for about two million years, and for all but the last two or three thousand we’ve been hunter-gatherers. We may sing in choirs and park our rages behind a desk, but we patrol the world with many of a hunter-gatherer’s drives, motives, and skills. These aren’t knowable truths. Should an alien civilization ever contact us, the greatest gift they could give us would be a set of home movies: films of our species at each stage in our evolution.
    • Chapter 3 “Taste” (pp. 129-130)
  • Consciousness, the great poem of matter, seems so unlikely, so impossible, and yet here we are with our loneliness and our giant dreams.
    • Chapter 3 “Taste” (p. 130)
  • But, as sages have long said, the sexiest part of the body and the best aphrodisiac in the world is the imagination.
    • Chapter 3 “Taste” (p. 131)
  • But we rarely taste the real thing. The vanilla flavoring we buy in the spice section of grocery stores, the vanilla we find in most of our ice creams, cakes, yogurts, and other foods, as well as in shampoos and perfumes, is an artificial flavor created in laboratories and mixed with alcohol and other ingredients. Marshall McLuhan once warned us that we were drifting so far away from the real taste of life that we had begun to prefer artificiality, and were becoming content with eating the menu descriptions rather than the food.
    • Chapter 3 “Taste” (p. 158)
  • The Dutch carried vanilla to Indonesia, and the British to India. “Tincture of vanilla” didn’t appear in the United States until the 1800s, but when it did, it appealed to the American impatience and aversion to fuss, that sprint through life whose byword is convenience. Europeans use the vanilla bean, luxuriating in its textures, tastes, and aromas, but we preferred it reduced and already bottled. By the nineteenth century, demand flourished, vanilla became synthesized, and the world floated on a mantle of cheap flavoring.
    • Chapter 3 “Taste” (p. 160)
  • Though it has a certain Russian-roulette quality to it, eating fugu is considered a highly aesthetic experience. That makes one wonder about the condition that we, in chauvinistic shorthand, referred to as “human.” Creatures who will one day vanish from the earth in the ultimate subtraction of sensuality that we call death, we spend our lives courting death, fomenting wars, watching sickening horror movies in which maniacs slash and torture their victims, hurrying our own deaths in fast cars, cigarette smoking, suicide. Death obsesses us, as well it might, but our response to it is so strange. Faced with tornadoes chewing up homes, with dust storms ruining crops, floods and earthquakes swallowing up whole cities, with ghostly diseases that gnaw at one’s bone marrow, cripple, or craze—rampant miseries that need no special bidding, but come freely, giving their horror like alms—you’d think human beings would hold out against the forces of Nature, combine their efforts and become allies, not create devastation of their own, not add to one another’s miseries. Death does such fine work without us. How strange that people, whole countries sometimes, wish to be its willing accomplices.
    • Chapter 3 “Taste” (p. 170)
  • We hallucinate sounds more often than sights. There are auditory mirages, which vanish without trace; auditory illusions that turn out to be something other than they seemed; and, of course, voices that speak to saints, seers, and psychotics, telling them how to act and what to believe.
    • Chapter 4 “Hearing” (p. 180)
  • Look in the mirror. The face that pins you with its double gaze reveals a chastening secret: You are looking into a predator’s eyes. Most predators have eyes set right on the front of their heads, so they can use binocular vision to sight and track their prey.
    • Chapter 5 “Vision” (p. 229)
  • The color we see is always the one being reflected, the one that doesn’t stay put and get absorbed. We see the rejected color, and say “an apple is red.” But in truth an apple is everything but red.
    • Chapter 5 “Vision” (p. 252)
  • That evening, as I watched the sunset’s pinwheels of apricot and mauve slowly explode into red ribbons, I thought: The sensory misers will inherit the earth, but first they will make it not worth living on.
    • Chapter 5 “Vision” (p. 256)
  • We may pretend that beauty is only skin deep, but Aristotle was right when he observed that "beauty is a far greater recommendation than any letter of introduction.” The sad truth is that attractive people do better in school, where they receive more help, better grades, and less punishment; at work, where they are rewarded with higher pay, more prestigious jobs, and faster promotions; in finding mates, where they tend to be in control of the relationships and make most of the decisions; and among total strangers, who assume them to be interesting, honest, virtuous, and successful. After all, in fairy tales, the first stories most of us hear, the heroes are handsome, the heroines are beautiful, and the wicked sots are ugly. Children learn implicitly that good people are beautiful and bad people are ugly, and society restates that message in many subtle ways as they grow older. So perhaps it’s not surprising that handsome cadets at West Point achieve a higher rank by the time they graduate, or that a judge is more likely to give an attractive criminal a shorter sentence.
    • Chapter 5 “Vision” (pp. 271-272)
  • For large minds, the Earth is a small place. Not small enough to exhaust in one lifetime, but a compact home, cozy, buoyant, a place to cherish, the spectral center of our life. But how could we stay at home forever?
    • Chapter 5 “Vision” (p. 281)
  • Most of all, the twentieth century will be remembered as the time when we first began to understand what our address was. The “big, beautiful, blue, wet ball” of recent years is one way to say it. But a more profound way will speak of the orders of magnitude of that bigness, the shades of that blueness, the arbitrary delicacy of beauty itself, the ways in which water has made life possible, and the fragile euphoria of the complex ecosystem that is Earth, an Earth on which, from space, there are no visible fences, or military zones, or national borders.
    • Chapter 5 “Vision” (p. 285)
  • My muse is male, has the silvery complexion of the moon, and never speaks to me directly.
    • Chapter 6 “Synesthesia” (p. 299)
  • Out-of-body experiences aim to shed the senses, but they cannot. One may see from a new perspective, but it’s still an experience of vision.
    • Postscript (p. 301)
  • In the Bible, God instructs Moses to burn incense sweet and to His liking. Does God have nostrils? How can a god prefer one smell of this earth to another? The rudiments of decay complete a cycle necessary for growth and deliverance. Carrion smells offensive to us, but delicious to those animals who rely on it for food. What they excrete will make the soil rich and the crops abundant. There is no need for divine election. Perception is itself a form of grace.
    • Postscript (p. 301)
  • Not everything we feel is felt powerfully enough to send a message to the brain; the rest of the sensations just wash over us, telling us nothing. Much is lost in translation, or is censored, and in any case our nerves don’t all fire at once. Some of them remain silent while others respond. This makes our version of the world somewhat simplistic, given how complex the world is. The body’s quest isn’t for truth, it’s for survival.
    • Postscript (p. 304)
  • So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur. Living on the senses requires an easily triggered sense of marvel, a little extra energy, and most people are lazy about life. Life is something that happens to them while they wait for death.
    • Postscript (p. 305)
  • It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.
    • Postscript (p. 309)

A Natural History of Love (1994)

  • When art separates this thick tangle of feelings, love bares its bones.
  • We think of it as a sort of traffic accident of the heart. It is an emotion that scares us more than cruelty, more than violence, more than hatred. We allow ourselves to be foiled by the vagueness of the word. After all, love requires the utmost vulnerability. We equip someone with freshly sharpened knives; strip naked; then invite him to stand close. What could be scarier?

The Inevitable: Contemporary Writer Confront Death (2011) Edited by David Shields & Bradford Morrow

  • What would dawn have been like, had you awakened? It would have sung through your bones. All I can do this morning is let it sing through mine.
    • Silence and Awakening


  • There are well-dressed foolish ideas just as there are well-dressed fools.
    • Sometimes attributed to Ackerman this actually originates with Nicolas Chamfort, as quoted in The Cynic's Breviary : Maxims and Anecdotes from Nicolas de Chamfort (1902) as translated by William G. Hutchison, p. 37
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