Author Tags: Anthropology, Environment, Geography, History, Photography

In 2017, when Wade Davis was Professor of Anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia, he received the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness.

Between 1999 and 2013 he served as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and subsequently became a member of the NGS Explorers Council and Honorary Vice-President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

Named by the NGS as one of the Explorers for the Millennium, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” In 2014 Switzerland’s leading think tank, the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute of Zurich, ranked him 16th in their annual survey of the top 100 most influential global Thought Leaders.

An ethnographer, writer, photographer and filmmaker, Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among fifteen indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6000 botanical collections.

Davis' work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies, an assignment that led to his writing The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986), an international best seller later released by Universal as a motion picture. In recent years his work has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, Mongolia and the high Arctic of Nunuvut and Greenland.

Davis is the author of 275 scientific and popular articles and 20 books including One River (1996), The Wayfinders (2009), The Sacred Headwaters (2011), Into the Silence (2011) and River Notes (2012). His photographs have been widely exhibited and have appeared in 30 books and 100 magazines, including National Geographic, Time, Geo, People, Men’s Journal, and Outside.

Davis was the co-curator of The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes, first exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. In 2012 he served as guest curator of No Strangers: Ancient Wisdom in the Modern World, an exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.

His many film credits include Light at the Edge of the World, an eight-hour documentary series written and produced for the National Geographic. A professional speaker for 30 years, Davis has lectured at over 200 universities and 250 corporations and professional associations. In 2009 he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures. He has spoken from the main stage at TED five times, and his three posted talks have been viewed by 3 million. His books have appeared in 20 languages and sold approximately one million copies.

Davis is the recipient of 11 honorary degrees, as well as the 2009 Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for his contributions to anthropology and conservation, the 2011 Explorers Medal, the highest award of the Explorers Club, the 2012 David Fairchild Medal for botanical exploration, the 2013 Ness Medal for geography education from the Royal Geographical Society, and the 2015 Centennial Medal of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University.

In 2016 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada along with B.C. photographer Ted Grant and B.C.-raised filmmaker Atom Egoyan. The citation read, "Wade Davis is recognized for his work to promote conservation of the natural world. A Harvard-educated anthropologist and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, Davis has written 15 books including The Serpent and the Rainbow. Wade Davis is a professor of anthropology and the B.C. Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of B.C."

Born in West Vancouver, B.C. in 1953, Wade Davis grew up in Quebec and attended Brentwood College in Mill Bay on Vancouver Island. "I was a product of the Sixties," he says. "I had a strong sense of adventure and wanted to experience the world."

Some other books include Into the Silence which received the 2012 Samuel Johnson prize, arguably the top award for literary non-fiction in the English language.

His Penan: Voice of the Borneo Rainforest, co-written with Thom Henley, details the plight of the Penan people in Sarawak.

Wade Davis's The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass is described as a visual feast and plea to save an extraordinary region in North America for future generations. He describes the region’s beauty, the threats to it, and the response of native groups and other inhabitants, complemented by the voices of the Tahltan elders.

For Wade Davis: Photographs, Davis selected 150 of his favourite photographs from the thousands he has taken during his forty-year career. These intimate portraits of family and community life are universal in tone, and yet represent countless geographical and cultural spaces, telling the story of the human condition across the globe.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena and Nass


The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey Into the Secret Societies of Haitain Voodoo, Zombies and Magic (Simon & Schuster, 1986)
Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombia (Chapel Hill, 1988)
Nomads of the Dawn: The Penan of the Borneo Rainforest, with Ian Mackenzie and Shane Kennedy (Pomegranate, 1995)
One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (Touchstone, 1996)
Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirits and Desire (Pomegranate Art Books, 1998)
Rainforest: Ancient Realm of the Pacific Northwest, text by Wade Davis, photographs by Graham Osborne(Greystone, 1998)
The Clouded Leopard: Travels to Landscapes of Spirits and Desire (D&M, 1999)
Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures (D&M, 2001, 2007).
The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes (D&M, 2004)
Grand Canyon: River at Risk (Insight Editions / Palace Press 2008)
The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (Anansi, 2009)
Into the Silence:
The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation 2011; republished paperback Greystone, 2015) 9781553658801
River Notes: A Natural History of the Colorado (Island Press 2012). $22.95
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (Vintage 2012)
Wade Davis: Photographs (D&M 2016) $39.95 978-1-77162-124-3
Cowboys of the Americas, with photos by Luis Fabini (Greystone, 2017)

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2017] "Anthropology"

Wade Davis & John Houston reviewed

John Houston’s second volume of autobiography, Zigzag: A Life On The Move (M&S $29.99), begins as he leaves the Arctic to start a new life as a designer for Steuben Glass in New York. He has just spent 14 years working closely with the Inuit of the Arctic. [Houston is credited with discovering Inuit were producing great art and single-handedly creating a market for it. He also encouraged Inuit to adapt their work for North American buyers.] As he leaves Baffin Island, he receives two gifts from the Inuit: a carving of a walrus and a paperbag containing $33. “You’re going away, everyone says, to try and make more money,” they explain. “If at first you don’t have money in that foreign place, we thought to give some to you.”
The original purpose of Eskimo carvings was to bring luck and protection on hunting expeditions. Houston needs both luck and protection as he leaves a culture unconcerned with monetary gain (the market value of the walrus is $11,000) for one in which it is the be-all and end-all. In Manhattan in the 1960s, Houston at first has trouble adapting to the tyranny of clocks and schedules. Soon he becomes acclimatized and delights in the theatres, art shows, lavish parties and holidays on yachts where kings and presidents and Nelson Rockefeller casually drop by.
Houston becomes a successful glass-designer, makes a fortune, teaches art in Harlem, becomes a successful writer, designs National Geographic’s centenary cover and even marries happily. It is, however, the Arctic which inspires and nurtures Houston. “I am thrilled by the frosted, Arctic-like appearance of deep engravings on glass,” he says. When the Glenbow Museum in Calgary asks him to design a sculpture, he creates his Aurora Borealis which is four storeys high. It is inspired by his memory of the spectacular ever-changing display of the Northern Lights. Either the protective qualities of the walrus carving or his years with the Inuit prevent him from succumbing completely to the glitzy life. He never confuses technological advances with civilization, nor economic gain with success. The final pages of the book describe his life in a cabin on another island, one of the Queen Charlottes now known as the Haida Gwaii, where he now lives part of every year.

There is nothing understated or implicit about Wade Davis’ contrast between his two world views in The Clouded Leopard: Travels To Landscapes Of Spirit And Desire (D&M $29.95). As a B.C.-born ethnobiologist who divides his time between Vancouver and Washington D.C., Davis makes impassioned pleas for ethnic, cultural and biological diversity and issues grim warnings about imminent ecological catastrophe. In separate travel essays Davis describes the devastation wrought in the rain forests of the Amazon and, closer to home, on the Haida Gwaii.
For all the dark prognostications, Davis’ book is neither negative nor gloomy. He balances descriptions of destructive activity with accounts that are positive and affirmative in settings such as Baffin Island, Haiti, Tibet, North Africa and Borneo. These include sensuous evocations of the grandeur of the natural world, the heroic efforts of people dedicated to preserving dying species, and the fascinating qualities of such rare specimens as the clouded leopard or the Bufo Marinus. The latter is the world’s largest toad, a highly toxic amphibian which mates with dead females.

There are many points at which the paths of Houston and Davis criss-cross and converge. Sometimes those points are territorial, as in their shared experiences of the Arctic and the Haida Gwaii. Sometimes they are philosophical and temperamental. Both Houston, the master designer, and Davis, the scientist, bring the artistry of poetry to their writing and both become involved in filmmaking projects. Wade Davis describes his visits to the sets of two films, The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Passion In The Desert (1998). The latter portrays a leopard as an important character—not Disneyfied and sentimentalized. Houston also becomes involved in film through movies based on his own books. His experiences on the set provide further contrasts between cultures. One scene in The White Dawn (based on his 1971 bestseller) has to be shot several times because it is constantly interrupted by cries of “Bad! Bad to kill that boy!” from extras unfamiliar with the conventions of the theatrical medium. On another occasion one of the actors, unable to understand the demands of the tight schedule, goes home for some good hunting and a decent meal. Houston’s contribution to the musical score of a NFB film is to orchestrate the recording of the sound of candle ice. The long, icy, candle-like shapes are created by water running down through the ice. When a soft breeze blows, the water opens near them and the candles of ice collapse sideways into the water. “Striking together they create the most beautiful sound in the world.”
The technology of film may seem far removed from the love of nature. But these writers’ shared appreciation of the modern medium illustrates something fundamental. They are less concerned with conflict between different ways of life than with finding common ground so that they can work together for mutual benefit. “Perhaps the greatest legacy of indigenous peoples will be their contribution to the dialogue between two world views,” says Davis. One of those views sees human fate as inextricably connected to that of the whole natural universe, past, present and future. The other sees human beings standing apart, blind to the lessons of the past or the needs of the future, and devastating— for short term gain—forests, waterways and ultimately the whole world. Leopard 1-55054-632-5; Zigzag 0-7710-4208-6 --review by Joan Givner.


The Sacred Headwaters
Publisher's Promo (2011)

In a rugged knot of mountains in northern British Columbia lies a spectacular valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers—the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Nass—are born in close proximity. Now, against the wishes of all First Nations, the British Columbia government has opened the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development. Imperial Metals proposes an open-pit copper and gold mine, called the Red Chris mine, and Royal Dutch Shell wants to extract coal bed methane gas across a tenure of close to a million acres.

In The Sacred Headwaters, a collection of photographs by Carr Clifton and members of the International League of Conservation Photographers—including Claudio Contreras, Paul Colangelo, and Wade Davis—portray the splendour of the region. These photographs are supplemented by images from other professionals who have worked here, including Sarah Leen of the National Geographic.

The compelling text by Wade Davis, which describes the region’s beauty, the threats to it, and the response of native groups and other inhabitants, is complemented by the voices of the Tahltan elders. The inescapable message is that no amount of methane gas can compensate for the sacrifice of a place that could be the Sacred Headwaters of all Canadians and indeed of all peoples of the world.