Wade Davis '71
(in conversation with Ian McPherson)
Professor of Anthropology
Brentwood has many notable alumni, amongst them is Dr. Wade Davis, Class of 1971. An anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author, and photographer whose work has focused on worldwide indigenous cultures, Dr. Davis came to prominence with his 1985 best-selling book The Serpent and the Rainbow about the zombies of Haiti.
He is a Professor of Anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. Between 1999 and 2013 he served as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and was named as one of the Explorers for the Millennium. We were able to catch up with Wade and get his thoughts on a number of topics, starting with some advice for our recent graduates.
The most important quality for a young person as they try to find their way in the world is patience. You have to give your destiny time to find you. I never knew what I wanted to be, or what I possibly could become. But I was fortunate. Even if I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I was incapable of compromising my ideals and dreams. As I stumbled along in uncertainty, I learned to say “yes” to any new experience and any new possibility for life. As a result, I kept putting myself in the way of opportunities, in situations where there was no choice but to move forward, no option but success. When you do that you create a momentum that, in the end, propels you to new levels of experience and engagement that would have seemed beyond reach only months before. I really had no idea I would become a writer until I was obliged by circumstances to write my first book. Quite unexpectedly I discovered that, thanks in good measure to teachers like Gil Bunch, I had the talent to do so. But only by doing did I learn to create.
If you had told me when I was at Brentwood that I would have Hollywood movies made about my life or that I’d become an Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, that I’d be honored with the Order of Canada, that I would write 20 books, or that I would whatever . . . I would have laughed at the thought.
But perhaps if you had asked Gil Bunch, he might have predicted every outcome. That’s how he was. Gil Bunch wasn’t a professor, he wasn’t a teacher, he was an avatar. He saw right through you. He taught you to hurl yourself into the abyss, knowing even if you did not, that you would land on a feather bed.
Do what needs to be done and then ask whether it was possible or permissible. Pessimism is an indulgence, orthodoxy is the enemy of invention, despair an insult to the imagination. Nature loves courage. Jim Whitaker, the first American to summit Everest, once told me that if you don’t live on the edge when young, you’re taking up too much space. Life is neither linear nor predictable.
A career is not something that you put on like a coat. It is something that grows organically around you, step-by-step, choice-by-choice, and experience-by-experience. Everything adds up. No work is beneath you. Nothing is a waste of time unless you make it so. An elderly cab driver in New York may well have as much to teach you as a wandering saint in India, a madman in the
Sahara, a university professor at Harvard.
What’s more the work you do is just a lens through which to view and experience the world, and only for a time. The goal is to make living itself, the act of being alive, one’s vocation, knowing full well that nothing ultimately can be planned or anticipated, no blueprint found to predict the outcome of something as complex as a human life. If one can remain open to the potential of the new, the promise of the unimagined, then magic happens and a life takes form.
If you can look back over a long life and see that you have owned your choices, then there is little ground for resentment. Bitterness comes to those who look back with regret on the choices imposed upon them. The greatest creative challenge is the struggle to be the architect of your own life.
Biggest Brentwood Influences
There are so many extraordinary things about Brentwood. First the quality and the fidelity of the faculty, particularly the initial founders of the school. David Mackenzie, who set everything in motion, but also Ivor Ford, Nick Prowse, John Queen, Tony Carr, Gil Bunch,
Victor Lironi: these and many other teachers gave their entire lives to the school. Each had a deep loving commitment to Brentwood and its students. The result was a profound institutional memory that provided the very depth and stability that allowed Brentwood to achieve its most remarkable attribute as an institution, a capacity to admit errors and the courage to change. My senior year was a low point in the history of the School. A place modeled on 19th century British boarding schools was not about to survive the winds of change that swept through Canada in the late 1960s. Brentwood adapted, taking in girls, eliminating archaic rules, finding a brilliant new head in Bill Ross, a product not of Britain but of British Columbia and as decent and kind a man who has ever lived.
When we moved home to British Columbia my parents gave me a choice of attending either Brentwood or Shawnigan Lake, where my father had gone to school. Fortunately, we stopped first at Brentwood and I was interviewed by Gil Bunch, then the assistant headmaster. He was simply the most astonishing person I had ever met. Tall and thin, elegantly dressed in a blue suit the colour of his eyes, he had this great shock of silver hair, a face aglow with hypertension, and a furious energy that was simply irresistible. He was a player right out of Shakespeare, only he had made not the world, but Brentwood his stage, and in doing so he had not diminished himself but rather elevated the School into something indescribably grander than what it was at that time. I walked to the car and told my dad that there was no point driving up the road to Shawnigan; it was Brentwood for me.
Gil Bunch was my inspiration. He taught me to speak in public by placing a
podium on a stage and calling out a noun from the back of the hall; one had to give a three-minute presentation off the cuff without hesitation, in full paragraphs and perfect sentences. Every debate or speech was a performance. One learned to have your mind anticipating what was still to come, even as your mouth spun lyrically in the moment.
Gil came to know a student to the core of their being. When he trapped you in his gaze, it felt as if you were being x-rayed. When as head prefect, I planned a protest that would have proved calamitous had it gone ahead, he called me to his office, looked me in the eye, and just said “don’t do it.” He had literally read my mind, and incidentally saved my skin.
When I was 20 and not long out of Brentwood, a British journalist hired me to guide him across the notorious Darién Gap, 200 miles of swamp and forest that forms the border between Colombia and Panama. It was the rainy season and the Darién was said to be impassable. We walked for days in swamp water to the neck, ran into jaguar and bushmasters, were nearly killed by thieves and Guardia Civil and ultimately with three Kuna Indians became lost in the rainforest for ten days with no food. When we finally, struggled out of the forest I was down to 146 lbs. and had fungus and parasites growing all over my body. The journalist later expressed surprise that through the entire ordeal I had never complained, no matter what came our way. Only half in jest I told him that he clearly had never played rugby for Nick Prowse. Swamps, snakes, starvation, sleeping in the open without protection, vampire bats and dysentery, not knowing when or if one might escape the forest, being chased by men intent on murder . . . this was nothing compared to what it took both physically and psychologically to please the greatest coach and certainly one of the greatest teachers I have ever known. Nick Prowse, like Gil, taught me what words can do, and how history can come alive to inform and inspire the present. He was a weaver of dreams, and no young man coming of age could have hoped for a better mentor. Nick was all about grit. By the time I knew him I was already incapable of quitting anything no matter how hard the task. But Nick taught me that the hard is what makes things great.
In the summer of 1968 I was fortunate to travel with a small school group from Montreal to Colombia. At 14 I was the youngest and the most fortunate, for unlike the others who spent a sweltering season in the streets of Cali, I was billeted with a family in the mountains above the plains, at the edge of trails that reached west to the Pacific. It was a typical Colombian scene: a flock of children too numerous to keep track of, an indulgent father half the size of his wife, a wizened old grandmother who muttered to herself on a porch overlooking fields of cane and coffee, a protective sister who more than once carried her brother and me home half drunk to a mother, kind beyond words, who stood by the garden gate, hands on hips, feigning anger as she tapped her foot on the stone steps. For eight weeks, I encountered the warmth and decency of a people charged with a strange intensity, a passion for life and a quiet acceptance of the frailty of the human experience. Several of the other Canadian students longed for home. I felt as if I had finally found it. Life was real, visceral, dense with intoxicating possibilities. I learned that summer to have but one operative word in my vocabulary, and that was yes to any experience, any encounter, anything new. Colombia taught me that it was possible to fling oneself upon the benevolence of the world and emerge not only unscathed but transformed. It was a naïve notion, but one that I carried with me for a long time.
Years later I went to college at Harvard, originally to study international law. After my first year the deadline loomed for declaring a major. By chance, the day before the deadline, I visited for the first time the Peabody Museum of Ethnology. As I walked out into the spring sunshine I ran into a friend of mine and asked him casually what he was going to sign up for as a major. He said, “anthropology.” I said, “What’s that?” “Well, you read about Indians.” Like Forrest Gump I replied, “that’ll do.”
After a year of just reading about Indians, my roommate and I were in a café in Harvard Square. Right in front of us on the wall was a National Geographic map of the world. David looked at the map, and suddenly pointed to the high Arctic. I had to go somewhere. I watched my left hand rise and land on the Colombian Amazon. Having decided to go to the Amazon, there was only one man to see, the legendary botanical explorer, Richard Evans Schultes.
A week later I knocked on the door of his office, and very simply stated that I was from British Columbia and wanted to go to the Amazon as he had and collect plants. He didn’t ask me about my credentials or who I was or what courses I had taken, he simply looked across a mountain of plant specimens and said very simply, “Well son when do you want to go?” Two weeks later I was in the Amazon where I stayed for 15 months.
Years later I would write a book, One River, that was in part a biography of Schultes, and in part a travel account of my years in South America. Translated by a poet the Spanish edition came out in 2002 at a time when nothing good was being said about Colombia. Suddenly here was an 800 page book of botany and anthropology that had nothing but wonderful things to say about the nation. It became less a book than a lodestone of hope, a map of dreams that has allowed me to have a strong voice in a nation finally at peace.
For the past forty years Colombia has been convulsed by a brutal conflict that has left 250,000 dead and seven million displaced. Every family has suffered, and yet in a nation of 48 million, the number of actual combatants, including military, guerrillas and para-military, never surpassed 200,000. The great majority of Colombians have been innocent victims of a war fueled almost exclusively by the profits of the cocaine trade. Responsibility for Colombia’s agonies lies in good measure with every person who has bought street cocaine, and every foreign nation that has made possible the illicit market by prohibiting the drug without curbing its use in any serious way. It speaks volumes of the strength and resilience of the Colombian people that through all these difficult and impossible years the nation has maintained civil society and democracy, grown its economy, greened its cities, created millions of acres of national parks and sought meaningful restitution with scores of indigenous cultures.
The signing of the peace accords in Cartagena on September 26, 2016 sent a powerful message to every nation that while the world may be falling apart, Colombia is falling together.
Colombia is not a place of violence and drugs, it is a land of colores y carino, where the people have endured and overcome years of conflict precisely because of their character, which is itself informed by an enduring spirit of place, a deep love of a land that is perhaps the most bountiful on earth, home to the greatest ecological and geographical diversity to be found on the planet.
Good and Evil
Another thing I brought to Brentwood and have never lost, which is a strong sense of good and evil in the world and a true sense of justice. And the values that Brentwood reinforced, you know grit’s one word for it but there are also other words like honour, decency, courage. These old-fashioned words seem to be out of vogue. But they are words upon which lives are carved. I’ve never been able to write a book unless I was passionately moved by some idea, whether it was the injustice and the fact that voodoo, which is this legitimate religion of Africa is pilloried as a black magic cult, or the treatment of Indigenous Peoples during the conquest, or what happened to our grandfathers during the Great War.
I didn’t really retain a great deal in the sense of my Christian upbringing but I did retain a sense of there’s good and evil. As my father used to say, you just have got to make a choice about which side you’re going to be on. One of the things that’s very much sustained me is a realization that anyone who thinks they can change the world is both wrong and dangerous. But you’ve got an obligation to bear witness to the world, and to make a decision as to what side you’re going to be on. And when you do that and you realize exactly what the Buddhists have always said and indeed what the Christians have always said, that you’re never going to defeat evil in the world. When Lord Krishna was asked by a disciple if God is all powerful why does evil exist in the universe? Lord Krishna said, to thicken the plot. In other words, it’s always going to be with us. And the purpose of a man’s or woman’s life is to decide which side are you going to be on. That’s certainly something I got very strongly from my teachers at Brentwood, from my family, from the history of my country, and it’s something I’ve lived with. I’ve always been drawn to do what I can, with no expectations of ultimate success. But recognizing that it’s all a process, it’s all a choice of, you know, what you’re going to do with this one precious life.
To me, the most powerful thing about my training in anthropology was the anthropological lens which allows you to understand the center revelation of anthropology which is cultural relativism. All that means is that the world around any individual is one model of reality, the consequences of a set of adapted choices that that cultural reality has made successfully. But the other peoples of the world aren’t failed attempts at being you, they are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? When the peoples of the world answer that question, they do so in seven thousand different languages.
Now one of the fascinating things that’s come out in the last generation was chasm that once existed between biology and anthropology, whereby the naturalists tended to see the people as part of the problem when it came to the environment and anthropologists couldn’t abide what they viewed to be the misanthropic elitism of the naturalists who loved butterflies but hated people. Today, that’s all been brought together by genetics, in the sense that studies of the human genome have left no doubt that the genetic endowment of humanity is a continuum and we’re all descendants of the same people who walked out of Africa 65 thousand years ago. People who then embarked on this incredible journey that settled the entire habitable world in 40 thousand years. And yet the exciting thing about that revelation is that if you accept that truth, which is that we’re all cut from the same genetic cloth, it means basically that every human population, by definition shares the same genus. Whether that genus is invested into technological wizardry which happens to be our path forward or by contrast placed into the challenge of unraveling the mystic threads of memory inherent in a myth, is simply a matter of a person’s choice and cultural orientation.
So basically there is no hierarchy in the affairs of culture. That old Victorian idea that we went from the savage to the barbarian, the civilized, to the strand of London, absolutely exposes the 19th-century conceit that, irrelevant to our lives today, is the notion that clergymen had then, that the world was but six thousand years old. So what this really means is that the other peoples of the world aren’t failed attempts at being you, they’re not failed attempts at being modern. Every culture has something to say, and each deserves to be heard, just as none has the monopoly on the roots of the divine. And so within that, it really means that genetics have come together to prove to be truth what was only the intuition of anthropology, which is cultural relativism. In other words, there’s no such thing as a primitive people. There’s just a series of options.
It’s not about saying who’s right and who’s wrong. If we’d followed the path of Australian aboriginals we wouldn’t have put a man on the moon but on the other hand, we wouldn’t be talking about climate change and our capacity to change the biophysical atmosphere of our planet. So in the long term, which adaptation will have proved to be the wise one? Again it’s not about casting judgment, it’s just recognizing that every culture has something to contribute. And then in the midst of all that there’s a glorious revelation that all human beings face the same adaptive imperative, we all have to have kids, educate our kids, protect and feed our kids, we all have to find ways to come together and as couples to procreate that are constant and dependable. We have to deal with the inextricable mystery that death represents even as we all have to deal with the agony of growing old. So, what’s fascinating within that common imperative is the many ways the human spirit has given form to … blossomed in a sense, into the garden of human experience. That’s the joy of anthropology, celebrating the differences and being beguiled by the similarities of experience.
Order of Canada
Nothing compares to it for me. Especially as I’ve spent a lot of time in the States but have never lost my connection to Canada as we have always had a home here. It meant a great deal to me and there is something kind of wonderfully mysterious about the process of how one gets made a member of the Order of Canada. People are so proud of it. The ceremony at Rideau Hall was one of the most moving of my life. I think that’s probably something everybody experiences as you go through in your elected class. I forget the numbers but it’s between forty and fifty people being honoured at the same time. And every person has done something so wonderful, and you are all lined up to have your presentation with the citation read in alphabetical order. I was lucky enough to be seated beside Bob Cole because of ‘C’ and ‘D’. And he was a great guy. You might think to yourself, oh, a hockey announcer for Hockey Night in Canada getting the Order of Canada? Does it really rank with some astrophysicist who’s a potential Nobel Laureate? And the answer I say is, yes it does.
Never Looking Back
I’ve done so many things, I’ve been so fortunate as a storyteller, which is how I often describe myself, I work as a professor, a teacher, and sure I write as a writer, I make films as a filmmaker, I’m a photographer, but ultimately what I am is a storyteller. My currency is the stories that I’ve accumulated. And I’ve accumulated those stories by constantly exposing myself to new information, new experiences, and always looking forward, never looking back. As a result, at the age of nearly 64, like all of us who have lived full lives, I have a really full repertoire of experiences. But I’m not stopping. I mean if you think about it, now my life ahead of me is as busy as it’s ever been with more projects unfolding. So, again, life is not a goal, it’s a process. It’s like the path of the pilgrim; it’s not the destination it’s the state of mind the pilgrim tries to achieve in the midst of the pilgrimage. And so it’s all an unfolding process that never stops.