May 29, 2000
ID 2045
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CBC Ideas Transcripts, PO Box 500, Station A,
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Wade Davis

Paul Kennedy


Paul Kennedy

I'm Paul Kennedy. Tonight on Ideas, the man who's been called the real Indiana Jones, a profile of Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis by Ideas producer Philip Coulter.

Wade Davis has hunted down the deadly poison used to make zombies in Haiti. He's sniffed the powerful hallucinogens of the Yanomami tribe in Venezuela. He's lived with the nomads in the forests of Borneo, and he's smoked toad in Arizona. I'll say that again. He's smoked toad in Arizona. Wade Davis is Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., and an ethnobotanist, which means that he studies how indigenous people use plants, particularly sacred plants.

But when you listen to him talk, you find out that botany is just his way of being curious about some of the big issues that we face in the world today. How we might deal with our planet in a responsible way. What do we do when Western science lets us down? What's the place of indigenous peoples? And what are the dangers that face our many cultures?

Tonight's program is called "The End of the Wild."


Wade Davis

I remember once in the Amazon, I was stranded in the town of Mitu with no money. I was totally broke. I had no idea how to get back to the capital. And suddenly my salvation appeared in the guise of two reporters from The Christian Science Monitor. Well, these poor blokes, one of them had never been outside of the States, the other, hardly out of Boston, for that matter. They arrived, and one of them was wearing loafers as he arrived in Mitu. I looked at them, and I just saw dollar signs, and I said, "I've got a great idea. You pay for everything, and I'll take you to a place that will give you a great story, and you'll have a wonderful experience." I had made a deal with a missionary pilot to take me into this abandoned Catholic mission on the Piraparana, where there was a miroque of Patasana people, a big, long house.

We arrived, and the missionary pilot took off, and we were there for at least a fortnight. The Indians came out in loincloths and paint. A very, very remote part of the northwest Amazon. One of the people spoke broken Spanish, and I made myself known and understood that I wanted to study their plants, and they very graciously invited us into the longhouse to feed us lunch. Well, lunch that day was a fresh termites nest, which was broken open in a big ceramic vessel, and all the kids and elders gather around, and you kill the insects as you eat them. I just dug into this. I had never eaten termites before, but, I mean, if they're doing it, I could do it. I'm digging in, eating. These two reporters beside me are turning green. The captain, the chief, looks at me, and in broken Spanish, he says, "it seems to me that you're not from the same country." And I said, "You're absolutely right. They're Americans and I'm Canadian."


Philip Coulter

Wade Davis likes to tell stories, and stories tell a lot about the storyteller. This one shows a very Canadian pleasure in jokes at the expense of Americans. It also suggests that Wade Davis is energetic, curious and funny and someone who is not easily fazed. And when you meet him, you find out that that's indeed the way he is. Our curiosity is generally rewarded, he thinks, if we approach the world with respect and courage.

We're sitting in his home in Washington, D.C. It's spacious and airy, full of comfortable furniture. It's like many peoples' homes. But there's one big difference. The travel souvenirs in this house are anthropologist's stuff: a bundle of spears in the corner, ancient glass jars of dried something or other with peeling labels. This house as well as Wade Davis' books and other writings reflect a man of great passions and a deep love of nature.


Wade Davis

I grew up in extremely ordinary circumstances in a suburb outside of Montreal, a suburb called Pointe-Claire, and I remember the most powerful image in my childhood was the windmill on the village point that seemed to be frozen by the winter in the sense of the St. Lawrence reaching away into a continent. And I used to worship Radisson and Groseilliers and dream of the coureurs de bois, who'd go up the Ottawa and follow the rivers into the hinterland. They broke open a continent during the fur trade, and, in my imagination, I would always travel with them. So I think I always was drawn to the "other."

My first chance to really break out of that world, again it was a fortuitous moment that came about because I happened to have a schoolteacher at Lower Canada College, where I went to school, who was a remarkable man. His name was John Forster, and he was a Spanish teacher, and he had the kind of fey veneer of a dandy, with a thick scent of cologne that would have been suspicious had he not also had his face ripped apart by wounds from the war that gave him a more masculine essence. He, by chance, took a group of us to Colombia in 1968, and the other kids were 16 years old, and I was only 14. I was the youngest of the group. By chance and again fortunately, I was billeted not in the city of Cali, in Colombia, in the southern Andes of Colombia, but I was actually billeted with a family up in the mountains. So for that eight-week period, I never saw any of the other Canadian lads, and whereas most of them were desperately homesick, I, in a sense, felt that I had finally found home. There was something in that raw intensity of Colombia, which you could even sense in the phantasmagoric landscape, that just captivated me, and I knew that there was a world beyond the one into which I had been born, and that was a world that I wanted to find.


Philip Coulter

Wade Davis went to Harvard to study anthropology. In 1974, about to graduate and at a loss to decide what to do next, he plunked a finger on the map and said, "That's where I'm going," and he went.


Wade Davis

I literally was in a café in Harvard Square. I was with my roommate, who was a ranch kid from Montana, also a student of anthropology, and we had grown frustrated just reading about indigenous people in books. After two years of study, we were in this café, and there was a National Geographic map of the world in front of us, and literally - it's God's truth - David looked at me, and he looked at the map, and he looked at me, and he pointed to the high Arctic, and he looked at me. I clearly had to go somewhere. I've often thought if my finger had dropped onto Italy, I might be a Renaissance scholar. But it pointed to the Amazon.

Now, clearly I had some predisposition for South America. I had been there when I was 14. It seemed wild, exotic. I left very much with the sense that I was on a one-way passage to some place beyond anything I had ever known.

Having decided to go to the Amazon, there was, of course, only one man to see. Richard Evans Schultes, this kindly professor who loomed large over the Harvard campus, this man who shot blow guns in class and kept outside his door a bucket of peyote buttons available as an optional laboratory experiment. He was the great mythical figure of the campus.


Philip Coulter

On the walls of Wade Davis's house are stiff and formal photos of a bygone era. Native people formally posing for the camera. Occasionally there's a white man posing with them, a man with a moon face and small glasses. This is Richard Evans Schultes, who basically invented the science of ethnobotany 50 years ago. Wade Davis writes, "I had a respect for him that bordered on veneration, a man who, having taken a single semester's leave to collect medicinal plants in the northwest Amazon, had disappeared into the rainforest for 12 years."


Wade Davis

What Schultes did is, he opened the world to you, and it was like opening a door for you to walk through. He never really taught you anything, in that sense. In 18 years of studying with him, I never had an intellectual discussion. That's not how he taught. He taught by assuming that you could do anything, and he would open the doors, where you would have the opportunity to show him that you could do anything. He gave you the key to the museum, and the key to the museum was a key to the world. He would say to you things like - he had this deep, resonant voice - "Wade, there's this one river that I really think you should know," knowing full well that the process of getting to that confluence would involve experiences guaranteed to ensure that if you did emerge from the forest alive, you'd emerge as a wiser and more knowledgeable human being.

He had a habit of just dropping pearls your way. I remember the first time I had decided to go to the Amazon, when I had been in that café in Harvard Square, and I walked into his office thinking that I might pick up a few pointers from the man that Prince Philip had called Father Amazon. He did have three vital pieces of information for me. He said, "Don't bother with leather boots because all the snakes bite at the neck." Then he said, "Don't forget to bring a pith helmet," because in 12 years he had never lost his bifocals. And the third piece of information was that I was not to come back from South America without trying ayahuasca, the vision vine, the most potent of the hallucinogenic preparations of the shaman's repertoire, and that, of course, left me very much with a feeling that I was to be on my own.

I remember, I had a one-way ticket, and I knew that I wasn't going to come back for a year and a half or more. I had no idea what was going to happen. I remember even arriving on the tarmac at the international airport at Bogota with a tremendous sense of, now, what do I do? I can, to this day, remember putting my left foot in front of my right foot as I stepped off that airplane, and it was like I knew that as long as I kept those feet moving, something quite wonderful would happen.


Philip Coulter

Schultes sent Wade Davis off to work with his protégé, the botanist Tim Plowman, who was traveling around Latin America conducting a massive research project into the coca plant and its derivatives. The whole thing was a life-changing experience for Wade Davis. Early on, he made a dangerous crossing of the Darién Gap, the 250-mile stretch of swamp and rainforest between Columbia and Panama. With him was an eccentric British journalist.


Wade Davis

This guy, Sebastian Snow, was 45 years old, and he was one of these fellows who sought adventure for its own sake. He was the opposite of Schultes, who always said, "Adventures only happen to those who are ill-prepared." He sought out adventures so he had something to write about.

In the course of the passage, we reached a town midway through the Darién, which is now approachable by road but it certainly wasn't then, called Uvesa, where we were taken in by the guardia civil, who were under the command of Noriega at the time. They confiscated all of our gear, and they accused us of smuggling marijuana, which was a completely nonsensical accusation, but it gave them the excuse to ferret through all of our gear. They found this huge whack of money that Sebastian had, several thousand dollars which, to my astonishment, he had been carrying with him. They then said they were going to arrange guides for us for the next section of the passage, which had no trails. We knew that the guides that they were going to get...

Actually, what happened is, the guides they brought in did not impress me, and I went off in a dugout to a missionary, and the missionary met me at the dock, and he said, "I've already heard about you. I'm in the course of finding you some Guna Indian guides, who will not leave you dead in the forest." That was his first words to me.

That night there was a horrific storm. Because we realized that the guardia civil had planned to kill us, we had to escape the village. Instead, having abandoned all of our gear and armed only with a couple of rifles lent to us by the missionary, the next day before dawn, we headed off into the forest, the opposite direction that they would have expected us to go, and made our way on towards our ultimate destination. But in the course of evading the people we thought might be following us, the three Indians themselves became lost in the forest, and after that we ended up wandering for close to ten days.

When you're lost in the forest, it's not the absolute number of days that matters. It's the vast uncertainty that consumes every moment. Eventually, we were down to just a handful of shells and no food. Remember, this is the rainy season. We've got no shelter at night, so at night we were just huddling around smoldering fires in body piles, trying to keep warm.

We finally ran into a group of Panamanian fishermen who had come into the forest from the sea. We looked at them, and we said, "How do we get to Santa Fe?" which was our destination, which was the end-of-the-road construction site of the Pan-American Highway, which was then moving south. They said, "Santa Fe is two weeks in that direction." At that point, we knew we couldn't walk two weeks. Sebastian had sprained both his ankles. We knew that, at the same time, if we stopped walking, we would atrophy, and we would die. It was very clear. I had one of the rifles on my shoulder, and I just started walking. Not a word was said. I just started walking. We had to keep going.

I got ahead of the guys, and as I just came around the bend, a black jaguar leapt right into the path, and it was about 7 feet from me. When a jaguar looks at you with those yellow eyes, it's like you've been photographed. They X-ray you and they never forget. I just stared into his yellow eyes, and then he suddenly took two steps towards me and then jumped back into the forest and disappeared. It was like, to me, an omen because it turned out that Santa Fe wasn't two weeks away. It was one day away. Not one day away. But the end of the road was one day away.

At the end of that afternoon in a torrential tropical downpour, we shot a wild turkey, and suddenly I burst onto the end of the right-of-way of the Pan-American Highway, and I knew in that moment that we would be safe. It was an extraordinary moment of redemption and hope. I always thought that that jaguar, in some sense, had been there to teach me that things would be okay. I think, in that sense, it was that idea that I had learned, even early on in my life when my parents sent me to Columbia at the age of 14, that it was possible to cast yourself upon the benevolence of the world and emerge unscathed.


Philip Coulter

One River is the book Wade Davis wrote about his early experiences in South America. It's a many-layered book, partly a memoir of his own travels, partly a biography of Richard Schultes. It's also partly an intellectual detective story, as Wade Davis and Tim Plowman search for the sacred plants of South America. Plowman's great interest was coca. Wade Davis's principal interest was the preparation called ayahuasca.


Wade Davis

In the case of ayahuasca or the other hallucinogenic plants of South America, these are really the vehicles to the gods. They're never seen as drugs. They're sacred medicines. They're facilitators. They're the way that the shaman elevates his or her spirit and gets into those distant metaphysical realms where he or she can work their deeds of spiritual and medical rescue, which in fact always seen to be one in the same.

Now, if you think of a tribe like the Yanornami of Venezuela, who make from the blood-red resin of several species in the genus of verola, of the nutmeg family, a powder, which they blow up their nose - many people have seen films of this -those triptamines are powerfully psychoactive. Phymethoxydiamethyi-triptamine - to have that stuff shot up your nose is rather like being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with Baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity. It creates not the distortion of reality. It creates the dissolution of reality. You can almost not even call it a hallucinogen because when you're under the influence of it, there's no one home anymore to experience hallucinations. But the shaman of the Yanomami do their work in that state of trance.

One of the reasons that I think that ayahuasca in particular is such a fascinating metaphor is because it is really the plant that reveals most powerfully the brilliance of the shamanic alchemy of manipulation of the botanical realm. What do I mean by that? Ayahuasca is not a specific plant as much as it is a preparation. There is a liana, a vine, called, in scientific terms, bannisteriopsiscopi, which has a series of betacarbilenes in it called harmine and harmaline, which are mildly psychoactive. Ayahuasca is in fact a combination of that liana and a nondescript shrub called psychotria viridis, which is in a completely different family of plants, morphologically totally unrelated and distinct. But those triptamines are mixed in with the ayahuasca vine, and the betacarbomines potentiate the triptamines, creating a kind of biochemical version of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, a synergistic effect which creates this potent pharmacological possibility.

But the really interesting question is not just how the plant affects you and how those effects are interpreted in spiritual terms by the shaman, but the sheer botanical genius: how, in this flora of 80,000 species, did the people learn to mix these morphologically distinct plants in this curious way that would have this incredible outcome?

Now, when scientists are asked to address that question, they use the classic explanation. Trial and error. Well, trial and error accounts for some phenomena. But in something like this, you just have to run a statistical model to realize that this is an absurd explanation.

You ask the Indians themselves, and they say, "Well, the plants tell us." "Well, what do you mean?" They say to you, "I thought you were botanists. Don't you know anything? You take the plant on the night of a full moon, and each variety sings to you in a different key." This is a wonderful poetic image. It's not going to get you a PhD at Harvard, but on the other hand, it's a lot more interesting than counting stamens.

The point is that Indian people are telling us that they, through their adaptation, through their take on the forest, have a different sense of those plants and a different knowledge and a different capability of manipulating those plants. Now, you wonder about that. What is going on? All I know is that I've been with tribes in the Amazon whose hunters can smell animal urine at 40 paces and tell you what species left it behind. So it's a combination of acute, attentive focus that would put any natural historian to shame, and it's also the consequence of a people who view the plants in a different way and have viewed them in a different way for generations.



Philip Coulter

For Wade Davis, certain plants are sacred to the people of the Amazon not only because they are a means of entering the spirit world but also because they link them in a profound way to the complex physical world in which they live.


Wade Davis

They're important in these cultures for a number of reasons. First of all, on a very straightforward basis, they are the vehicle to the spirit realm where the shaman can do his medical work. But on a more profound level, they account for how, I think, indigenous people, particularly in the Amazon, come to terms with the environment in which they live.

The Amazon is a very complex world of certainty and mystery, and the idea that somehow indigenous people are not as overwhelmed by that reality as we are, I think, is a false one. You must remember that the Amazon itself is the size of the face of a full moon. It's the biggest forest on earth. It's the size of the continental United States. I think all societies who make their way in that forest have to come to terms with its immensity.

It's a subtle thing. There are no herds of ungulates on the horizon, as you might find in the Serengeti. There are no cascades of orchids. There's just a thousand shades of green, an infinitude of shape, form and texture that just mocks the terminology of the temperate botanist. It's almost as if you have to close your eyes just to hear the constant hum of biological activity. From our point of view, it's like evolution working in overdrive.

But that same intensity is completely assaulting the consciousness of the Indian person as well, and the shaman in the Amazon, I think, finds in ayahuasca a mediator to that realm, a way of understanding the power of what they perceive in the natural world all around them.

We have this very strange attitude towards psychoactive substances in the West whereby if you recall in the '60s, we had this notion of the "bad trip." That implied that somehow all trips were supposed to be good, as if you could touch this realm of wonder, catalysed by these curious plants, and expect it to be somehow like watching a Wait Disney movie.

Ayahuasca is many things, but "pleasant" isn't one of them. When shamans speak of facing down the jaguar, it's because they really do. It's supposed to be terrifying. It takes you into a world of hallucinations and reality where every demon that you've ever imagined confronts you. It's not supposed to be pleasant. It's supposed to be what it is. the encounter with the other side.


Philip Coulter

"The chant had turned into a soft whistling sound. The rattling and swish of the fan accompanied the language of prayer, words broken into syllables and sounds that built one upon the other into a melodious harmony that gave the curandero total command of the moment. Everything was still. He sang on and on, oblivious to the passing of time.

"When finally he stopped, he leaned over the yezhe and blew a single breath of air across the surface. He made the sign of the cross and then spoke one last prayer, addressing the plant repeatedly by its Quechuan name: ayahuasca, the vine of the soul.

... Guillermo, go take your turn. Drink it quickly,' Pedro said. The curandero cleansed the yagd with his fan and handed me a cup, which I took in a single swallow. The smell and acrid taste was that of the entire jungle ground up and mixed with bile."

When Wade Davis goes into an indigenous community, he's got an agenda. There are things he's trying to find out, not only about the plants the people use and how they use them, but also about the community itself. The question is, how does he know he's getting the real McCoy? How does he know his experience is authentic, that people aren't just telling him what they think he wants to hear?


Wade Davis

It depends whether you see the purpose of your presence to somehow seduce from the people some kernel of secret knowledge that you're going to then violate and take away. I don't think that's what I try to do. I try to go into these communities very much as a visitor from beyond who is simply there in a moment of reverence and respect. In fact, it turns out to be empathy, indeed, love - I'm not ashamed to say - that allows you to really create that common ground. It's often the slightest thing: a gesture, a willingness to eat at their table, sleep beside them on the stony ground, share thoughts of your own people - share the very basic human traits that would allow me to be a welcome guest in your house. In the Amazon, the access point was a botanical realm. I didn't go down to the Tucano people in Colombia or the Guarani in Sionna-Sequoia in Equador or the Machu Ginga and Cumpa in Peru and announce that I was here to study you. I told them that I wanted to learn about their plants.

Now, coming from a long way away to study something that was outside of themselves but so important to them and of which they knew themselves that they knew so much was a perfectly reasonable thing to try to do. Of course, as we went about doing our botanical collections, since gossip is the international language, I could learn anything I wanted to know about the way the cultures worked, but that was why I became a botanist. So I think what you try to do is find the way to dance the rhythm of culture. What's the most appropriate way? Of course, many times you won't get it.

But the question is, what are we really out there trying to do? Are we trying to secure some absolute truth? Well, there's not even any absolute truths in hard sciences, let alone in the social sciences. In good measure, what we're trying to do is, I think, celebrate a different vision. When I go off into the field in different cultures, what I'm really trying to bring back, at least to my own culture, is a sense, an intimation, of a different vision of life itself. Schultes sent us to the forest to find new drugs for the pharmaceutical industry, or he said he did. But, in fact, I believe he sent us to find and celebrate a new vision of life itself.


Philip Coulter

Part of this new vision, the lesson learned in the exploration of other cultures, is the richness and diversity of human experience in the world we share. Another part of the vision for Wade Davis is the understanding of what it is that we have in common that links us in the family of human kind.


Wade Davis

I think one of the wonderful things about anthropology is that if you look in most cultures around the world, we share so much. If you took the Ten Commandments, for example, and you brought them to the attention of any indigenous person in virtually any culture around the world, you'd find agreement. Every culture says it's a bad idea to kill. Almost every culture says it's a bad idea to steal, to commit adultery, to take the name of the Lord in vain, whatever that Lord is. The Ten Commandments didn't burst out of the Judeo-Christian tradition as much as they burst out of the need to adapt as a human being, as a social species. Without those rules, how can we, as a social species, exist? So the same kind of determinants affect cultures all around the world.

That said, given that common fabric of our experience, there's room for 10,000 gestures of the human imagination, which become the moments of culture, these unique manifestations of the human spirit. I think that's a very hopeful idea, because diversity does not imply differentness, complete distinction. Diversity is really all about being different facets of the same organic whole, and the organic whole is called humanity.

I remember in Haiti in particular, because of all the cultures that I've been, Haiti is the one that has been most saddled with cliché. And I remember being absolutely smitten by the Haitian people, not just the voodoo society but the entire culture. I love the energy. I love the lack of racism. I love the fact that here is a place where people did not judge you by the colour of your skin. I love to be in an African world of such dignity and pride, which probably, in good measure, goes back to the fact that this was the people that threw off the shackles of bondage in the only successful slave revolt in history.


Philip Coulter

If South America is the place where Wade Davis had his first life-changing experiences, then Haiti is the place where his life was changed for a second time. Out of his years in Haiti came his first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, subtitled An Astonishing Journey Into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies and Magic.


Wade Davis

The way The Serpent and the Rainbow came about again was completely serendipitous. I was studying in graduate school at the time under the direction Richard Evans Schultes, the great ethnobotanist, and one of the pearls he dropped my way one day in the winter of 1982 was that there was a possibility that zombies existed in Haiti, and how would I like to go there and have a look for the formula of a reputed drug that was said to bring on a state of apparent death? Well, I thought this was right out of the realm of fantasy, but I wasn't about to turn down a two-week vacation in the Caribbean in the midst of a Boston February winter. And so I went to Haiti with the ostensive goal of finding the formula of a folk poison that made a zombie.

Of course, a zombie, by folk definition, is a living dead. It's an individual who's been magically killed, placed through some kind of burial ceremony and then resuscitated to face an uncertain fate, a fate that invariably is said to involve some form of enslavement.

Now, I was sent down to Haiti with that mission, but, of course, the first thing I had to do was separate my own preconceptions about voodoo from the reality that confronted me in the streets of Haiti. And it's interesting: if I had to ask you to name the great religions of the world, what would you say? Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam -whatever it is, there's always one continent left out: sub-Saharan Africa, the tacit assumption being that somehow African people had no religion. Well, of course, they did. And voodoo is not some black magic cult. It's simply the distillation of these very profound religious ideas that came over during the tragic diaspora of the slavery era, became sewn in the fertile soil of the New World. Zombies, as it turned out, were one narrow thread of darkness woven through the luminescent fabric of a beautiful world view, the world view of voodoo.


Philip Coulter

"Voodoo," Wade Davis writes in The Serpent and the Rainbow, "is a complex, mystical world view, a system of beliefs concerning the relationship between man, nature and the supernatural forces of the universe." Near the beginning of the book, he describes a scene of voodoo possession at the home of a man named Max Beauvoir...

"For 14 minutes, the dance went on, and then it happened. The maman broke, fled from the fixed rhythm of the other two drums, then rushed back with a highly syncopated, broken counterpoint. The effect was one of excruciating emptiness, a moment of hopeless vulnerability. An initiate froze. The drum pounded relentlessly, deep, solid blows that seemed to strike directly to the woman's spine. She cringed with each beat.

Then with one foot fixed to the earth like a root, she began to spin in a spasmodic pirouette, out of which she soon broke to hurtle about the peristyle, stumbling, failing, grasping, thrashing the air with her arms, momentarily regaining her centre only to be driven on by the incessant beat. Add upon this wave of sound, the spirit arrived. The woman's violence ceased. Slowly she lifted her face to the sky."

And he finishes... "Never in the course of my travels in the Amazon had I witnessed a phenomenon as raw or powerful as the spectacle of voodoo possession."


Wade Davis

What possession is in voodoo - and it's always been described by white psychologists as some kind of moment of pathology, when in fact to the voodooist, it's a moment of divine grace. The voodooist says, "You, white people, go to church and speak about God. We dance in the temple and become God." Indeed, the Haitian people, the voodoo acolytes, move in and out of their spirit realm with an ease and impunity that is astonishing to the ethnographic observer. And it's all based on the idea that the soul of the living can be momentarily displaced by the spirit of the god, by one of the loas, the 411 spirits of the voodoo pantheon. So before that brief shining moment, you actually become the god.

Now, each god has a unique personality, whether it's Erzulie, the goddess of love, or Ogoun, the Shango god of metallurgical elements and fire and war, so that when that spirit, invoked by the rhythm of the drums, the chants of the priestess or the priest, momentarily displaces the soul, you become the god, and in that moment, you cannot be harmed. And that's why you have these theatrical displays of power: eating glass or theatrically driving a machete into the stomach or, more powerfully, handling burning embers with impunity.

I remember the first time I saw people with little coals the size of small apples burning red-hot in their mouths as they danced around the poteau mitan, the centre post of the temple, which is the axis mundi, the trajectory through which the spirits rise from beneath the great waters to fall down upon the living. It was just an astonishing thing to experience. And I think it shows you, in rather dramatic fashion, the power of the mind to affect the body that bears it when catalysed during a state of extreme excitation released through religious conviction. And this indeed is what spirit possession is all about.


Philip Coulter

In an essay called "The Art of Shamanistic Healing," Wade Davis makes the point that, within indigenous societies, the person who deals with the sacred aspects of life is the shaman or houngan, while the closest equivalent in our own society is the priest. And he goes on to argue that the two can't really be compared. There is a real distinction between the role of the shaman and the role of the priest.


Wade Davis

I think the key thing is that, in our society, we clearly distinguish the priest, who is responsible for the spiritual well-being of the individual, from the physician, who is responsible for the physical well-being of the individual. Whereas in most indigenous cultures, whether it's in Haiti, with the houngan or mambo, the voodoo priestess, the houngan being the priest, or in an Amazonian culture, where it's a shaman or the curandero, in these societies, priest and physician become one because the state of the spirit is believed to be as important and in fact determines the state of well-being of the body of the individual. This really accounts for the nature of their art of healing.

In our society, we define disease as a presence or absence of pathogens alone. In most traditional societies, disease is defined as a state of imbalance, where malevolent forces are allowed to invade the body of the victim. The curative act involves addressing those forces, so that really accounts for how shamanic healing occurs. To really get to the source of a problem which is in the spirit level, you must invoke some technique of ecstasy to soar away on the wings of trance to get into distant metaphysical realms.

The shaman is a much misunderstood figure. We have an idea of the shaman as being this benign figure with feathers and bells, sort of like a benevolent grandfather who tells nice stories. Well, I can tell you, in all of my travels, I don't think I've ever met a shaman who wasn't a little crazy. I won't use the word "psychotic" because that's a medically laden term. They're all crazy. That's their job. As Joseph Campbell said, the shaman is the one who swims in the water the rest of us would drown in. The shaman is the one who goes into the waters that the rest of us don't even want to know exist.

Indian people are not unlike us. They want to raise their kids, house their kids, feed their families and live a good life, and they're perfectly happy to delegate to a religious authority all those issues of the spirit that they'd rather not deal with on a day-to-day basis. That doesn't mean that the shaman is a peripheral figure, because what makes his journey to that realm possible is there is a home to come back to.


Philip Coulter

One of the major thrusts of Wade Davis's work is that we in the West need to look with more empathy at what indigenous cultures have to contribute to human society as a whole. But there's a bit of a problem for us as Westerners'. How do we go about choosing what in our culture might be of value, and how do we choose what's of value in other cultures?


Wade Davis

I think one of the first things we have to recognize is that we are a culture, and what I mean by that is that we tend to view indigenous cultures around the world as quaint and colourful but, nevertheless, somehow marginal to the overall thrust of history, which we somehow represent, moving inexorably forward in this technological, modern world. To view cultures as marginal is to miss the central revelation of anthropology, and that is the idea that the world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense but is just one model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of adapted choices that we've made in our lineage, albeit successfully, many generations ago. We, in our arrogance, assume that we are the stream of history, but we forget that other societies represent other kinds of choices, which have different consequences.

For example, if you walk by a homeless person on the streets of Toronto, you see that individual as the sad and unfortunate but inevitable consequence of an economic reality. But if you're a Gabra, a nomad from the deserts of Kenya, you're raised to believe that a poor man shames ourselves. If you're a nomadic hunter and gatherer like the Penan in the forests of Borneo, you are raised in a world where material possessions have no meaning because everything ultimately must be carried on your back. You're raised in a world where sharing is an involuntary reflex because you never know who will be the next to secure the food for the table. You see that the wealth of those communities is not material possessions but human relationships between people.

Then you have to ask yourself, if you, for example, put a Penan child on the lnternet, which you can do actually, and put a kid from Beverly Hills on the lnternet and have an interesting dialogue, and you ask a couple of questions to the kid in Borneo, "List all the possessions of your family," the kid would probably say, "Well, we've got three blow pipes, sleeping mats, which my mother made out of rattan palm, dart quivers to carry the darts that we make, that my father taught me this morning how I make the poison to kill the animals and crested hornbill, which incidentally if you watch the crested hornbill go through the sky in the right way and with the moon in the wrong place, it sings a song to you that will tell you where the meat will be found tomorrow. But I'll be there with my dad."

Then you ask the kid in Beverly Hills to name their possessions, because the Penan kid would be through in about 30 seconds. The Beverly Hills kid would take about five years to get through all the stuff, even if she or he could remember it.

But then you ask the more important questions of the Beverly Hills kid.. "How many days did you spend with your dad this month? ..... Days'! Are you crazy?" We know statistically that the average father in America spends 17 minutes with their children every day, and we have the audacity to step back and assume that our society has a monopoly on the avenue to truth and social solidarity. Are you crazy? Look at these other cultures. Look what they do, how they live. They spend all their time with their parents.


Philip Coulter

In the West, Wade Davis is saying, we have so insulated ourselves from any real connection with the world around us that basic survival mechanisms are endangered. Indigenous societies, on the other hand, have developed traits of civility, of personality, of character that grow out of being forced to adapt to the environment that surrounds them, traits that combine to create meaning and shape within their society.


Wade Davis

I was recently in northern Kenya on assignment from National Geographic, living amongst a series of nomadic, pastoral people: the Rindili, the Samburu, the Attayau. This is an amazing place because in these deserts of northern Kenya up towards the Somalia border, drought is not some cruel anomaly. It's a regular feature of climate, and adapting to drought is the most fundamental need and urge of any culture in that area. In order to adapt to drought, there is an incentive to have vast herds of camel or cattle, in the case of the Samburu. In order to have vast herds, it behooves you to have great numbers of children to help look after your herds, which gives an incentive to have great numbers of wives, which leads to polygamy.

Now, if you're going to have great numbers of wives, you've got a problem: what do you do with the young men? Well, you basically decide to get rid of them. But how do you get rid of them? You send them off as warriors to the remote fora, the encampments at the edge of your territory, where they look after your herds, raid neighbouring tribes for their cattle, their camels and basically live at the periphery of the known world. But to make that separation desirable, it's involved with prestige. So the warriors are then sent off into the fora, to these remarkable encampments, where they live on a diet of wild herbs gathered in the shade of feral acacia trees and blood drawn each night from the jugular vein of a heifer mixed with the luscious milk for this beautiful concoction, which is what they live on for 14 years.

And yet there's still the problem of sex, hormones. So what do you do? You allow the warriors to come back in their regalia to their community. They're never allowed to go into a domestic space, where they might interact with a married woman. But it's perfectly accepted for them to come back in ritual dances and claim as girlfriends young, premarital women. Pre-marital sex is completely accepted, totally accepted. In fact, the relations can go on indefinitely until that young girl is betrothed by her father into marriage, and then everything must stop. There is a tremendous disincentive and prohibition on premarital pregnancy but no prohibition on pre- marital intercourse.

Then the young warrior is not only allowed to go to the wedding of his former girlfriend to the now arranged marriage to the older man. He's openly encouraged to mock the virility of the old man who has taken away his girlfriend. But, you see, this is a wonderful image here. You see that a single adapted need, the desire to deal with drought, bifurcates through culture, crystalizes through culture and creates a world view. This is something which I think is wonderful to see, and one sees it all around the world.


Philip Coulter

In one of his essays, "Hunters of the Northern Ice," Wade Davis writes about the lnuit in northern Canada. "After half a century of profound change, what indeed is tradition?" he asks. "How can we expect a people not to adapt?" And he goes on to defend the right of indigenous peoples to choose the components of their lives. The problem, from a Western perspective, is that indigenous peoples are abandoning their old ways, even as we in the West are beginning to look to them for some of the things that we have lost.


Wade Davis

I think all peoples in all cultures have an obligation to pay homage to the past because we are children of that past, and it's an obvious matter of respect for our elders to know where we've come from.

There's a huge difference between culture change, which is a natural, organic, perpetual process, and the cataclysmic consequences of the cultural interface that you describe in South America. Cultures change organically, and they change on their own terms. And what anthropologists are always trying to assure is not that cultures become static, which is an impossibility, but rather that cultures are allowed to undergo the inevitable changes that they will confront on their own terms. Cultures only disappear when they're confronted by forces beyond their imaginings that lead to cataclysmic consequences. So whether it's a cocaine cartel in Columbia or whether it's the diseases that swept through the Americas at the time of contact or whether it's the oral exploration that's going on in Warani territory or whether it's a timber interest which has devastated the homeland of the Penan in southeast Asia, these are the kinds of forces that cultures cannot embrace and adapt to, that imply, by definition, the assimilation and indeed annihilation of their way of life. That's why when E. L. Wilson says the twentieth century will not be remembered for its wars or its technological achievements but it's a century which has stood by and either actively endorsed or passively accepted the massive destruction of biological diversity, you can add to that cultural diversity.

We are living through a period of time where literally half of humanity's knowledge has been lost. Now, think about this. What do I mean by that? Think of linguistic diversity. Through history, there may have been 10,000 languages spoken. We don't really know. Now, languages, like species, come and go. Extinction is a normal phenomenon, but in general over the last 600-million years, speciation, the creation of new life, has outpaced extinction. By the same token with languages and culture, the biological analogy is a propos. Languages have come and gone. We no longer speak Latin in the streets of Europe. But before Latin disappeared from the scene, it had time to leave descendants: all the Romance languages. By the same token, cultures come and go, overwhelmed by external forces, fractioned by internal pressures, whatever, but in general, cultural diversity has flourished in the history of our species.

But today we're living through this period of condensation that is astonishing. Of those 6,000 languages that were spoken when you and I were young boys, over half are not being taught to schoolchildren. That means they're effectively dead. Now, forget the fact that in a century the linguistic diversity of the world may be reduced to as few as 500 languages. No one really knows. There are only 300 languages today spoken by more than a million people.

Now, the indigenous people around the world who speak half the known languages are few in number, 5 per cent of the world's population, perhaps 300-million people, but they speak half the world's languages. Now, what does that mean? Those are the languages that are moribund. Those half of the languages that are disappearing literally represent, by definition, half of humanity's repertoire. Half of the total knowledge of our species has been lost in the generation through which we are living.

Now, what do I mean by that? People say, "Oh, we can make computers, we can make planes, we can do this." No, I'm talking about the overall human adaptive repertoire to the common problems that afflict us all. Every time a Penan person or culture disappears, every time the lnuit turn their face on their past, every time the Warani no longer know how to be Warani, every time a yak herder in Tibet no longer is taught to follow the dharma, a facet of the possibility of life is lost. And this is what this period of time represents.


Philip Coulter

Wade Davis tells of the sloth who is home in his own body to burrowing beetles and who, as part of the delicate waltz of nature, defecates at the base of his tree in order to fertilize that tree and preserve his own habitat. Nature, to Wade Davis, is a symphony of diversity and balance.


Wade Davis

It's interesting if you think about the process of change. I was once in the forests of Borneo with a nomadic Penan called Asik Nyelik of the Yabong River people. Asik may well turn out to be the last nomad of southeast Asia. But it was a bright night after a big thunderstorm, and a full moon filtered through the branches of the canopy. And he looked at me, and he said, "is it true your people have been there?" And I said "Yes." He was fascinated. He said, "How did they get there? What kind of canoe did they have? What was the transport? What did they bring back, and why did they go there?" And it was very difficult to explain to a man who could still kindle a fire with flint a space program that had consumed the wealth of nations and had indeed, at the cost of over a trillion dollars, sent 12 men on a mission that collectively traveled a billion-and-a-half miles to the moon, Where in fact they did only bring back 828 pounds of dirt and dust and lunar rock.

I didn't know quite what to tell him until one day, from my home here in Washington, where I live in the shadow of the National Cathedral, where there is a stained glass window, there is a piece of that lunar rock in a window called the Space Window. I was sitting in the nave of the church, and in the gothic tradition, of course, those stained glass windows aren't just windows. They're the moment of transition. They are the place where the light of the sun becomes light divine, that is, that sacred luminosity that empowers and fulfils the sacred space within the vault of the church. I was looking up at this window, and in contrast to the 'rich orb of light that came in and around that piece of moon rock, the rock itself seemed so dead, so inert, so lifeless. I suddenly realized, that was the answer to Asiq's question, that's why we went to the moon not to bring back wealth but to bring back a whole new vision of life itself. The seminal moment occurred not on the day that Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon but six months before when Apollo 8 first went around the dark side of the moon on Christmas Day and emerged suddenly to see not a sunrise or a moon rise but an earth rise.

That single vision of the planet, as they recalled, a blue planet floating in the velvet void of space, will have a more profound impact on human intellectual thought than even the Copernican revolution of the 1500s that told us finally that the earth was not the centre of the universe, because what we see from space is not the stunning products of human ingenuity or a vast empty horizon. We see a very finite orb floating in that velvet void of space.

Indeed when you realize that the earth can only endure our neglect for so long, even those of us who like to think that we love nature sometimes can miss the whole point of the wonder of biology. I remember there was this horrific book that came out called The Secret Life of Plants that made this big deal about plants responding to Mozart and to our voices. I remember my friend Timothy Ploughman and I were travelling the back roads of Columbia when this book came out. It just infuriated Tim, and I remember him saying to me, "Why would a plant give a shit about Mozart?" And then he said, "And even if it did, why should that impress us? They can eat light. Isn't that enough?" So when you ask a question like, "Why is diversity important?" there's a part of me that almost has to say that if you have to ask that question, you couldn't possibly understand the answer. It's important because it is who we are. It's what we are. It's what allows us to flourish.



Tonight on Ideas, you've been listening to "The End of the Wild," a portrait of anthropologist Wade Davis by producer Philip Coulter. Tonight's program was presented and produced by Philip Coulter. The Executive Producer of Ideas is Richard Handler, and I'm Paul Kennedy.


Transcript by Jan Godfrey and Philip Coulter
OCR'ed - Dec 2000 by jds

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