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Wade Davis: The Modern Voice of Ancient Wisdom

by Bruce E. Boyers

Wade Davis could probably be best described as a “voice of cultures”—and this would be no light statement. His highly praised work as an anthropologist, explorer, filmmaker and author has taken him into the deepest reaches of the Amazon rainforest, to the African desert, the seas throughout the Polynesian islands, the highlands of Tibet, the Australian Outback and the Arctic, to name but a few of the many places he has traveled. He is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, and a Fellow and honorary member of the prestigious Explorers Club. He holds chair positions at both Cambridge and Oxford. Yet Davis himself would be the first to point out that underlying his degrees (three, all from Harvard) and his many impressive works, awards and accolades, his primary mission is the preservation of magnificent cultures that might otherwise be lost and forgotten.

“Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children,” Davis recently remarked. “Effectively, unless something changes, they will disappear within our lifetimes.”

The Wayfinders

A selection of Davis’s cultural explorations is detailed in his book The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. In it Davis details five specific regions of the world that he has explored through the years, along with an in-depth look at the indigenous peoples of those areas. It is also an insightful examination of wisdom and technology that, due largely to the arrogance of early conquering explorers, have either been totally lost or are in danger of being lost. “I would say absolutely that The Wayfinders expresses my primary mission as an explorer and anthropologist,” Davis told Calmful Living.

“When I was recruited to the National Geographic as an Explorer-in-Residence, my mission as a social anthropologist was to deal with the crisis of language loss and the erosion of cultural diversity,” Davis explained. “I realized that could best be done through storytelling. Just prior to that I had written a book called Light at the Edge of the World, and for the next ten years I went all over the world for the Geographic making films, writing articles, but mostly researching.

“We couldn’t just go out to celebrate the ‘exotic other’; we had to take our huge audience to places where the belief systems and practices were so amazing you couldn’t help but come away with a new appreciation of the wonder of culture. In many ways The Wayfinders sums up those journeys.”

The Journeys

In The Wayfinders, we travel with Davis on his voyage aboard the Hokule’a, a replica of the great seafaring canoes of ancient Polynesia. The early European explorers’ dismissal of the Polynesian people as “primitive”—a label they took back home and which stuck for hundreds of years—caused them to overlook one of the most uniquely civilized and wise cultures on Earth, from whom they could have taken quite a few lessons in navigation. Armed only with a deep sense of waves, clouds, sea life, wind and the stars, traditional Polynesian navigators (called wayfinders) guided such vessels over tens of thousands of miles of ocean, making their way from island to island, creating trade, contact and the spread of tradition that lasted thousands of years. Very fortunately, this skill survives today, and readers are lucky enough to be witness to it through Davis.

There were also sophisticated cultures that never had contact with the Spanish explorers, and had little to no contact with the outside world well into the twentieth century. Davis himself spent time with many of these. For example, the Waorani hunters of the Amazon, with whom Davis lived, could smell animal urine at forty paces in the forest and identify the species. They had learned through generations to ingeniously manipulate plants, and the poisons extracted from these allowed them to fish and hunt. They had also discovered methods of growing plentiful food despite nutrient-poor soils of the rainforest.

Another culture with which Davis has spent considerable time is the Penan, a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers in Borneo. The traditional territory of the Penan is the forest of the upper Baram River, the largest river in the northwest Sarawak region of Borneo; and the Penan cycle through this territory, committing to knowledge every point along a trail, every boulder and cave, and every one of some 2,000 streams.

The social structure of the Penan stands in stark contrast to the individual specialization that typifies Western culture. Each member of the Penan group is fully capable of performing every necessary task. They can fabricate everything needed from raw materials found around them. Since solidarity is of utmost importance to their survival, confrontation is quite rare. Sharing is not only part of their ethnic, it is of the highest priority. In fact, Davis describes a visit by a group of Penan to Canada in which they were astounded at the existence of homelessness in such an affluent society. The greatest transgression in their culture is known as sihun—which is essentially a failure to share.

Why Were They Overlooked?

Davis points out that the former dismissal of such cultures had its roots in older Western thinking, which skewed scientific observation. “In the early days of anthropology, culture was seen as a sort of evolutionary set of progressions, whereby individual societies move from the so-called savage to the barbarian to the civilized,” he said. “Each of those stages was seen to be marked by certain technological innovations. It created this whole notion that there was this ladder of success that invariably placed Victorian England at the apex.

“Anthropology’s mission of deciphering another culture so that we might learn more about our own human nature—and humanity as a whole—got hijacked by the age. For example, the term survival of the fittest was coined by Herbert Spencer, who was in fact an anthropologist. They were borrowing from Darwin to try to create a kind of social Darwinian model of advancement.”

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that this started to change, with the innovations of Franz Boas, considered the “father of American anthropology.” “Boas became concerned that research was plagued by problems of perception, and that came to fascinate him,” Davis continued. “He began to ask, ‘What is the nature of knowing? Who decides what is to be known? What is this thing that we call culture?’ He really believed that every social community, every kind of cluster of people distinguished by language or adapted inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy.”

Davis has followed in Boas’s footsteps in many ways—not the least of which being that Boas began as a physicist and changed disciplines, to anthropology, in following his study. “I began my academic career in a very serendipitous way, stumbling into anthropology just because it seemed like an interesting thing to study,” said Davis. “I then slipped away from anthropology for about eight years and became a botanist—my PhD is actually in biology as a botanist and ethnobotanist; I found plants a wonderful conduit to culture.”

After a time, however, Davis began to tire of simply collecting plant specimens and yearned for a deeper examination of cultures. A professor of his—the renowned Richard Evans Schultes—gave Davis an assignment that changed his life: go to Haiti and study the phenomenon of zombie rituals, which had been steeped in sensationalist mystery for centuries. “It focused a kind of ethnobotanical lens upon a phenomenon that had been really dismissed in an explicitly racist way, that of the Haitian zombie,” Davis said. “I was sent down to Haiti to find the quote-unquote ‘drugs’ or the poison used to make zombies—but no drug can make a social phenomenon. I ended up exploring the social, political, psychological and spiritual dimensions. That really flung me back into the realm of a culture, and then I wrote my first two books on voodoo and the Haitian society.”

One of those books, The Serpent and the Rainbow, became an international bestseller and was ultimately made into a film. Davis has remained on his true path ever since.

From Childhood

Davis’s lifelong exploration of cultures began in his youth in Canada. “I grew up in Quebec at a time when the English and the French didn’t speak to each other,” he related. “It was a small suburb of Montreal that had been sort of plunked like a carbuncle on the back of a very old and traditional French village. There was actually a road that divided the two communities. I used to go down to the corner to a little mom-and-pop grocery there and pick up things for my mother. I would look across that boulevard and think, ‘Wow, across that road is another language, another religion, another way of being,’ and it intrigued me. I was also intrigued by the subtle prohibition—not from my family as much as from society—against crossing that line. Then I had an older stepsister who sort of shattered that division by falling in love with a francophone boy, and in the wake of her passing through, I sort of floated in like flotsam and began to hang out in the village. I think that created a certain sense about the meaning of culture: how could it be that those people right across the road could be so different?

“Then when I was 14 my parents, who were very open to the world, sent me to Colombia with a teacher and a group of students on what was probably an exchange program. We went down and were billeted out with families, and I was fortunate to be billeted with a family that lived not in the affluent neighborhoods of the city of Cali but up in the mountains in more modest circumstances. I never saw the other Canadians for the eight weeks that I was in Colombia, which is a long time when you are just 14 years old. It turns out that some of the other fellows, several of whom were two years older than I was, got rather homesick. By contrast, I felt like I had finally found home in Latin America.”

Sacred Headwaters

But it isn’t just far-off places and peoples that Davis befriends, or discusses in The Wayfinders. He himself owns and lives part time in a lodge in British Columbia’s Spatsizi Wilderness, the closest private holding to what is known as the Sacred Headwaters, a confluence of the sources of three majestic rivers. Ten years ago the native peoples of the area—with whom Davis had made great friends—had their sacred and pristine lands threatened by oil and mineral exploration. Over the years Davis has provided plentiful assistance to them in campaigning to save their lands, through lectures, articles and a magnificent book entitled The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass, which lovingly documented with breathtaking photographs and descriptions this unspoiled wilderness destined to be completely destroyed.

Shell Canada had secured permission from the Canadian government to explore and exploit the area for oil and natural gas. “I think that when Shell came into the area, they were completely unaware that there was this rich cultural history,” Davis said. “Nobody even knew how much that country was revered by the First Nation people there, the Tahltan. This, after all, is a quarter of British Columbia, the size of Oregon, which, at the time Shell obtained these rights, had a single road and very little development. The Tahltan stood up for their country on a series of blockades that limited access to the heart of the Sacred Headwaters. This generated a tremendous amount of interest, and when Shell went to negotiate with the Tahltan people, Shell’s representatives were asked to leave.”

As a result of the cooperative efforts of Davis, the Tahltan and other groups, Shell completely withdrew from the area. “It came about through a wonderful combination of local people—certainly the Tahltan and nonnative local people—and then my own ability to take the story beyond British Columbia: to have articles in National Geographic, and to raise the profile of the place, beginning in 2003. I was also able to go down to the TED conference and make a presentation in front of the senior person for Shell in all of the Americas, in an audience which was made up of some of the most extraordinary and successful people in the country—from Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, to Al Gore, and stars such as Cameron Diaz and Paul Simon. So I think being able to put this issue onto a global stage like that became very helpful.”

River Notes

Another example of Davis’s deep research into place and culture is his recently published River Notes, designed to be a companion to exploring the Colorado River.

“I was invited by a good friend of mine, Greg MacGillivray, to make an IMAX movie in the Grand Canyon,” Davis recounted. “I’m a professional whitewater guide from British Columbia, so I jumped at the opportunity to do the iconic river of the American Southwest. As I was going down the river, I became aware of curiously how little literature there is on the river. There are lots of photo books and there are plenty of great guide books, and there are a number of personal reflections of going down the river.

“But there are a surprisingly small number of books that take up the whole subject of the canyon, its history, its geology, its ethnography and the water crisis. So I decided to write a little book. I deliberately wanted it to be a short book, which is why I called it River Notes; I wanted it to be something that you carried in your dry bag or your backpack as you either hiked the canyon trails or went down the river.

“It’s just one book that can tell you who the ancient Anasazi were, why these dams got built, what the geology is that you’re looking at. It can tell you about the native peoples—the Havasupai, the Hualapai, the Paiute, the Ute—who Powell was and what he represented in American history. It explains that the whole settling of the American West was based upon a kind of Mormon ideology and transformation, and how that differed from what the Hopi were thinking. What is it that is causing the river to go dry before it reaches the sea? What could we possibly do to bring that river back to life?”

Natural Lessons

Davis’s unique exposure to a vast panorama of cultural heritage has given him a respect for diverse approaches to living. As our Western attempts to conquer nature have resulted in environmental crises, there may be much to gain from exploring cultures based on natural harmony.

“Other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being you, or failed attempts at being modern,” Davis concluded. “Each is a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? When the peoples of the world answer that question, they do so in 7,000 different voices, and those voices collectively—and the content of what they are saying—become our repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us as a species in the coming centuries. Every culture deserves a place at the council of human knowledge and wisdom, and every culture has something to teach the world.”

Wade Davis’s books The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World and River Notes are available at the Calmful Living bookstore.