National Geographic on Wade Davis
An ethnographer, writer, photographer, filmmaker, and National Geographic Explorer-inResidence who was recently honored with the prestigious Explorer’s Club Medal for 2011, Wade Davis has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” He has dedicated his life to studying endangered cultures and preserving the totality of traditional languages, beliefs, myths, and dreams that constitute humanity’s cultural inheritance—a legacy that he calls the “ethnosphere.” Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology, and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. His work has taken him around the world, through the Amazon, Tibet, the Arctic, Africa, Australia, Mongolia, Polynesia, and New Guinea, living for extended periods among indigenous communities. He is the author of 15 books including The Serpent and the Rainbow, Light at the Edge of the World, and The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (2009), based on the CBC Massey Lectures, Canada’s most prestigious intellectual forum. His latest books, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest and The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass, were both released in October 2011. In 2012, Wade will be awarded the David Fairchild Medal, the highest award for plant exploration. Wade’s ongoing project is a campaign to protect the Sacred Headwaters in British Columbia. In 2013, Wade and fellow National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay will walk across British Columbia and the Sacred Headwaters as part of Fay’s next Megatransect. Popular Presentations The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World Indigenous human cultures are going extinct faster than many plants and animals. Fully 50 percent of the more than 6,000 languages spoken today will cease to exist in our lifetime. With them will go the knowledge, stories, customs, and footprints of entire cultures. Davis leads us on an enlightening and gripping journey through ancient worlds, demonstrating how our world is richer for their presence and contributions. Into the Silence Wade Davis tells the story of the legendary and ultimately tragic 1924 British Everest expedition. Linking Mallory and his comrades’ determination to gain glory in the Himalaya to their bitter experiences in the trenches of WWI, Davis offers a compelling fresh take on history. The Sacred Headwaters Imagine for a moment one of the largest oil companies in the world drilling in the Sistine Chapel under the Vatican or building a giant oil and gas complex on the temple mount in Jerusalem, it would be inconceivable. But that is exactly what several multinational companies have in mind for the alpine meadows of the Sacred Headwaters, the birthplace of three of British Columbia’s greatest salmon rivers—the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass. Davis leads a visual journey through the Sacred Headwaters, from the mountains where the rivers are born to the sea.
Wade Davis on What it Means to be Human and Alive
Wade Davis might have the most amazing job on the planet. Trained as an anthropologist and ethnobotonist, he's lived among some of the most remarkable cultures of the world and been witness to (and participant in) many moments that no outsider has ever seen. Davis has written scores of books, but is probably best known for The Serpent and the Rainbow, a riveting account of his journey into Haitian voodoo culture to find the zombie potion. He talks with TreeHugger Radio about the essential importance of cultural diversity, and what each culture brings to "the table of human knowledge." He also discusses his newest book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, lends his thoughts to the questions of "appropriate technology" and microfinance (they won't save the world), and comes clean about the fact that he hasn't seen Avatar. Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download. Full text after the jump. Music from My Brightest DiamondTreeHugger: So why should those of us in modern society care about indigenous cultures? Wade Davis: This is the classic question: why should it matter to me in New York if some tribe in Africa disappears? And probably the answer is that it doesn't matter to you in New York if that tribe disappears in Africa. But what does it matter to that tribe in Africa if New York disappears? Probably nothing. But wouldn't the world be a more impoverished place were either event to occur? But more seriously, why we should care is because these other peoples are not failed attempts at being us. They're not failed attempts to keep up with the pace of history. They're not failed attempts to be modern. On the contrary, they are, by definition, unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question, they do so in at least 7,000 different voices, and those voices become our collective repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us as a species in the ensuing millennia. If I sit back, in my lifetime, what are the two great revelations of science? Well, one surely was the moment on Christmas Eve when Apollo went around the dark side of the moon to emerge with a vision, not of a sunrise or a moon-rise, but of an Earth-rise, and the realization that we are, in fact, a finite planet, floating, as the astronauts said, in the velvet void of space. That sparked a paradigm shift that I think people will be talking about for the rest of history. The other great revelation that's occurred in my lifetime has been a result of another journey of epic proportions, but a journey into the very fiber of our beings. And this is the miracle that has come to us from genetics, where population geneticists, through the story of the Y chromosome and
mitochondrial DNA, have been able to prove, without doubt whatsoever, that the human genetic endowment is a single continuum. Race is an utter fiction, we are all cut from the same genetic cloth, we are all, in fact, descendants of a relatively small number of ancestors who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and, on this epic journey that lasted 40,000 years, carried the human spirit and imagination, over the course of 2,500 generations, to every habitable corner of the Earth. The great corollary of that genetic revelation, in terms of social anthropology, is that if we accept that we're all cut from the same genetic cloth, it means by definition we all fundamentally share the same kind of raw human genius. And that brilliance and potential is made manifest through technological wizardry and innovation--which has been the great achievement of the West--or, by contrast, invested into unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth, or understanding nuances about the relationship between human beings and the spirit world. All of those things are simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation. In other words, there is no ladder to success. That old Victorian 19th-century idea that you could somehow see cultures as sort of stage sets, freeze-frames of some kind of evolutionary sequence inspired by social-Darwinian thinking that invariably placed Victorian England at the apex of the pyramid that swept down its flanks to the so-called primitives of the world, has been exposed as much a kind of conceit of the 19th century as the idea of clergymen in that era that the Earth was only 6,000 years old. In other words, all these peoples of the world represent unique answers to this fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And all of those peoples have something to say to that question, and all deserve a place at the table of human knowledge. That's why it should matter to us that half of those voices, therefore half of that knowledge, therefore half of all of humanity's intellectual, spiritual, and philosophical legacy, is literally being swept away in less than a generation. TreeHugger: And replaced with something that is all too familiar to most of us. If outer-space anthropologists came down and looked at the dominant cultural forces on our planet, what do you think would leap out. Davis: I never to try to suggest that our culture is bad and, in some sort of Rousseauian way, these other peoples are good. On the contrary, we all represent different options. We all bring wonderful gifts to the table of human knowledge. I mean, anyone who doesn't want to accept the genius of modern allopathic medicine should ask themselves where they would like to be taken if they ripped off an arm in a car accident: to an herbalist or to an emergency room?
What we have done in the West is brilliant. But I would suggest that it's not the paragon of human potential. If that Martian anthropologist (he, she, or it) came down to Earth and looked at, say, American society, they'd see many wondrous things. And if the measure of success was technological sophistication, surely we'd come out at the head of the pack. But on the other hand, if they looked at, say, our social structure, they may raise their eyebrows. Here we are, a people who celebrates marriage but allows half our marriages to end in divorce. We say that we love our grandparents but only six percent of our homes have grandparents and grandchildren beneath the same roof. We say we love our kids but we embrace this weird slogan, "24/7," implying total dedication to the workforce at the expense of family. And then we wonder why the average American kid has spent two or three years passively watching television before their 18th birthday. Add to that an economic means of production (which is incidentally just one option amongst many) that by any scientific definition has had an incredibly severe impact on the life-support systems of the planet. We have literally emptied the seas of fish. We have torn down the ancient forests. And if the climatologists are correct in their consensus, we are literally changing the life-support systems of the planet. "Extreme" would be one word for a civilization that does that. And you take something like climate change--people think of it as humanity's problem. And it has become humanity's dilemma. But it's important to recall that humanity didn't cause that problem. A very narrow subset of humanity, our particular industrial tradition, did so. I spend much of my time traveling amongst people who made no contribution to that phenomenon whatsoever, but are seeing and living the consequences of it every day and, indeed, through ritual, are doing their best to mitigate its impact on the Earth. TreeHugger: Could you give us an example? Davis: One of the things that I write about in my most recent book, The Wayfinders, is how certain cultures create a notion of what one might call sacred geography. And I don't mean that in a sort of hippie ethnography. I mean, really: what does it mean for a people to believe that the Earth is animate and responsive, and that human beings have reciprocal obligations to the Earth just as the Earth itself must provide for the wellbeing of human beings? Well, many cultures around the world have precisely that sense of a spirit of place and landscape. And they look upon climate change as something that is their responsibility.
I spent some time in Peru recently at a remarkable ritual called the Qoyllur Rit'i, which is a preColumbian ritual that's been influenced by 500 years of Christianity, but it's almost like an Andean Woodstock. You have tens of thousands of Indians, all through the southern Andes of Peru, who come together in a sacred valley called the Sinakara, just after the Pleiades reemerged from the sky and before Corpus Christi. And they carry their crosses from their home communities, high into the sacred valley, to implant them on a glacier that descends from an extraordinary mountain. And they leave the crosses overnight. And then the next day, the crosses, empowered by Pachamama, empowered by the Earth, are carried back to the communities. Traditionally the pilgrimage is completed with the act of chipping off small bits of the glacier and carrying them back to the community, so that the elders and those incapable of making the arduous pilgrimage can still benefit from the positive energy that comes out of the ritual retreat. Watching the recession of those glaciers, the people themselves have decided no longer to chip that ice away. It's an amount of ice that is of course trivial in the scheme of things, but again, they're taking personal responsibility. We forget that we treat climate change as part of an engineering problem or a technical problem, but for people who really think the Earth is alive, they have a responsibility for the maintenance and wellbeing of the Earth, they watch the impact of climate change and they feel it in very deep psychological ways. That's something you have to factor into your thoughts about climate change. Yes, people talk about the Ganges becoming a seasonal river within a generation or two with the melting of the ice in the headwater glaciers. That will affect the water supply of five hundred million people. But the Ganges is also a sacred river of over eight hundred million people. What will it mean to them when the river no longer flows to the sea? One of things to begin to think about with this is: where did we start to think about the land as we do? A kid from Montana who is raised to believe a mountain is a pile of rock is going to have a very different relationship from a kid from Peru raised to believe that a mountain is a spirit or deity. The issue is not who's right and who's wrong, but how does a belief system of both parties change or influence their relationship to landscape. I was raised in the rainforests of British Columbia to believe that those forests existed to be cut. That was the foundation of the ideology of scientific forestry that I learned in school and practiced as a logger in the woods. That made me profoundly different than my friends amongst First Nations who believed that those forests were the abode of spirits, the crooked beak of heaven, and the cannibal
spirits that dwelled at the north end of the world that had to be embraced during the Hummet's initiation so that the wisdom of the wild could come back to the crop lives. The interesting things isn't whether I was right about whether forests are really cellulose and board feed or if they're spirits. Look at the consequences of the two belief systems. The First Nations lived in those forests with a modest ecological footprint for generations. In but two or three generations, my particular cultural heritage tore those forests asunder. I think it's worth remembering where we got this idea. When Descartes famously said that "all of existence is mind and matter," in a single gesture he not only swept away all instincts for mysticism, myth and magic, he also devitalized the Earth. A process that reached it's culmination in the twentieth century when Saul Bellow famously said "science has made a housecleaning of belief." For us, the Earth has become just an inanimate object ready to be exploited for our own economic needs. Most people around the world do not view the Earth that way. That doesn't mean that they're sitting there in some kind of innocent bliss, having no impact on the Earth. Rather, they have this complex reciprocal relationship with the Earth which is played out in ritual. Ritual obligations that go both ways. TreeHugger: When I read books like yours, I can't help but wish I had culture and a connection to the Earth like those people do. What are people supposed to do with those sort of feelings? Davis: I think that's a very good point. I'm not talking about the traditional versus modern. I'm really asking the question: "what type of world do we want to live in?" Americans are always made fun of for how little they know of other cultures. But Americans are not the only ones. Most indigenous people, if you translate their name, it means "the people." The implication being that everybody else is some savage beyond the pale. The word barbarian comes from the Greek barbarous, one who babbles. If you didn't speak Greek you didn't exist. That kind of cultural myopia that has haunted humanity for so long has been the cause of such tensions. It's often the catalyst for dreadful wars and outbreaks of incredible violence. It's something we simply can't tolerate anymore in a truly interconnected multicultural world. I'd like to think that in the same way the gift of modernity is bringing medical care to people throughout the world, is bringing the convenience and the safety of cell phones and ease of communication, is bringing the empowerment of the Internet to people throughout the world. I'd like to think that some of the intuitions and ideas of these other cultures are beginning to influence the way we are rethinking our own place on the planet.
I've spent a lot of time in Tibet and Nepal and I've written quite a bit about Buddhism and made many films about it. I made one wonderful piece with Matteau Ricard, who's one of the most extraordinary vehicles of Tibetan dharma in the west. Matteau is a fascinating character. His father was probably the most illustrious philosopher in France. His mother was a famous painter. Matteau grew up in a home in Paris of influential celebrities. Cartier Bresson taught him photography, Stravinsky taught him to play the piano, he learned about anthropology from Claude Levi-Strauss. Matteau himself became a molecular biologist at the Pasteur Institute and studied in a lab with a Nobel Laureate. But at some point he realized there was no correlation between fame, notoriety, wealth on the one hand, and contentment and happiness on the other. So he went back to the one place that he had been content all his life. That was the Himalayas. He became ordained as a Tibetan monk. We made a film called the "Buddhist Science of the Mind." Why did we use that world "science?" What is science but the imperial search for the truth? What is Buddhism but 2,500 years of direct observation of the nature of mind? As Matteau says: "Western science is too often a major response to minor needs." We spend all of our lifetimes trying to live to a hundred without losing our teeth. The Buddhist spends all their time trying to learn the nature of existence. A llama once said to me: "your billboards in the west celebrate naked teenagers in underwear. Our billboards are mighty walls of prayers to help the well being of all sentient creatures." The fascinating thing is that the proof of the science of the mind that is Tibetan Buddhism is the pursuit of the fourth noble truth, which is the delineation of the contemplative practice that allows one to transcend the realm of samsara. The proof of the ethicality of that practice and that science of the mind is the serenity of the individual who pursues that path. A llama once said to me: "we in Tibet don't really believe that you went to the moon, but you did. You may not believe we achieve enlightenment in one lifetime, but we do." What I'm trying to do in a lot of my books is not to point a finger negatively at the West, but to just suggest that cultures make choices. One of the places I've done a lot of work recently is Polynesia. One of the reasons I went to Polynesia was to really celebrate the extraordinary technical skill of navigation that the ancestors of the Polynesians developed. At a time when European sailors were hugging the shores of continents for fear of the open ocean until the problem of longitude was solved, the ancestors of the Polynesians, ten centuries before
Christ, set sail from a berth in the nation called La Pita off the shores of New Guinea, and eventually covered the largest culture sphere ever brought into being by the human imagination. All the way from Hawaii in the north to Easter Island in the southeast to New Zealand in the southwest. An extraordinary triangle of culture. And when you sail today with the practitioners of this ancient art of wayfinding in the Polynesian voyaging society, even today these are sailors who can name 250 stars in the night sky. These are sailors who can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon just by watching the reverberations of the waves across the hull of the vessel, knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own refractive pattern that can be interpreted with the same ease that a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint. This system of navigation is based on dead reckoning. You only know where you are by where you've come from. And yet the Polynesians had no written word. So there were no logs, no modern navigational aids whatsoever. There was only the skills of the navigator and the wayfinder, who would sit monk-like at the stern of the vessel, and over the course of a long oceanic voyage have to remember in his mind every change of course, of wind, of current, et cetera. And these skills are still being practiced today by people like Ninoa Thompson, my close friend with whom I sailed on the Hokalaya, the iconic vessel that's named for the sacred star of Hawaii. Ninoa at one point sailed from Hawaii to Easter Island. Now that's 6,000 or more miles, crossing the doldrums, tacking into the winds for 1,500 miles, doubling the length of the journey, all to hit an island less than 25 kilometers across. That's less than a degree on a compass, were a compass to have been on board the boat. But there wasn't. What an extraordinary expression of the human imagination and heart. And indeed, if you took all the genius that allowed the US to put a man on the moon, applied it to an understanding of the ocean, what you would get is Polynesia. TreeHugger: Did you see Avatar? Davis: I must be the only person in America that has not seen Avatar. Every news outlet in the world has called me up to ask about it, and I've met James Cameron, but I'm glad he didn't ask me if I saw the movie. TreeHugger: At TreeHugger we get really excited about initiatives that bring technology, especially energy or other so-called appropriate technologies, into developing communities, trying to improve life. What's your reading on these sorts of efforts?
Davis: First of all I think it's important to remember that these communities are not fragile. And this idea that the mere presence of new technology or outside individuals is somehow going to challenge the integrity of the culture, is to imply a paternalistic kind of contempt for those cultures. These people are not being forced out of existence by change. All cultures are always dancing with new possibilities for life. Technology is never a threat to culture. I mean the Lakota Sioux did not stop being Lakota when they gave up the bow and arrow for the rifle any more than an American farmer stopped being an American when he gave up the horse and buggy in favor of the automobile. It's never technology or change that threatens culture, it's power, sheer domination. These are not delicate peoples destined to fade away as if by natural law. These are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces. And that observation is actually an optimistic one. Because just as human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can be the facilitators of cultural survival. And technology, I think, is an extraordinary tool of liberation. I'd make two points, really. One is that I've watched how the Internet has empowered indigenous people in the most extraordinary way. I mean one of the classical kind of scenarios in cultural clash has been the dominance of one power over a smaller people. And often that people will be rather isolated in a particular nation-state. The connectivity of the internet, together with cell phone technology, has allowed indigenous peoples in particular to link directly past the nation state to the international community. We have an amazing project at National Geographic where we fund small indigenous societies and small scale technological innovations. Anybody who has got a cool idea that can improve the world can get into that space and immediately solicit support from all around the world. This is an incredible breakthrough and an incredible opportunity. And the other point I would make is that one of the things I find really disturbing about the cult of modernity, the cult of modernization, the cult of globalization, is that it's based on a couple of assumptions. One is that this modern paradigm is somehow the absolute force of history, as opposed to what it really is: a constellation of economic ideas and social behaviors like any other cultural sphere. And we make the assumption that we are not living as a culture but we are somehow outside of culture, that everybody in the world ought to want to be like us. And thirdly, we create this myth of
the development paradigm that suggests that if people buy into our economic dictates, they will somehow magically achieve this level of affluence that we enjoy. I think this is a fundamental lie of globalization. In terms of energy consumption alone, I don't see how the entire world's population is somehow magically going to be brought up to our level of consumption. And if indeed that occurs, one fears for the future of the Earth itself. What I see in fact happening around the world is that individuals, either through coercion or their own volition, are turning their backs on their tradition, being drawn to the allure of the modern, only to find disappointment. They then find themselves securing a place only on the lowest rung of the economic ladder that goes nowhere. And so caught between the past and the future in an uncertain present, they end up drifting into the seas of misery that surround the major urban centers of the world. And this kind of trend is, I think, not only unfortunate, but it's also geopolitically unstable. Because when people are disaffected and disappointed, often strange movements emerge. So I think that any kind of initiative that can aid on a small-scale basis, and treat a lot of individuals around the world is a terrific thing. I do, however, think that many of these solar innovations, inspiring as they can be, can almost be distractions from the main global challenges. I mean, I don't think microfinance is going to transform the world, as attractive an idea as it is. I think that man is going to have to make some major decisions about major macro issues, and these are truly globally in scale. TreeHugger: A lot of our readers and listeners are frequent travelers. What kind of advice do you give travelers, so that they get the most out of interfacing with other cultures while not doing harm? Davis: In my experience, the fascinating thing about human beings is that, fundamentally, we all share the same adaptive imperatives. We all have kids. We all have to raise our kids. We have to educate our kids. We have to find ways to come together to procreate. We have to deal with the difficulty of old age and the mystery that represents. So, what I find fascinating about traveling through the atmosphere if you will, is that the differences are as dramatic as the commonalities. The commonalities are what really make us in a social sense.
When I, for example, visit a home in a different culture, what I find is that the same traits that would make me welcome in your home at Thanksgiving are the traits that are going to make me welcome in anyplace in the world: self deprecating humor, a willingness to eat what is put in front of me, to sleep where I am asked to sleep, good manners, and a willingness to help out. It is the same things we teach our kids in kindergarten. When you do that wonderful dance of encounter, where you are trying to break down the barrier of suspicion or fear, it's that ethnographer's dance that I most enjoy. That is when you are actually presenting yourself as a human being and you make that breakthrough, and I think that is very gratifying. TreeHugger: What do you see out there that keeps you feeling optimistic? Davis: Well, first of all I'm a father, so I have no choice but to be optimistic. Secondly, I think pessimism is an indulgence. I always remember something the writer Peter Matthiessen once said: "Anyone who thinks he can change the world is both wrong and dangerous." And of course he had in mind people like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. But I think what he also would say is you have an obligation to bare witness to the world and to do your bit. You live one life and you've got a choice. Do you want to indulge in negativity, or do you want to try lean your shoulder to the wheel of the positive? Maybe some of this comes out of my own upbringing as a Christian, where I really did come to believe that there was good and bad in the world. If there is one thing that I have inherited in my older years from that Christian upbringing it's the strong sense that you can do good or you can do bad in the world, and you have a choice. So, I don't really get too hung up on results as much as action. In other words, it is what I am doing that counts, not the result I may or may not create. So, that I think is also a way of keeping one from any sort of sense of despair. I was very fortunate to get my PhD in Biology, but study anthropology as an undergraduate. So I have always had my foot in both the realm of nature and the realm of humanity. I feel each are filled with their own respective and interconnected wonders. One of the things I am always trying to do is encourage people to pay attention to the wonder that exists, the gifts of the intellect and the spirit and the mind that all the different cultures of the world bring to the table. This is what makes the world such a wonderful place to live in.