Ideas

Wade Davis: Light at the edge of the world

In our age, many societies look like they're hurtling towards disorder and disunity. For all of our technological sophistication, the centre isn't holding, great civilizations seem less united than ever. Wade Davis, one of Canada's foremost anthropologists thinks we need to pay more attention to the values, the voices, and the concerns of Indigenous peoples. We have a lot to learn by listening more carefully.
Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis. (Ryan Hill)
Listen to the full episode53:58

In our age, many societies look like they're hurtling towards disorder and disunity. For all of our technological sophistication, the centre isn't holding, great civilisations seem less united than ever. Wade Davis thinks we need to pay more attention to the values, the voices, and the concerns of Indigenous peoples. We have a lot to learn by listening more carefully. Wade Davis in a discussion with Paul Kennedy, with excerpts from a lecture at the Ontario Heritage Trust.

**This episode originally aired January 23, 2018.

Wade Davis is one of Canada's foremost anthropologists. He's written books about the great civilisations of South America and the exploration of Everest. He's studied Santeria in Haiti and ayahuasca in the Amazon. And above all, he's advocated tirelessly for a better understanding of traditional cultures, and how they help us understand what it means to be alive on our planet.

"The Buddhists, I think, are much more perceptive when they recognise that evil, for better or worse, is part of the natural way of things, and it's not going to go away. And you have a choice. As my father would say, 'what side do you want to be on? Do you want to put your shoulder to the wheel of justice, or do you want to be part of the problem?'"

Wade Davis thinks we need to pay more attention to the values, the voices, and the concerns of Indigenous peoples. We have a lot to learn by listening more carefully. Wade Davis in a discussion with Paul Kennedy, with excerpts from a lecture at the Ontario Heritage Trust. 1:33

"Every culture has something to say"

His early work was as an ethnobotanist, studying how Indigenous peoples use natural plants and herbs, both for medicinal purposes and as essential elements of spiritual practice — ayahuasca, for example, a hallucinogen used in South America (and now elsewhere) in communicating with the spirit world. Rootedness to the earth was a pathway to the divine.

In the southern Andes of Peru people meeting on a trail pause and exchange k'intus of coca, three perfect leaves aligned to form a cross. (Wade Davis: Photographs, published by Douglas & McIntyre)

"It's genetics that really, firmly, allows anthropologists to say, without doubt, that every culture has something to say. Each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the path to the Divine."

As his career developed, Wade Davis moved away from botany and biology towards the bigger issues: what is it that Indigenous peoples, in their beliefs and practices, in their social organisation, can teach us about living in the world? If Western society seems to have lost its way in how it relates to nature, if we're looking for answers to the questions of what to do about logging, about mining, about drilling, perhaps Indigenous peoples can teach us something.

We in the West are just one in a long line of peoples who share this planet

For many years, he was an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, with a mandate to travel, explore, and share something of the wealth of the world's cultures with a wide audience — to keep us humble, to realise that we in the West are just one in a long line of peoples who share this planet.

"The social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choice that our particular cultural lineage made."

Wade Davis was the 2009 CBC Massey lecturer, and his lectures The Wayfinders were exactly about those questions, an enthralling expedition through the great achievements of apparently marginalised societies — from the wonders of Pacific Islanders' navigation skills, to the sophisticated pharmacopoeia of the Amazon Basin peoples. These days, Wade Davis teaches anthropology to a new generation of students at the University of British Columbia: the explorer is actually in residence.

"What does it mean to be human and alive? The cultures of the world respond in 7,000 different voices, [and they are] our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species."

Further reading:

  • One River, published by Simon & Schuster, 1997.
  • The Wayfinders, published by House of Anansi, 2009.
  • Into the Silence, published by Vintage Canada, 2012.
     



**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

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