Wade Davis in Conversation

This weekend I had the distinct pleasure of attending a talk and answer session by Wade Davis in Guelph.  “Distinct pleasure” sounds really stilted and bad, but it was a pleasure and it was distinct, so there we go. You’re stuck with it.  It was a pleasure so distinct, indeed, that I feel moved to blog about it.

By means of introduction, Wade Davis is the explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, an ethno-botanist, anthropologist, filmmaker and writer. He has spent years learning about by living among cultures far divorced from our idea of the “civilized west”, and developed the idea of an “ethnosphere” (to human culture what the biosphere is to animal and plant life) far wider and more valuable than most of us tend to realize.  His mission was to elaborate on a central thesis challenging the “cult of progress” and arguing that “primitive” cultures are not failed attempts at being us (The West), but rather unique and important answers to the question “what does it mean to be human and alive?”

Wade Davis was inspiring for a few reasons.

His message is certainly important, at least for those who would prefer individuality and richness of experience to monoculture. I think that’s most of us, but he put out a lot of reasons to convince those who might not think so (not like any would have been at his talk, though). The idea that how our culture defines “progress” ain’t the only or necessarily best way of looking at things is certainly not new, but he has the experience to talk at great length about the alternatives with both reverence and extreme accuracy.  That message is valuable and I want to spread it around where I can.

Beyond his message, all the subject matters he touched on were intensely fascinating. Even if there weren’t some moral imperative to be taking his tales seriously, I’d still be hanging on with my imagination. That Polynesians can navigate vast stretches of oceans without any naval instruments simply by watching the reverberations of the waves and understanding how they’re affected by nearby islands. The improbable and humorous tale of how serendipity pushed him into the life he now holds. The stories of spirit possession in his time spent studying Haitian voodoo and his excellent rebuttal of Pat Robertson’s asinine comments about the earthquake. It was all entertainment and enlightenment, both, of a very high order.

On a performance level, his passion and his ability to communicate his scientific research as an eloquent poem rather than a factsheet was powerful. He uses vivid language and has a clear and sonorous voice as well. It was impressive to see him speaking so confidently without notes at all.  I know from trawling around the internet with Wade along as my searchword that he tells many of the same stories using the same sentences over and over, which at first was disappointing, but in the end is relieving—I’d almost be worried if he was coming up with such intricate and poetic descriptions off the top of his head.  I wonder if it has something to do with spending so much time among cultures with strong oral traditions; that would lend his thesis even more clout.  At any rate, presentation matters, and I’d certainly listen to anything Mr Davis wanted to tell me.

The main message I cobbled together for myself is a little bit divorced from the main gist, and also not very new, but he helped me think about it in a different way, so I’m gonna go ahead and share that as well. The short version would be Outside-the-box thinking.  The long version follows.

We want a plurisy of cultures, of ways of viewing the world. We also should strive for a plurisy of methods for achieving results.  Not that roadmaps don’t have a valuable place, but, especially when creating art, I think instructions need to be approached with ultimate skepticism, especially in a world where so many things based off our preconceptions of art have already been done.  You hear all the time “there’s no stories that haven’t been told”, we’re just recombining bits of things that have already been done.  Wade reminded of the sheer vastness of cultural variation that so many people are aware of only in passing if at all, and that only a handful of people in our own culture have a deep understanding of.  That kinda made me think that in almost any facet of life and art there are more things to be tried (especially in the even vaguely mainstream) than people including me tend to realize. Postmodernism is all about accepting limitations of our modes of expression and recombining that which came before to make our things seem new. But even if we accept that there is nothing new under the sun, we can still cast our nets a little farther and wider. When we’re looking for things to draw from we’re very likely ignoring 95% of the possibilities.  That can apply to design, art, and really any solution to a problem.

I’m excited to read the books by Wade Davis that I and those under my roof have acquired (The Serpent and the Rainbow, One River, The Wayfinders, Light at the Edge of the World), and hope they can help me think how to push boundaries by jumping completely outside them. Or something. I haven’t been so good at finishing books lately.

If you want some Wade for yourself, there’s no shortage of him on the internet. He has a couple TED talks. A rather good half hour interview from TVO with Alan Gregg is also on youtube. You can even spend 2 hours with him over on

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