A Q&A with Dr. Wade Davis

by Jesse Boyes

Wade Davis is a professor of anthropology, the B.C. Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia, was the Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society from 1999 to 2013, and is a prestigious storyteller. Davis is a writer, a photographer, and a filmmaker. He holds a degree in anthropology, another in biology, and a PhD in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. A passionate defender of what he calls the ethnosphere, his philosophical vision as a young man was influenced by such mentors at Harvard as the explorer and botanist Richard Evans Schultes, and social anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis, who he describes as being in the scholar-as-activist tradition.

You coined the word ethnosphere when writing about the tragedy of vanishing cultures and languages. How did the idea of the ethnosphere come about?

I was just looking for a kind of organizing principle to draw people's attention to the fact that, even as we lamented the loss of biological diversity, there was a parallel process of loss which was erosion of the cultural fabric of life or, you know, of the planet. The forces that were responsible for the impact on the biosphere were the same forces that were impacting the integrity of culture. I just coined that term to begin to get people to think of this interconnected web of life. I defined the ethnosphere as the sum total of all thoughts, dreams, ideas, intuitions, myths and memories brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness.


The interesting thing is that biologists and anthropologists used to be kind of at loggerheads. There was a famous moment---I write about it in a new book of mine---where the Dalai Lama was speaking for his last time on his first tour of the West in the late 70's at Harvard. The same night, E. O. Wilson was introducing Norman Myers who had just written one of the first books anticipating the biodiversity crisis. That night all the students were across the way to listen to His Holiness. E. O. Wilson, this incredibly kind man and incredibly brilliant biologist, who would regret these remarks to this day, in apologizing for the sparse audience, said to Myers that even Harvard students can't get their priorities right and they'd rather be across the way to listen to that "religious kook" as he put it. Of course, what was going on then is not that Wilson is a bad guy but it was typical of the chasm that existed then between biologists, who saw people as part of the problem, especially indigenous people, and anthropologists, who couldn't abide by what we saw as the misanthropic elitism of the naturalists. Now, of course, science, in the guise of genetics, has brought that all together. Science has come forward to actually prove the truth of the central idea of anthropology which is cultural relativism. We know that we're all cut from the same genetic cloth, we all share the same genius, race is a fiction; and if we all share the same genius, how culture decides to use that genius is simply a matter of choice. Which is kind of the fundamental idea of cultural anthropology. But that's now---back then it wasn't so clear.

To me it was important to come up with this idea of the ethnosphere to highlight this parallel process of loss. The symbol of that was the erosion of linguistic diversity and the fact that by academic consensus, half of the languages of the world weren't being taught to school children.


Did Professor Richard Evans Schultes, ethnobotanist and one of your mentors, help inspire this idea?

It wasn't really Schultes. I was very lucky that I had two mentors at Harvard; Schultes of course who, indirectly I suppose, turned me on to the realm of plants. As a young person, that was very grounding because the theoretical elements of social anthropology were frankly beyond me, but there was something concrete and real about plants. Plants became for me, at a critical point in my young life, a kind of perfect conduit to culture, a way to understand and approach indigenous people. So I wasn't turning out, at the age of twenty, to study them. I was going there more in the spirit of an apprentice who goes to be at the feet of more knowledgeable mentors. I think that dynamic was one that indigenous people understand much more readily than someone who turns up at the age of twenty and says 'I want to study your sex life'. If somebody did that to us we'd probably call the police, right? So botany for me was very much a kind of conduit to culture. Intellectually I was much more influenced by the thinking of David Maybury-Lewis who was a great social anthropologist, but also very much in the tradition of scholar as activist. He created Cultural Survival and he thought more profoundly about culture than anyone I'd ever met or have met. He was a big influence. I no longer do ethnobotany, although plants are still a big part of my life and in all my books of literary non-fiction, plants always are a motif. I ended up actually being more the student or the child of David Maybury-Lewis than of Schultes, even though both men were very important to me.

Why is it that in your writings you so often highlight the vitality of story and myth?

If you want to communicate the lessons of anthropology you can't do it through polemics or through politics. You really have to do it through storytelling. Narrative and stories change the world. I certainly think that, and that's what I am. I'm a storyteller, I describe myself as a storyteller---the medium might be film, it could be books, it can be public lectures or whatever, but fundamentally it's storytelling---telling stories through the lens of anthropology or history or culture. That's why I strongly believe in the activist tradition of anthropology.


You tell an epic story in your book One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. Many wonder, how did you develop the ability to write so enchantingly?

I taught myself. It was a classic case of having no options. That's what I always say to young people: be an opportunist, not like a schemer. Put yourself in the way of opportunities where you have no choice but success and you suddenly find yourself achieving things that would've been beyond your imaginings a few short years before. I taught myself to write because I had to. I took the assignment in Haiti and went from being flushed with money to having no money once the two main mentors or backers---one of them died and one had a stroke within twenty-four hours. I peddled the idea for a book to a literary agent and then wrote two chapters that I thought were the best things since the Bible. I tried to send it back and he said try again. So I had to teach myself to write, and I did.

Speaking of language, you've said that at the time of "the Neolithic Revolution --- which gave us agriculture at which time we succumbed to the cult of the seed; the poetry of the shaman was displaced by the—"

—prose of the priesthood.

This sounds very profound...

There's a very big difference between a shaman and a priest. A shaman is an individual who is concerned with the release of the individual's wild genius, right? This is why shamanic traditions use psychoactive substances. Ultimately the reason why psychedelics are so subversive is that: they're subversive! I mean, they're uncontrollable, and what happens is beyond. Whereas with a priest, his entire job is to actually socialize people into a congregation. A congregation which can be managed by the state. I mean that's what it is, right? The shaman's role is to either invoke some technique of ecstasy, so that he or she can individually soar off on the wings of trance to work their deeds of rescue, or to catalyze the individual spirit and release the individual for whatever purpose. It's the opposite of a kind of state sponsored religious ideology which, by its very structure, is designed to secure people to a certain way of thinking, generally to the benefit of a powerful orthodoxy and a powerful leadership.


So, those plants that have been so subversive and difficult for our culture to integrate---


They're becoming more common knowledge. Psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and others. Do you think there's a future for culturally sanctioned use of these plants in the West?

I think it's already happening. It's fascinating how ayahuasca has gone from being a completely obscure thing when i was your age---I mean I could come back in 1974, tell someone I'd just taken ayahuasca, they wouldn't have any idea what I was talking about---to now of course it's become not just common knowledge but commonly used by people everywhere. That's within a generation or two.

I think that there's a resurgence of interest in the clinical applications of psychedelics which is long overdue. These substances have immense potential, particularly in therapy. In a way this is the genesis of the psychedelic movement. The reason that Leary and Alpert became so excited about LSD was that they were frustrated by the failures of their own profession. There had been a famous report that came out that said that---and you know Leary was a serious social psychologist---and the report that he read said that no matter what the intervention in psychiatric or psychological challenges, a third of the people got better, a third got worse, and a third stayed the same. It called into question the entire utility or even the point of his academic discipline. Right at that moment, he discovered mushrooms and later LSD. Suddenly these substances, in cracking open the mind, struck him as the holy grail they had all been missing.

Because these plants and drugs were so inherently subversive, I always say that our parents said "don't take these substances, you'll never come back the same". That, from our point of view, was the whole point. They did transform one's life. That's why I always say that I wouldn't write the way I write, I wouldn't think the way I think, I wouldn't treat women as I do, I wouldn't understand nature, I wouldn't appreciate biology, I wouldn't understand cultural relativism---all this stuff was deeply impacted by my subjective experiences with psychedelics. So, in that sense, the parents were correct.


These things are powerfully subversive. A lot of what was set in motion in the 1960's, which led to a kind of schism in society to this day, in part is the impact of these substances. They were certainly not the only ingredient in a recipe of social change that, at the end of the day, did have us treating the Earth like it was some kind of mystical being. That was anathema to the orthodoxy of the Christian faith. It had us actually recognizing women as they went from the kitchen to the boardroom, people of colour from the woodshed to the White House, gay people from the closet to the altar. All these transformations were profoundly unsettling to some people in society. I think you can almost track the divide between the red and the blue, between the conservatives in the States and the liberals in the States. To some extent, it all goes back to the cultural divide of the 60's which included race, included gender, included conflict over a long and pointless war in Vietnam, but it also was sparked by the fact that millions of people ingested these substances and they didn't come back the same. That was not something that you could either embrace as something very positive, or see as being something very negative if you were fearful. That's why I think much of this nostalgia on the far right is for an America that never existed. It's like when people are uncertain about the future and find what's going on in the present disconcerting, they always invoke a kind of nostalgia for the past. Generally that implies nostalgia for a world that never existed.

One of your graduate students, Laurel Sugden, is doing a big, long-term research project on the San Pedro cactus and its relationship to ancient Andean civilization. What do you think will come of this?

First of all she's an intrepid traveller. She's already spent months and months in South America. Of all the sort of famous entheogenic plants, I've always thought San Pedro was the most interesting in the sense that its subjective effects are the most inspiring. We know that in the archaeological record, it was used by virtually every civilization in Pre-columbian Peru. It may well have played some kind of catalytic role in the rapid spread of the prototypic civilization of Peru---Chavín---which beginning about 2,000 years before the Christian era, flashed across the Andes; less an empire than a religious idea. When looking at the iconography of their type of site, San Pedro is clearly shown in many manifestations, yet of all the plants or sort of preparations, such as ayahuasca, which gets so much attention, no one has gone into looking at San Pedro. With it we actually have a much deeper chronology, because it's found in the Andes, and it's found on the coast. It turns up in textiles and ceramics of coastal civilizations---Paracas, Nazca, and Moche, Chimu---every civilization where the material remains are there for us to see because of the dry and desert-like conditions. And yet there hasn't really been a serious study of the plant since 1978 when Douglas Sharon did his book Cactus of the Four Winds. That was a book containing some serious flaws, which Laurel will be addressing. I think that of all the psychoactive agents that can actually be useful in therapy, phenethylamines, like in mescaline, as opposed to the tryptamines in mushrooms or ayahuasca, have much more potential for therapy because they're much more benign. So, her thesis is not just kind of a sweeping look at San Pedro through history and through ethnography, but also in terms of its potential therapeutic use today. She's going to do a comprehensive study of the whole possibility of the plant, which is long overdue.

Much of your interest in plants, language, and story ultimately comes down to how humans relate to the land and to each other, right? You've made a home for yourself in the Stikine Valley and put a lot of your time into protecting it from industrial developments.

Well, I haven't been so successful. I tried.


I've wondered what's happening there now.

You can look up a couple of things I've written recently. There was something in The Narwal just a month ago. The Red Chris mine, on Todagin Mountain, is just the most egregious example of corruption that I know of in all my lifetime in growing up in British Columbia. I think it's extraordinary that it never got more attention. Almost a billion dollars of tax money spent to essentially subsidize one mine that employs three hundred people for twenty years. All set in motion by a government beholden to the owner of that company. I mean it's so corrupt, it's behind imagining, but it doesn't seem to have gotten much traction. The problem is that Canadians like the idea of the North, but none of them go there. It's very difficult to get Canadians to think of anything that exists outside of the major cities.

How can readers in the Fraser Valley act on the advice which you've quoted Gary Snyder as saying...

Stay put?


Yeah I think that that's a wonderful idea, fidelity to place. That's one of the things we can certainly learn from First Nations. Even when the Red Chris mine went ahead---not five kilometres from our lodge---I promised my daughters and I promised my friends that I would never abandon the valley.

The advice I have for young people is something Peter Matthews said, which is that anyone who thinks they can change the world is both wrong and dangerous. What he meant by that is obvious. He had in mind people like Mao and Hitler and Pol Pot. None of these people thought that they were doing the wrong thing, right, but look what the consequences were of their megalomania and their zeal. Another way of looking at it is that you do have an obligation to bear witness to what's going on, which is what one does as a writer. At the heart of that comment is a Buddhist notion that life is not about a destination. The destination is a state of mind. The pilgrim is not focused on where he or she is going to get to. It's a process of transformation, the goal is a state of mind. What I mean by that is that if you think of life as a series of encounters that you're going to win or lose, you run the risk of becoming disillusioned and embittered in the wake of a series of, quote unquote, losses. If you expect there to be a moment, which is something that is sort of instilled in us through the Christian faith, where good is somehow going to triumph over evil, and you set your life up with a mission---a kind of Sir Galahad mission to be the force of good---well, you really run the risk that you'll become exhausted and disappointed. The truth is that you'll never vanquish evil. When Lord Krishna was asked by a disciple why there is evil in the universe, he said "To thicken the plot". In other words, the Buddhists have a very different idea, as do the Vedic scholars. It's, you know, evil exists, and instead of thinking I'm going to triumph over evil which is sort of a Christian idea, it's more healthy to think of it in terms of "Okay, I've got a choice: what side do I want to be on? The side of darkness or the side of light?" If you recognize that in choosing for example the side of what Christians might call righteousness, or the side of light, or pure thought, love, and compassion in the eyes of the Buddhist, it doesn't mean you're going to vanquish evil. You're just deciding what perspective and what place and point of view you're going to occupy in your life. The advantage of this is that it allows you to continue. In other words you don't become disillusioned; you have no expectations.


The British Columbia government allowed what I think is demonstrably a series of egregious acts of systemic and grotesque corruption which led to the destruction of the biggest wildlife sanctuary in British Columbia. I don't let that bother me anymore. It happened. I did what I could. It happened. That's not a copout; it's a way that I can conserve my energy for the next fight, because there's always going to be a next fight. It's like a young author who published their first book, or a student who gets their PhD or a kid who graduates from college as if the graduation marks an end-point as opposed to a beginning. Life is an ongoing process. One works, all the time. I'm now writing my twenty-third book and it's just as difficult as the first, but I can be doing this because I no longer think about the first twenty-two. I'm here in the moment, working right now on what I hope will be a beautiful thing.

NB This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.