Anthropologist Wade Davis backs cultures in peril

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      Wade Davis

      Those who attend this year’s Massey Lectures tour by anthropologist Wade Davis will, arguably, be hearing a more polished product than if the series of talks had gone off as originally planned.

      Davis, who is also a noted ethnobotanist, filmmaker, photographer, and author, had been approached by Massey organizers to lecture in five cities across the country for the 2008 tour. He agreed, he told the Georgia Straight, because he does “a great deal of public speaking”. However, he added, he knew little about the venerable Canadian series—especially the primary requirement.

      “I literally accepted before I knew you were expected to write a book,” he said in an interview from his Washington, D.C., office. “I can’t say I panicked, but I was surprised.”

      Davis—explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society for the past 10 years and with more than three decades’ experience of travel among indigenous cultures throughout the world—was also at that time busy making four films for the organization, and had other writing projects under way. Then salvation arrived in the unlikely form of fellow Canadian author Margaret Atwood. She was scheduled for the Masseys in 2009, but for various reasons the preceding year worked much better for her.

      “The funny thing is, she saved my neck,” Davis said with a chuckle. “I had several books I was in the process of writing. They [the Massey organizers] said to me, ”˜Would you mind delaying for a year?’ And there I was on the phone, trying not to scream with delight.”

      Although the extra time was certainly welcome, Davis fast-tracked the creative process once he got down to it. “I actually wrote the book in three months. The material in the book came out of those film projects. When finally the manuscript got to the publisher, they were really pleased; it required very little editing.”

      The result, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (Anansi, $19.95), consists of five chapters to be read and discussed in stops at Yellowknife, Vancouver, Halifax, Montreal, and Toronto. The book examines the cultural lives and prospects of survival of indigenous peoples around the world, from the Polynesians and their incredible seagoing navigation skills to the Amazon’s “people of the anaconda” to the residents of the B.C. Interior’s “Sacred Headwaters”. The wanderings of our planet’s original migrants are also charted from the birthplace of humanity, Africa.

      Through his extensive travels and intimate connections with the subjects of his investigations (although the word investigations seems far too clinical to describe the personal kinships he has built over the years), Davis unveils the cultures of people relatively divorced from the ecological follies of the post–Industrial Revolution world. “All the projects in The Wayfinders are the fruition of years of collaboration and research and deep relationships,” Davis said. “I think that the book is a kind of megaphone that brings their voices to a broader audience.”

      Davis, who lived in Vancouver before moving to the U.S. (and still has a home in B.C.), first gained prominence with the publication in 1985 of The Serpent and the Rainbow, an account of his search for the truth behind alleged Haitian voodoo “zombification” and the ingredients of the concoction said to induce that state. His profile rose even higher three years later, when horror director Wes Craven made a rather sensational film based on Serpent (a film that Davis hated). Books about Borneo’s Penan people and shamanic healing followed, and in 1996 he published One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, an improbable but brilliant combination of autobiography, travel, a botanical examination of the coca plant, and the history of Amazonia’s rubber industry.

      Although long removed from his student days at Harvard, Davis said he supposes he could be called a teacher, even though “I’ve never really known how to label myself. Because I have so much respect for the academic world”¦for years I hesitated to call myself an anthropologist. I was an ethnobotanist, but I don’t do it today.” The planetary reach of his present employer, though, offered Davis an educational opportunity he couldn’t refuse, even if his motivation eventually changed.

      “When I went to National Geographic, it was with a conservation agenda”¦but my mission became to take this really remarkable worldwide audience into the world of human culture. Your classroom is the world”¦I’ve always thought that biology and anthropology are the two most important things for young people to understand.”

      One of the reasons Davis feels this way, he said, is because of the importance of such studies in today’s climate of intercultural conflict and occupation, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the many undeveloped areas facing resource-extraction efforts at the hands of western megacorporations.

      The “others” are not represented by feathers, beads, paint, or turbans, he noted. “Culture is not decoration. It’s really an issue of geopolitical stability and survival.”

      Davis said he is “astounded” by the fact that he has yet to hear or read an anthropologist interviewed about western intervention in Afghanistan. He also noted that a majority of U.S. civilian personnel assigned to Iraq after the most recent invasion applied for passports for their first time.

      “The politicians do not have an understanding of the cultures they are trying to transform.”

      Perhaps he can next investigate reports of zombification in the U.S. State Department.

      Wade Davis will deliver the Vancouver chapter of the Massey Lectures at 8 p.m. next Thursday (October 15), at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. The previous evening (October 14), he’ll appear as a guest of the CBC Studio One Book Club, at 7:30 p.m. in the CBC Atrium (775 Cambie Street).