A renowned anthropologist, ethnobotonist, and adventurer rediscovers cultures and languages that could save our species.
Wade Davis has been compared with Indiana Jones, the fictional archeologist brought to life in cinema by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Several similarities ring true. Indy and Davis are both explorers of antiquity; both are daring globetrotters; both endure monumental physical pain and emotional discomfort in gritty pursuit of extraordinary treasures.
But this is where comparisons fall apart. In Spielberg’s four movies about the colorful swashbuckler, Indiana Jones chases after priceless hardware artifacts such as the Ark of the Covenant. Davis pursues software artifacts of vanishing cultures; his treasures are language, ritual, social custom, and ancient wisdom. Brandishing whip and pistol, Indy brutally dispatches evildoers; Davis engages adversaries with pen and oratory. Davis’ quest is not for material riches but for preservation of biological, psychological, cultural, and spiritual diversity.
An Explorer in Residence from 2000 through 2013 for the National Geographic Society, the Harvard-educated ethnobotonist and anthropologist has spent nearly 40 years exploring, describing, photographing, and writing about ancient cultures, native tribes, and flora and fauna in isolated destinations, from Amazonia to the Canadian wilderness. He is an author of eleven books, including global bestseller The Serpent and the Rainbow, a spellbinding account of voodoo culture.
Born in 1953, Davis is aware that his values reflect the context in which he came of age, and he expresses his awakening into adulthood with a keen sense of history.
“There were major sociological and historical forces converging at the time the baby boom generation was born. Our parents were scions of the Victorian and Edwardian eras where progress was taken as a given, improvement as destiny— the inevitable domination and success of European society.”
“Suddenly all of that dies in the blood of Flanders Fields, and we birthed the nihilism of the 20th century. This gave us notions of modernity; this gave us Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Our parents had gone through this incredible upheaval of the spirit—not just The Great Depression and World War II. You can understand their collective exhaustion. We didn’t know about this in our youth.”
What Davis did know, as did many men maturing during the 1960s and 1970s, was that he could not become an Organization Man, surrendering his goals and desires to the conformity demanded by 20th century corporations. His awakening arrived in the summer of 1968 during a high school field trip to Columbia. As he wrote in Light at the Edge of the World:
“Life was real, visceral, dense with intoxicating possibilities. I learned that summer to have but one operative word in my vocabulary, and that was yes to any experience, any encounter, anything new. Colombia taught me that it was possible to fling oneself upon the benevolence of the world and emerge not only unscathed but transformed. It was a naïve notion, but one that I carried with me for a long time.”
His passion for novelty also originated from dread of an overly manicured life as he witnessed his parents’ resigned acceptance of a prosaic and regimented middle-class existence.
“Hemingway said the key to being a writer is to have something important to say,” Davis recalled. “And second he advised writers to first live an interesting life.
“Early on I never had aspirations to be a writer, but I desperately wanted an interesting life because the opposite is a world of conformity and banality. My father called his work ‘the grind.’ I had to escape that, and I think our whole generation felt a need for change.”
Energized and propelled by his generation’s burgeoning cultural narratives, Davis discovered Harvard University, a hotbed for confrontations between baby boomers and the establishment outside academia. In a recent essay on creativity, he reflected upon this time:
“In the summer of my junior year I had a job fighting forest fires and our camps were filled with young American draft dodgers. We were obedient Canadian lads. They by contrast had an irreverence and disdain for authority that was electrifying. One had a copy of Life Magazine with the Harvard student strike of 1969 on the cover. In a raw atavistic way I concluded that this had to be the school to attend. I arrived alone in Boston in the fall of 1971.”
He quickly embraced the revolutionary zeitgeist and opposed the Vietnam War, investing time and energy to shape public opinion through demonstrating and pamphleteering. A tenacious struggle to end the war exhausted him, and so, like many of his backpacking and globetrotting peers, he looked to the wider world for answers to profound questions about war, peace, and humanity’s fundamental nature. He decided to hitchhike into the unknown.
While at a café with his Harvard roommate, during a moment of impulsive decision-making, he pointed to Africa as depicted on an old National Geographic wall map. This would be his next destination he proclaimed.
Making such an abrupt decision to explore territories near the equator, he sought counsel from a scholar who would become his mentor: Richard Evans Schultes, a Harvard professor widely regarded as the greatest twentieth century explorer of the Amazon. After meeting with Schultes, who embraced this ambitious, idealistic student from Canada, Davis journeyed within a fortnight to the Amazon where he lived with fifteen ethnic groups in eight South American countries while collecting over six-thousand botanical specimens.
His botanical pursuits gave him intimate access to indigenous cultures worldwide, inspiring insights into the cultural equivalent of environmental desecration. Just as modernization is destroying the planet’s biodiversity, proliferation of technology and population growth are also destroying many of the world’s oldest cultures and languages.
During a recent speech, he described the probable monochromatic hues of humanity’s future:
“When each of you in this room was born, there were 7,000 languages spoken on earth. Now a language isn’t just a body of vocabulary or set of grammatical rules; a language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle to which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of social and spiritual possibilities. And of those 7,000 languages spoken the day you were born, today fully half are on their way to extinction.”
Like the planet’s biosphere, the health of which depends on species diversity, humanity’s ethnosphere also depends on diversity for our collective psychological wellbeing. Within another generation, humankind will lose the exclusive wisdom, insights, and knowledge of peoples who have carried their traditions from generation to generation with inimitable languages and stories.
Analogous to losing a plant species that could have provided a cure for pancreatic cancer, when humanity loses a unique language and the wisdom it codifies, we might be losing ways of understanding our mortal existence that could cure mental cancers: war, xenophobia, racism, terrorism, and existential loneliness. As Davis cautions in Light at the Edge of the World,
“Every view of the world that fades away, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life and reduces the human repertoire of adaptive responses to the common problems that confront us all.”
Wade Davis carried a journal with him for his first trip to Colombia during the world-shattering summer of 1968. He jotted down a random thought that became his life credo: risk discomfort and uncertainty for understanding.
He has experimented and illuminated, tested choices and found grounding, traveled peripatetically and stood motionless to discover subtle and sustainable lessons of biological and cultural variety. He has taught millions of readers and scores of audiences that the potential calamities we face as a species may be solved through preservation of biological, cultural, and language diversity. This is one providential man’s bequest, a gift to the future from someone who has led a most interesting life.
Photo Credit: Brent Green, Copyright 2009