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's 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)
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) $19 9780375708152
Wade Davis: Photographs (D&M 2016) $39.95 978-1-77162-124-3
Cowboys of the Americas, with photos by Luis Fabini (Greystone, 2017)
Magdalena: River of Dreams, A Story of Columbia (Penguin RandomHouse 2020) $30 9780375410994

[BCBW 2020] "Anthropology"


Magdalena: River of Dreams by Wade Davis (Knopf $39.95)

Review buy Izabella Almasi and Mark Leiren-Young, BCBW 2020

World-renowned as a National Geographic explorer and author, anthropologist Wade Davis of UBC made international headlines in 2020 when he published an article in Rolling Stone titled “How Covid-19 Signals the End of the American Era.” According to the CBC, that article made nearly 10 million impressions on social media within a week of publication.

Characterizing Donald Trump as a symptom of a great decline, Davis told the B.C.-based Skaana podcast in October, “When you look at Americans who deny the science, who deliberately ignore the advice of the medical authorities, who in masses go to beaches and conventions and bars, they think they’re flaunting their strength in their freedom. They’re actually showing the weakness of a people that lack the stoicism to endure the pandemic or the fortitude to defeat it.”

As someone who specializes in the study of human culture, Davis knows that the types of challenges we are facing are not uncommon or unheard of in humanity’s history. In fact, humans tend to repeat ourselves.

“The fluidity of memory and our capacity to forget is the most haunting trait of our species,” says Davis. “That’s how we’re able to adapt to almost any degree of environmental or even moral degradation.”

Having released his newest book, Magdalena, in the spring, Davis felt he had to share his thoughts on America before the U.S. 2020 election.

“I travel always in pursuit of stories. I’m a storyteller. And, for me, research in the field has always been wondrous, but so too has been research in libraries and archives,” he says. “COVID is not a story of medicine. It’s not a story of morbidity and mortality. It’s a story of culture. America was the land of Walt Whitman and the Grateful Dead. Abraham Lincoln couldn’t tell a lie. Then they had a president who couldn’t recognize the truth.”

Calling Donald Trump “a dark troll of a buffoon,” someone who advocated for malice towards all and charity for none, Davis believes the American people have much work to do if they want to maintain their country’s status and legacy.

“I think mercifully the vast majority of Americans, good and decent people, recognize that Trump has been a disaster for the reputation of America as a global power and as inspiration to the world.”

The self-centred USA can still repair itself to create a positive vision for the future. “I’m always optimistic because I think pessimism is an indulgence and despair is an insult to the imagination, just like orthodoxy is the enemy of invention,” says Davis.

“If Americans don’t find, as Lincoln said ‘the better angels of nature’… if instead they’re not able to find some path of forgiveness to embrace people of other backgrounds, and if they don’t have any sense of a greater common good, a nation to serve and not just with flag-wrap patriotism…If the American people can’t find their way back to that, then this really will be the end of the American era.”

By contrast, in his historical travelogue, Magdalena: River of Dreams, Wade Davis is exultant in his praise for the vibrancy and diversity of Colombia, a formerly terror-ridden country which has been re-born in recent decades.

Davis illuminates that country’s complex past, present and future while describing his escapades along the country’s main artery, Rio Magdalena. Four out of five Colombians live within its drainage system. Like the Mississippi, it’s a corridor for both commerce and culture.

Two previous journeys enabled Davis to survey its web of connecting waterways; two more trips concentrated on the “Medio Magdalena” and the musical traditions of the lower river and the Caribbean coastal plain.

A fifth adventure returned him to Arhuaco mamos, visiting “old friends from my time in the Sierra Nevada, as we returned to Bocas de Ceniza to make ritual payments at the mouth of the river, even as the streets of Barranquilla erupted all around us with the magic and joy of Carnaval.”

Although the river is essential for 80 percent of Colombia’s wealth, Davis looks deeper as a cultural anthropologist and concentrates on the river as the well-spring of Colombian music, literature, poetry and prayer.

“In dark times, it has served as the graveyard of the nation, a slurry of the shapeless dead. And yet always, it returns as a river of life. Through all the years of the worst of the violence, the Magdalena never abandoned the people. It always flowed.

“Perhaps, as this book suggests, it may finally be time to give back to the river, allowing the Magdalena to be cleansed of all that has soiled its waters. Colombia as a nation is the gift of the river. The Magdalena is the story of Colombia.”

Davis cites a short story by Jorge Luis Borges in which a European woman asks a professor from Bogotá what it means to be Colombian. The man hesitates before replying, “I don’t know. It is an act of faith.”

Magdalena is also an act of faith; a kaleidoscopic melding of history and journalism to fuel hope and redemption. According to Davis,  the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez, is a natural representation of the country’s vibrancy and wondrous diversity.

“Gabriel García Márquez wrote of what he saw. He was an observer, a practicing journalist for most of his life, who just happened to live in a land where heaven and earth converge on a regular basis to reveal glimpses of the divine.”

Though Davis bemoans the degradation of American culture as evidenced by the bizarre ascension of a liar and a cheat, Magdalena is his rhapsodic love letter to a country of resplendent revival.

“Only in Colombia can a traveler wash ashore in a coastal desert, follow waterways through wetlands as wide as the sky, ascend narrow tracks through dense tropical forests, and reach in a week Andean valleys as gently verdant as the softest temperate landscapes of the Old World. No place in Colombia is more than a day removed from every natural habitat to be found on earth. Cities as cultured as any in the Americas were for most of their history linked one to another by trails traveled only by mules.

“Over time, the wild and impossible geography found its perfect coefficient in the topography of the Colombian spirit: restive, potent, at times placid and calm, in moments tortured and twisted, like a mountain that shakes, crumbles, and slips to the sea. Magic becomes the antidote to fear and uncertainty. Reality comes into focus through the reassuring lens of the phantasmagoric.”

In 2014, Davis was invited to Bogotá by Héctor Rincón and Ana Cano, acclaimed journalists from Medellín, to help promote the Amazon volume of their series Savia Botánica. With the backing of Grupo Argos, one of Colombia’s most prominent corporations, they had assembled teams of botanists, photographers, and journalists to survey the five major regions of Colombia with the goal of producing an elegant illustrated book on each—the Llanos, Amazonas, Chocó, the Caribbean coast, and the Andean Cordilleras. These Savia Botánica volumes were not to be sold, but gifted as complete sets to every library in the country, all with the goal of sending a message to a new generation of young Colombians that theirs was not a land of violence and drugs, but rather a place of unparalleled natural wealth and beauty, home to, among many wonders, more species of birds than any other country in the world. Five years in the making, Davis’ 20th book, Magdalena: River of Dreams, is an outgrowth of that well-funded series. 978-0-7352-7892-9

Izabella Almasi is a Victoria freelance writer who works for Mark Leiren-Young’s Skaana podcast.