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Colombia, ethnobotany, and America’s decline: An interview with Wade Davis

Rainbow over the Colombian Amazon. Photo © Wade Davis

Rainbow over the Colombian Amazon. Photo © Wade Davis

  • Wade Davis is a celebrated anthropologist, ethnobotanist, photographer, and author who has written thought-provoking accounts of indigenous cultures around the world. Through his writing, Davis has documented the disappearance of indigenous languages and cultures, the loss of which is outpacing the destruction of the world’s rainforests.
  • Davis’s newest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia, traces the path of the Magdalena River as a vehicle to tell the story of Colombia, including the nation’s tumultuous recent past, the tenuous peace of its present, and its future promise. Colombia holds a special place for Davis: it trails only Brazil in terms of biodiversity, is geographically and culturally diverse, and has gone to great lengths to recognize indigenous rights and protect its forests.
  • Davis’s research into Colombia, indigenous cultures, and other societies has given him an unusually broad perspective with which to evaluate recent developments in the United States, which he compared to a collapsing empire in a commentary he authored in August for Rolling Stone.
  • Davis talked about his career path, his new book, and the decline of America in an October 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

Wade Davis is a celebrated anthropologist, ethnobotanist, photographer, and author who has written thought-provoking accounts of indigenous cultures around the world. These have ranged from The Serpent and the Rainbow about the “zombies” in Haitian vodoun religion to One River about the explorations of famed ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes who studied the remarkable knowledge of traditional shamans in the Amazon. Through his writing, Davis has documented the disappearance of indigenous languages and cultures, the loss of which is outpacing the destruction of the world’s rainforests.

Davis’s newest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia, traces the path of the Magdalena River as a vehicle to tell the story of Colombia, including the nation’s tumultuous recent past, the tenuous peace of its present, and its future promise. Colombia holds a special place for Davis: it trails only Brazil in terms of biodiversity, is geographically and culturally diverse, and has gone to great lengths to recognize indigenous rights and protect its forests. His writing about the country — especially One River — prompted Colombia’s former president Juan Manuel Santos to grant him honorary citizenship in 2018.

Davis’s research into Colombia, indigenous cultures, and other societies has given him an unusually broad perspective with which to evaluate recent developments in the United States, which he compared to a collapsing empire in a commentary he authored in August for Rolling Stone.

“In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism,” he wrote. “COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken. As the crisis unfolded, with another American dying every minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for tracking the disease. The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock.”

Davis talked about his career path, his new book, and the decline of America in an October 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay: I would love to hear about what inspired your interest in nature and indigenous peoples.

Davis: I think growing up in a coming of age in British Columbia played a really big role in that, but even just being Canadian. I actually was born in British Columbia, raised in Montreal. I spent summers canoeing in the North, in Quebec, and later, of course, in British Columbia from a very young age.

Wade Davis. Photo by Adam DillonThe way that the North kind of hovers in our imagination and defines the essence of the national soul. I mean, the purest expression of patriotism in Canada is a line of Francophone verse from the Inimitable Gilles Vigneault: “Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.” My country is not a country. It’s the winter.

And I certainly grew up in Montreal. I was born in British Columbia on the banks of the Saint Lawrence river, which of course, was the artery by which the original coureurs de côtes, the fur traders, broke open a continent.

And one of the things that’s difficult sometimes for Americans to appreciate is that Canada was not a settler society. We didn’t come here as settlers. We came here as merchants, and the driving factor, of course, was a fashion statement in Europe, the Beaver hat. And so, it was the pursuit of furs, which really determined both the economy and the initial settling of the country. And in that sense, we not only didn’t set out to deliberately slaughter indigenous people as John Ralston Saul, one of greater writers put it. We married them, and in doing so, we moved up in the world. That isn’t to suggest that the colonial experience for first nations in Canada was always a happy one, quite to the contrary, but the nation was forged with this idea of the wild of the bush. And I was able to be part of that in my generation, whether it was at the age of 11 on canoe trips in Northern Quebec or later when I returned to British Columbia. And from the age of 15 was fighting forest fires, working as a guide with a hunting guide and a white-water guide, and eventually a park ranger for many years and so on.

So, I always found in the Canadian wild a kind of a sanctuary. Even as I went to university in the States and became immersed in the tumultuous years of the late ’60s and early ’70s, I always would return to the Canadian Rockies or to the North, and I always found solace there. So, in that sense, I love nature in the abstract, in the experiential sense from the youngest age. But oddly enough, it was only when I studied botany after a long period in the Amazon that I really came to understand the wonder of biology.

And one of the things I often think about is how close I came to never studying biology, which is incredible. You think about it, Rhett, you would never send a kid through university and allow them to graduate if they couldn’t tell a photograph from a painting or a work of prose from poetry. And yet we graduated people all the time. We don’t know the fundamental formula of life, which is photosynthesis. The simple idea that photons of light can spark a reaction between water and carbon dioxide to give us our food, carbohydrates, and the very air that we breathe oxygen. I mean, I’ve always maintained that nobody should have the right to run for office if they haven’t A, served in the military, and B, is capable of reciting that formula.

Mongabay: That interest in the wild from youth, I guess, led you on quite an adventure in 1974 when you crossed the Darien gap in Panama, Columbia, on foot, which has got to be one of the wildest places on earth. And I’m curious as to what impressions did that journey make on you and influence your later?

Davis: It actually turned out to be an incredibly important passage in my life. I had still gone off to South America in a serendipitous way, which is the way I sort of did everything. I mean, I think one of the lessons for young people is that they look up at someone of my age, now 66, and they see the books that I’ve written, the films that I’ve made, the adventures I’ve had, the recognition and even accolades I’ve received and think, “Well, how can I do that?” Well, the answer is you’re going to do it. The reason I’ve done all that is because I’m 66 years old. So, it’s all one step at a time. And my life had no plan whatsoever. No one was more confused coming out of college than I was. I ended up going to Harvard because I used to fight forest fires and our camps were full of draft dodgers.

And one of them had the Life magazine with the Harvard student strike on the cover of 1969. And I thought, well, that’s got to be the school you go to become cool like these guys. And so, I applied, not even knowing where it was. And I got in, and then my family didn’t have the money to come to Boston. So, I flew down there as a 17-year-old with a big steamer trunk, got to Logan airport, didn’t know where Harvard was. I saw this black guy with a Harvard t-shirt. I thought he’s got to know. He didn’t know either. And so, my family didn’t take taxis. So, I drag my trunk to the subway, came up in Harvard square. And then in this madness of the era of Hare Krishna over here and STS over here and people on high on acid over there, I realized my mum had made a mistake, and the dorms were not open for another week.

And so, I had nowhere to go, no money in my pocket. And I dragged my trunk through Cambridge until I found a church, and I knocked on the door, and a pastor welcomed me and put me up for a week. And that’s when I fell in love with the United States, but he was a big war resistor, and his basement was full of kids escaping to Canada. So, I became radicalized, and I spent most of my first year making the last upheaval of Harvard, organizing the last university-wide student strike. And then it came time where I had to declare a major, and I hadn’t even thought about it. And the next day was the deadline, and I came out by chance from the museum of ethnology with my head still swirling with these images of shaman and indigenous people.

I ran into a friend. I said, “Stuart, what are you going to major?” And he said, “Anthropology.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “Well, you read about the Indians.” And I thought like Forest Gump, “that’ll do.” So, I signed on as a student of anthropology. Then two years later, having grown tired of just reading about indigenous people, my roommate and I were in a cafe in Harvard square dreaming of traveling to live with indigenous people. And there was a map of national geographic map, right beside us on the wall. And David suddenly looked at the map, and he looked at me, and he pointed to the Arctic. Why? Because I had to go somewhere, and I watched my left arm lift and hit the Northwest Amazon of Colombia. And if it had landed in Rome, I might’ve become a Renaissance scholar, but decided to go to the Amazon.

There was only one man to see this legendary botanical explorer, Richard Evans Schultes. I knocked on his door — the door of a man after which mountains had been named in South America. The greatest Amazonian botanical explorer, the man who sparked the psychedelic era with his discovery of the magic mushrooms in Mexico in 1938. And I just said, “I’ve saved up money in a logging camp. I’m from British Columbia. I want to go to the Amazon and collect plants like you did.” And he looked across a mountain of plant specimens and said very simply, “Well, son, when do you want to go?” And two weeks later, I was in the Amazon with no plans whatsoever, a one-way ticket, small backpack of clothes, and two books. Lawrence’s Taxonomy of Vascular Plants, which I intended to study. And Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which would be my kind of anchor through all those months of wandering.

Schultes and four Indigenous Makuna in Colombia. Photo © Wade Davis
Schultes and four Indigenous Makuna in Colombia. Photo courtesy of Wade Davis

So that’s really how life unfolds, not in a linear sense, but in a serendipitous sense. And what you want to do as a young person is cultivate a kind of inner compass, so when you come to those opportunities, do they come to you? You’re ready to take them. You leap off the cliff. It’s like Jim Whittaker said, the first American to climb Everest, “If you’re not living on the edge, when you’re young, you’re taking up too much space.” And you want to sort of be an opportunist, not like a schemer, but put yourself in the way of moments where there’s no choice but success. And you suddenly find yourself capable of doing things that would have been unimaginable a few months before.

And so back to your question about the Darien Gap, I was just back from the Sierra Nevada. They sent to Marta where with my colleague, Tim Plowman, my sort of mentor and Schultes’s protege, we had had a botanical expedition. He was going back to Boston to get his Ph.D., and I had a month on my hands. And I ran into a geographer who told me there was this Englishman who was looking for someone to guide them through the Darien Gap and if I was interested in going. And I said, “Sure,” having no idea where it was and no idea that it would consume six to seven weeks of my life and give one misadventure after another.

And at that time, the gap was much wider than it is today. It was a gap between Colombia and Panama, where they had not built the Pan-American highway. And to give you an idea of its reputation on the night before we entered the swamps, because this journalist had a deal where he had to walk all the way from Tierra Del Fuego to Alaska, and he had reached Colombia. So, he couldn’t take any form of even aquatic transport, not even a canoe. So, we had to first walk through the Ciénaga, the wetlands of Atrato, with water up to our necks. In the rainy season, just to get to the river, to get into position, to begin the ascent into the Darien. And the night before we entered the water, the swamps a little old lady came up to me in this massive thunderstorm and said, “Your hair is brown, and your eyes are blue. It’s too bad everything will be yellow by the time you get to Panama.”

And the truth is we did have a kind of misadventure. Sebastian Snow was a kind of eccentric Englishman who sort of said if you speak the Queen’s language loud enough, anyone will understand. And he kind of courted misadventures folder for his books, and his genre was of the Englishman out of his element. And so, we kind of stumbled our way across the Darien with misadventures, from encounters with dubious characters to being chased by the police, to being set up to be killed, encounters with jaguars. Eventually, we were lost three days with no food or shelter with three Kuna indigenous men who are equally lost. And when you’re lost, it is not the length of the period, it’s a sheer uncertainty that consumes every moment.

Wade Davis in Colombia. Photo by Fernando Cano
Wade Davis in Colombia. Photo by Fernando Cano

So, it was kind of this sort of crazy wild experience, but it was really terrific for me because Sebastian wrote a book about his adventure. He eventually went mad and was shipped back home from Costa Rica when he got up in the middle of the night in a hospital and put on his pajamas, and started to walk north. But he wrote a book about it, which was a kind of a silly book, ignored at the time and long forgotten. But it was the first time my writing ever appeared in print because he had lifted passages from my journal, which seemed like a fair exchange because it gave him some content and allowed me to see my words alongside his, and it gave me a great inspiration that if this kind of endearing, but crazy Englishman can write books, I can too. Only that my books will not be typed, they’re going to be written, and they’re not going to be with that focused on self, but on the worlds around me based on thorough research. And so that’s when I really got the idea that I too could become a writer. So, in a way, that was Sebastian’s great gift to me.

Mongabay: Since then, you become an incredibly prolific writer. You have a new book out which talks about Colombia’s great river, the Magdalena. Could you tell us a little bit about that book?

Davis: Eventually, I wrote a book called One River, which was in part an account of the travels that I did in South America with Tim Plowman mainly studying coca, the divine leaf of the mortality, the notorious source of cocaine. And it was also a biography of professor Schultes, and it was published in Spanish in 2002, translated by a wonderful Colombian poet, Nicolás Suescún. And at a time when Colombia’s variability to endure as a nation was in question, a book of botany and plant exploration with a print run in Spanish of maybe 500 copies ought not to have registered, but the strength of the book was the quality of the translation. And the fact that it ran to 700 pages in Spanish without a single reference to the conflict.

It told the story of Columbia that was a story in defiance of the dark cliches. And especially for two generations of young people, it kind of emerged almost like a map of dreams. An account of travel in their own country that was no longer available to them because of the violence. And so, it really affected young people, and by word of mouth, it kind of grew and became a sort of a cult book. And recently, when the national library selected the first 25 of the 200 most important books in the history of Colombia, it was selected as the amongst one of the 25. And it really had that kind of impression, that kind of impact, on the country.

And that set-in motion a series of events that drew me back to Colombia after a long hiatus, including three films that I made and many numbers of presentations, and eventually culminating in my becoming an honored Colombian citizen, thanks to the generosity of ex-president Juan Manuel Santos, a Nobel laureate. But one of the opportunities created by One River is that the head of one of Colombia’s largest corporate citizens—Grupo Argos—had read it and decided to support some friends of mine who were going to produce books of photography and natural history on each of the five major regions of Colombia. Now, of course, one of the messages of this project was that this was not a land of violence. It was a land of the richest biodiversity, ecological, and geographical diversity on earth, which it is. And the idea was to send a message to two generations of Colombian kids that this is what their country really was.

Rainforest creek in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Rainforest creek in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

And out of that came a whim conceived over a drink at lunch where I said, “Now that we’ve done the land, why don’t we do the rivers.” And in a heartbeat, they endorsed the project. And I had no idea that that serendipitous moment would result in five years of engagement telling the story of the Mississippi of Colombia, the main artery of life, a corridor of commerce, but also the fountain of culture, of poetry, prayer, literature, and music. And it became a way of doing in a sense of biography of the nation because the Magdalena did not only make this incredible mountainous country possible. Colombia itself is the gift of The River, and it allowed me to tell the story of Colombia in its totality. One of the obvious messages of the book is to remind people that yes, there have been 220,000 dead. Yes, there have been 7 million displaced by the conflict, but the conflict would not have endured a single week had it not been for the fuel of the fire of war, which was money from cocaine.

And in that sense, everybody is complicit. I mean, everybody who’s ever used cocaine and every government that’s facilitated the black-market trade while prohibiting the drug with doing nothing to actually limit its circulation distribution, everybody has the blood of Colombians in their hands. And how would Americans feel if Canada, for example, had patterns of drug consumption in our bars and boardrooms across the country and laws that facilitated a black-market trade? And yet regulations and oversight that did nothing to prevent that trade effectively such that 85 million Americans would be forced to flee their homes. Well, that’s what happened in Colombia. And the extraordinary thing is during all the years of violence. There were never more than 200,000, maybe 300,000 combatants in a country of 50 million people. So, the vast majority of Colombians were innocent victims of a war that, as I say, was made possible only by the proceeds of the cocaine trade.

In the last year before the peace agreement was signed in 2016, the FARC, the major leftist group of gorillas, was down to maybe 6,000 mostly teenagers in search of a meal. And yet in that last year of war, FARC made over US$600 million from extortion and drug trafficking, much of it from cocaine. Well, as I often say, if you give me $600 million and the Boy Scouts of any major American city, I can wreak havoc in any American state. So, the amazing thing is that despite this kind of imposed war caused by our gluttonous passion for this drug, which is so horrible, a drug best used by dentists to facilitate the pulling of a tooth. The Colombians have nevertheless maintained civil society and democracy, greened their cities, created millions of acres of national parks, and sought restitution with indigenous people in a way that no nation-state can match and pave the way for a kind of economic renaissance.

Wade Davis in Colombia. Photo by Xandra Uribe
Wade Davis in Colombia. Photo by Xandra Uribe

As two generations of young Colombians forced to flee the country because of the violence are now coming home. And they’re coming home from every capital in the world with skillsets in every endeavor. So, Colombia, if peace will endure, has an incredible future in front of it. And I do believe, as one who truly loves Colombia is now Colombian citizen, that in some sense, we owe something to Colombia. And of course, what the book Magdalena attempts to do is reveal in a sense of the full beauty and glory of the country. And I think the best endorsement the book has had comes from my friend, Héctor Abad who is a great Colombian journalist, wonderful writer, one of the great writers of nonfiction and fiction in Latin America. And Hector has been famously bitter about his own nation ever since his father was assassinated. And the death of his father was one of a handful of killings that in a bloodstained nation really shook the whole country. And it made him very ambivalent about his country. He’s famously known to have a sort of love-hate thing with this country. He was forced into exile in Italy and so on. And Hector read the book and said, “Only Wade could make me love my country again.” And that’s really what Magdalena is. It’s truly a love letter to Colombia.

Mongabay: I’m going to pivot a little bit. You mentioned what Colombia has done to recognize the rights of and protect the lands belonging to indigenous peoples. So indigenous peoples have been central to much of your work, and one of things you’ve written about is the loss of culture and language. I’d love to get your take on why the loss of a single language, even like the loss of a species, is so important.

Davis: The biological analogy is apropos. I mean, extinction is a natural phenomenon, but in general, over the last 600 million years, speciation—generation of new forms of life—has outpaced extinction, making far more diverse world. By the same token, language has come and gone through history. We don’t speak Latin anymore in the streets of Rome, but before Latin faded away, it had in time to leave its descendants, the 12 romance languages. Now language is like species are disappearing at a rate that they have no time, if you will, to leave descendants. One of the most haunting statistics is that of the 7,000 languages spoken the day that I was born, fully half today are not being taught to children. And a language, as I’ve written, is not just a vocabulary and grammar. It’s the flesh of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of a culture comes in the material world.

Every language, I once wrote, is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought and ecosystems, social and spiritual possibilities, and to lose a language is to lose a branch of the family tree. And the glory and the power and the beauty and the contents of a language has nothing to do with the number of speakers who use that language. Every language, like every culture, deserves to be heard. I mean, this is a great lesson of anthropology, and the purpose of anthropologists, as Ruth Benedict says, “To make the world safe for human differences.”

Wade Davis among the Arhuacos in Colombia's Sierra Nevada
Wade Davis among the Arhuacos in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada

I’m not interested in being a spokesperson for indigenous people. They are fully capable of speaking more powerfully than I could possibly do on their own behalf. I’m just a human being asking us what kind of world would we want to live in. A monochromatic world, a monotony, or a truly pluralistic multicultural world of diversity, where we recognize that the other peoples of the world aren’t failed attempts at being us, let alone failed attempts, being modern.

Every culture is, by definition, an answer to a fundamental question, what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question, they do so in the 7,000 languages of humanity. And every culture has something to say. Each deserves to be heard, just like none has a monopoly on the root to the divine. And of course, the reason this is so important is that we have all as humans been famously culturally myopic from the dawn of consciousness. Most indigenous societies, the name for themselves translates to the people, the implication being the blokes over the hill are savages.

And that kind of myopia, which we all indulge is no longer possible or tolerable in a multicultural world. And this idea that our world is the real-world and everybody else is a failed attempt to become us is something that humans tend to share. And so, we in the West tend to think of this technological, industrial world of ours as being the norm and everybody else is a failure to be us. But the truth is that the triumph of secular materialism may be the conceit of modernity, but it doesn’t suggest in its ubiquity or dominance that it’s the norm. It’s not; it’s the anomaly. We’re an extractive model that is derived in a very direct way from the Enlightenment when Descartes famously said that, “All that exists is mind and matter,” he deaminated the world. And in our quest to free ourselves from the burden of the absolute faith, we threw out all notions of myth, magic, mysticism, but critically metaphor.

And so, the idea that the flight of a bird could have meaning, that a mountain could be a deity, that a forest was the abode of spirits was dismissed as ridiculous. But in fact, those relationships based on metaphor have defined the human footprint on the Earth for a very long time. Most societies engaged in natural world, the ethnographic record makes abundantly clear through not an extractive perspective but through the notion of reciprocity. The simple idea that the Earth owes its bounty to humans, and humans, in turn, owe their fidelity to the Earth. And the purpose of the point of metaphor is the consequences of the belief, not the absolute veracity or falsehood that the belief might, to your perspective, represent.

Indigenous boy in the Colombian Amazon. &copy Wade Davis
Indigenous Barasana boy in the Colombian Amazon. The Barasana believe that plants and animals are just people in another dimension of reality. © Wade Davis

So that if I believe that a mountain is an apu deity that will direct my destiny, I’m going to have a very different relationship to it than if I believe it’s a pile of inner rock, ready to be mined. If I believe that a forest is just cellulose and board feet, I’m going to have a different attitude towards it than the Kwakwaka’wakw do that it’s the abode of Huxhukw and the crooked beak of heaven, the cannibal spirits that dwell in the North end of the world. Again, it’s not who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s how the belief system mediates the relationship between the human population and the natural environment with profoundly different consequences for the ecological footprint.

I mean, one of the things we can draw inspiration from these different visions of life, the cultures of the world represent is that our way is not the only way. And those of us who say, for example, in terms of climate change, that we cannot change, as we all know we must change, the fundamental way we inhabit this planet are simply wrong. There are options, there are alternatives, and we have to move towards them expeditiously given the situation we’ve created over just 300 years in which the industrial processes have been consuming the ancient sunlight of the world in this carbon economy.

So, in that sense, anthropology is so important, and it’s been unfortunately kind of divorced itself from the activism from which it emerged. I mean, one of the things that people don’t really think about much, but if you look, for example, Rhett, your great grandfather or your great-great-grandfather in 1900, the belief structures that he would have had about the role of women, the role of men, notions of race, attitudes of ascendancy over nature, whatever, go down the line, probably not one of those certitudes you would agree with today.

And the question is, where did we get from that way of thinking to how we think today? Well, we can cite the social movements that have brought women from the kitchen to the boardroom, gay people from the closet to the altar, people of color from the woodsheds the White House. But those social movements had to have a foundation. They had to have some catalyst that challenged the orthodoxies of that previous Edwardian era. And that challenge was done by a small group of contrarians that call themselves anthropologists that gathered around the great scholar friend, Boas, who is as important to the birth of modernity, as we know it as Einstein or Freud or Darwin.

And because these anthropologists, based on their experience, said the obvious, that race was a total fiction. A total cultural construct that had no foundation in biology whatsoever, which has been completely confirmed by genetic analysis that shows that we’re all cut from the same genetic cloth. The genetic endowment of humanity is a continuum. Race is an utter fiction, a social construct. These were anthropologists who said a family didn’t have to be just a man and a woman. It could be a man and two women. It could be a woman and two men. It could be two men, whatever may have brought love to the Earth.

This is a family — individuals who recognize that the other people’s world weren’t failed attempts to be modern. That every culture was unique answer to a fundamental question. What does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answered that question, they did so with all the voices of humanity. Those ideas were so shattering to the European mind. Remember that as late as 1911, and that would be five years before my own father was born, the English Oxford dictionary did not have an entry for racism because the superiority of the white male was accepted. It was such assurance. It didn’t have an entry for colonialism. We didn’t have an entry for homosexuality.

In other words, that shattering of the era — so when I say to a young person, like you Rhett, that if you think it’s quite normal, that a black girl would fall in love with a white boy, or that a Jewish girl or boy would find solace in the Buddhist Dharma, or that a young African American woman would look up and say, those aren’t the statutes to the Confederacy. I am the statute of the Confederacy because look at the hue of my skin. This tells you that my African ancestor was raped by an overseer. I am the statute of the Confederacy, deal with it. If you understand what she meant, then you are truly a child of anthropology. It is anthropology that sows the seeds of modernity by challenging those orthodoxies, which we now see as not only false but morally reprehensible.

Mongabay: Following up on one of the earlier things you said: you’ve talked about the role that anthropology plays in a wide range of areas. What are the things you think that the conservation movement can learn from anthropology in order to be more effective and more inclusive?

Davis: Well, I think that one of the things that is so interesting is there used to be this chasm between the naturalists and the anthropologists where the naturalist tended to see people, indigenous people in particular, as part of the problem, and anthropologists couldn’t buy the misanthropic elitism among the naturalists.

A classic example of that occurred in 1979 when I was a student at Harvard, in graduate school. And the Dalai Lama stopped to speak at Harvard as his last event on his first North American tour. And that night, Ed Wilson, the legendary biologist and wonderful man, was introducing in one hall, Norman Myers, who had written a book called The Sinking Ark, which was one of the first books to anticipate the biodiversity crisis. And across the way literally kitty-corner was his holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. And naturally, all the students and faculty were lined up to see his holiness. And in apologizing to Norman Meyers for the sparse audience in his hall, Ed Wilson as kind and decent and wonderful a man as you have ever walked the earth. I know him well, and I revere him, but nevertheless, and he’d be the first to regret these words, but they were emblematic of that era.

In apologizing to Meyers. He said, and I quote, “If even Harvard students can’t get their priorities, right. And they’d rather be across the way, listening to that religious kook, you know how far we’ve got to go to educate the public at large.” Well, that statement was so indicative this chasm. And I swear to God, I must’ve been the only student that night running back and forth between the two talks because I recognized then what we now know to be obvious, which is the same forces that impact and erode cultural diversity are destroying biological diversity. The triumph of ideology, industrial intrusions, and egregious public policies.

And so now, of course, the amazing thing is that genetics, as I said earlier, has come forward to actually prove what was only an intuition of anthropology. This idea that every culture is a product of its own history. In other words, if we accept the fact that it is now scientifically indisputable that the genetic endowment is a continuum, we’re all descendants of that same handful of people who walked out of Africa 65,000 years ago. And then in 40,000 years settled every corner of the world. But here’s the important thing, if we are cut from the same genetic cloth, we share the same raw intellectual capacity by definition, across the board. And whether that genius is invested in technological wizardry, which has been the greatest achievement in the West or placed, for example, into the complex task of unravelling, the mystic threads of memory inherent in the myth, is simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation. There is no hierarchy in the affairs of culture. The old Victorian idea that persists to this day that we somehow went from the primitive to the civilized, from the savage to the barbarian, to the civilized, to the Strand of London, where we use technology alone as the value of a culture. And suggesting that there’s this sort of evolutionary development rising to ourselves at the top of the pyramid that slopes down at the so-called perimeters of the world.

That idea persists in an incredibly stubborn way but is completely false. The truth is that how we use this genius is simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation.

Arhuaco carving in the Sierra Nevada, Colombia. &copy Wade Davis
Arhuaco carving in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range on earth. Descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization, the Arhuaco remain to this day led by a ritual priesthood: mamos who believe that their prayers and rituals literally maintain the cosmic, or ecological balance of the world. © Wade Davis

So, to go, for example, into the Australian outback, when the British first watched ashore in Australia, they saw people that looked strange, had a simple material technology, but what offended the British is the Aboriginal people had no interest in personal improvement of their material lot. They had no concept of progression through time. And since those ideas were the essence of Victorian thought during that era, the British, in their imitable way, concluded the aboriginals were not humans at all. And they began to shoot them as recently as 1902.

Again, this is in the lifetime of my grandfather. It was debated in parliament in Melbourne as to whether or not Aboriginal people were human or not. And in fact, what was going on in Australia was an entire civilization. 10,000 clan territories linked together by a single subtle devotional philosophy, which we called “the dreaming.” But it wasn’t a dream. It was a conviction that the world at your feet both exists and yet is always waiting to be born. Not in one of the 670 dialects and languages of that parsimonious continent of Australia, was there a word for time, for past, present, or future? There was only the unfolding of creation, the dreaming, and the entire culture and civilization was based not on the notion of progress but the antithesis of that, stasis.

The purpose of life wasn’t to change anything. On the contrary, it was to do the ritual gestures along the song lines, which were the trajectories walked to the dawn of time with the ancestral beings, as they sang the universe into existence. To do the rituals along the song line that traverses your clan territory with the intention of keeping the world exactly as it was at the time of its creation, it would be as if all of European intellectual life had been focused on pruning the shrubs at the garden of Eden to keep it just as it was when Adam and Eve had their fateful conversation. But again, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. Had we followed that human devotional instinct, we wouldn’t have put a man on the moon. We wouldn’t have developed allopathic medicine. We wouldn’t have the Internet, all these glorious things. On the other hand, we also wouldn’t have climate change and our capacity to transform the biophysical foundations of life on Earth.

So, 50,000 years, hence you can ask the question which adaptive strategy will have been seen as to have been in the long-term, the most sustainable of the two. So again, this doesn’t suggest that we go back to a pre-industrial past or that any people in the world be kept from the genius of modernity. It’s rather to say how do we find a way that all peoples can benefit from the genius of modernity, without that engagement demanding the death of who they are as a people because culture is not trivial. It’s a body of moral and ethical values that keep at bay the barbaric heart that history teaches us lies within all human beings.

River near Penalosa in Colombia's Choco region. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
River near Penalosa in Colombia’s Choco region in the Darien. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

It’s culture that allows us to look, as Lincoln said, “For the better angels of our nature.” There’s a reason that a nation that gave us Gerta and Von Humboldt also gave us Hitler and Goering and Goebbels. It’s not liked the Germans were uniquely capable of the descent into barbarism, but they did go into a barbaric state that brought death to millions. I’m not comparing the situation in United States to Nazi Germany, but we do have a situation where we’re seeing a vast cohort of the American population prepared to embrace the reprehensible and morally repugnant positions and character of a buffoon of a president, a bone-spur president of incredibly corrupt essence. And yet we have 60 million Americans who would fall on their sword for this guy.

So, what’s that saying about what’s become of America? So, you look around the world, and human beings are one step away from barbarism, and they really are. If you look what happened in the killing fields in Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda, the crisis of Nazi Germany, the events in the Soviet Union in the wake of the revolution. Human beings are truly capable of descent into barbarism. And the struggle, and that’s what culture is. Culture is designed as a moral and ethical blanket that at least attempts to mitigate against that human propensity.

Mongabay: To follow up on the current situation. You wrote a piece in Rolling Stone recently that argued we’re witnessing the end of the American era. Do you think the COVID-19 outbreak is going to drive change in how people think about our relationship with each other and nature?

Davis: The piece I wrote for Rolling Stone, it’s almost a story within the story because I wrote that piece on spec, sent it to my friend, Jann Wenner and we got it edited and it ran. Nobody expected it to go viral, but it had 362 million social media impressions. It trended on the site for five weeks. It had 5 million views on This was because it spoke to a kind of a hunger and need.

COVID itself will have any number of impacts. The positive impact one would hope is that the world woke up to realize how interconnected we are. That we really are living beings on a biological planet. A form of life, 10,000 times smaller than a grain of salt, literally commandeered the mechanisms of ourselves and caused us to produce it, not us.

It also attacked the network of connectivity and community that is for a social species like humans, what teeth and claws represent to the tiger. So, at the same time, as we saw our vulnerability, we also saw the incredible resilience and recuperative powers of the earth. I mean, those images of the Himalaya shining at last over the cities of the sub-continent from Karachi to Kathmandu to Delhi. The canals of Venice clear, the rivers of cities in Colombia running like trout streams through Medellin. The re-inhabitation of the cities by wild creatures. The wild boar in Barcelona, caiman blanketing the beaches of Baja, flamingos in the wetlands of Mumbai.

We saw this amazing resilience of the Earth, and it’s humbling to remember, Rhett, that if you took the entire history of our species, our hominid lineage, I don’t just mean Homo sapiens or progenitor Homo erectus. I mean, going right back to Homo afarensis 3.5 million years ago, that entire lineage. And if you were to condense that with the Earth’s life being a 24-hour clock, our entire presence as a lineage of hominds would not occupy one second of the 24 hours.

Indigenous boy in the Colombian Amazon. &copy Wade Davis
Indigenous Barasana boy with a macaw in the Colombian Amazon. © Wade Davis

So, our presence is, by definition, fleeting. The Earth will win in the end but what will become of human beings is, I guess, another question. But certain impacts of COVID, whether it’s sociologically, you can only imagine, will be positive. I mean, people are waking up to the fact that they’re spending four hours a day commuting to white-collar jobs that could readily be done from home. The grotesque inefficiencies of that. Managers are waking up to realize that they’re paying $10,000 a year so that one employee could have a 120 square foot cubicle in some Midtown building in Manhattan.

People are realizing that. It will be a long time, I think, before people — and there’ll be long after it’s biologically safe, people will still be hesitant to go into a dark movie theatre, have the doors slammed shut, to sit shoulder by shoulder, by wheezing and coughing strangers to watch a movie that can be readily streamed into the home as all entertainment can be. So, I mean, obviously, we’re going to go back to sporting events as soon as we can. But the key thing about all those sorts of impacts is that they’re things we’re going to readily adapt to. We were incredibly adaptive species. I mean, the fluidity of our memory, our capacity to forget, is the most kind of haunting trait of our species. It accounts for why we’re able to adapt to almost any degree of environmental or moral degradation.

But where the COVID really opened up the vista onto a true development that was underway, but what was perhaps less than clear to us is what it revealed about the status of the American experiment. And this is why the article was called “The Unravelling of America.” Americans woke up to realize that as 2000 of them were dying a day. They’re living in a failed state led by a dysfunctional government at the helm of which was a buffoon who was advocating the use of disinfectants to treat a serious pandemic, a disease that he did not have the intellectual capacity to understand. And what I tried to stress in that article is that if America, for example, on the eve of World War II was demilitarized, and yet came into the war and through pure industrial production was able to literally, as Roosevelt promised, become the arsenal of democracy, spitting out liberty ships, fighter planes, and B-24s by the hour. Equipping armies that marched across the world, not only the American armies, but the Russian armies.

We sent half a million trucks to Russia. Half a million Willys Jeeps. We sent a million miles of wiring. We sent 34 million uniforms and 18 million pairs of boots. I mean, this amazing industrial production of the United States that allowed, for example, for every five pounds of equipment that the Japanese empire of the Sun, got to a frontline troop per capita. In the Pacific war, we got two tons. I mean, it’s almost unbelievable the release of American power of industrial might during that war, that in the wake of the war. America is creating half the world’s economy with much of the world in ashes. And that affluence allowed us, for example, to produce 90% of the world’s automobiles in 1947. It allowed for a level of wealth that created a truce between labor and capital that gave us the middle class. It gave us a world where a working man with limited education could own a home, buy a car, support his family, and send his kids to good schools.

And that treaty, that agreement was based on an economic model in the 50s, that in a strange sense was more like Denmark than the America of today. CEO’s had 20 times the salary of employees, not 400 or 500 times. The marginal tax rates were 91%. Not that people paid that much, but the message was there that we’re all in this together. Well, today in America, as those same working men and women watched for two generations as globalization eviscerated their factories, sending them off to shelve the groceries at Walmart, globalization trumped up with iconic intensity when all it was, as they all knew, was just capital on the prowl and search of ever-cheaper sources of labor. And before you knew it, 1% of Americans controlled more wealth than the lower 160 million.

Golf course in the desert north of Las-Vegas. Photo © Maxar Technologies.
Golf course in the desert north of Las-Vegas. Photo © Maxar Technologies.

And you suddenly had this, this world of unfairness that was beginning to shatter the bonds of community. In the wake of World War II, we celebrate the individual with iconic intensity allowing for mobility and freedom, but also bringing down any sense of family. By the 1960s, half of marriages are ending in divorce. Only 6% of American homes have grandparents beneath the roof of grandchildren. We shunt off the elders to old age homes where they are left to slowly decay. We celebrate the workplace at the expense of family with slogans like 24-7, implying total dedication to the workplace at the expense of family. And we wonder why the average American youth has spent by the age of 18, three full years, passively watching a video monitor, contributing to an obesity epidemic, called by the joint chiefs of staff, a national security crisis. A country that thinks of itself as being well is consuming two-thirds of the world’s antipsychotic-antidepressant drugs. The leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50 has become opiate use and abuse.

So the article is not anti-American. It’s a love letter to America. It’s like a family intervention. You’re saying the first thing you do in an intervention is hold the mirror to the loved one to show how far they’ve fallen. And that’s the first step on the path of rehabilitation if you will. And so the America of today is not the America of its perception. So, for example, the country that celebrated freedom of information – Franklin, Monroe, Madison, and Jefferson said, “Schools are more important than Congress because if we don’t have an educated electorate, we won’t have a meaningful democracy.” And that’s what I meant when I said that the Trump cohort voted their indignations. That’s a sign of decadence because they weren’t thinking by definition of the nation, of the world. They were thinking just of themselves.

When we build a wall across the Mexican border, we’re not only engaged in an act of folly, opening ourselves up to the ridicule of the world, proponents of that wall are engaged in an act of treason. Because treason isn’t just giving the state secrets to your enemy. It’s when you indulge behavior that betrays the essence of who you are as a country. Now, it’s true that immigrant groups have always had to crawl ashore in America. It’s never been rosy for any of them, but the myth carved on the base of the Statue of Liberty is about the huddled masses. It’s about the shining city on the hill about the great hope, and that energy is the myth of America. And myths aren’t old stories. Myths are moral charters. They’re aspirational goals of the people. And so to put up a wall across the Mexican border is to deny the fundamental moral charter of the country. And that’s why I claim it’s an act of treason.

And when you compare, for example, Canada and America, and the reaction to COVID, it’s quite dramatic. On July 30th of this summer, the day that America announced close to 60,000 new cases of COVID, here in Vancouver, in British Columbia—again, a metropolitan city with a concentrated population of Asians, dozens of flights coming in from China, two hours up the road from Seattle, where the pandemic landed. While they announced 60,000 new cases, we had five cases in all of our hospitals. So what’s going on here? We’re no perfect place. Our healthcare system isn’t perfect, but our health care system in a social democracy, it’s focused on the collective, not the individual, and certainly not the private investor who’ve use every hospital bed as if a rental property. We have a society that still fundamentally trust our institutions.

The idea of a politician running against Washington is, again, treasonous. Washington isn’t some ogre of a place like in a Tolkien novel or something. It’s the Congress is. It’s where the Library of Congress is, the most incredible repository of knowledge on Earth. Washington is a shiny marble city of the American dream. To run against it as if it’s a swamp or evil is a truly psychotic act because you’re declaring war on one’s self. We would never do that in Canada. None of us particularly like to pay the taxes, but we do because we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. And in Canada, we recognize fundamentally that the wealth of a society is not the currency secured by the lucky few, but the strength of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that connect everybody in common purpose.

And that’s why in that piece of Rolling Stone, I use the allegory of getting your groceries at Safeway. When you do that in the States, there’s a cultural, racial, economic chasm between you and the checkout person that’s difficult to bridge. You don’t feel that in Canada because it’s different. You may not feel as peers. You may not feel that you have more or less education, more or less affluence, but you know that the checkout person is getting a living wage because of unions. And you know that your kids and theirs probably go to the same school because our schools are neighborhood schools, grocery stores are neighborhood grocery stores, and our schools aren’t funded by property taxes that favor the children of the affluent neighborhoods. They are grants from the government that give ideally and, in effect, every kid the same per capita resources to use education to transform their lives.

Rainbow over the Colombian Amazon. Photo © Wade Davis
Rainbow over the Colombian Amazon. Photo © Wade Davis

And then third and most important. They know that you know that they know that if their kids get sick they’ll get exactly the same medical care as your kids and the prime minister’s kids. And that’s true. And I’ll tell you one final anecdote about that, Rhett, is when my mom was 85, she got a headache living alone in an apartment in Victoria, BC, at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. By two o’clock, she was being prepped for neurosurgery. By the time my sister and I got to her, she was in recovery, and her life had been saved by an immigrant and Indo-Canadian surgeon of great genius. Right beside her in the ICU was the young girl from Manitoba, from a Mennonite farming family, surrounded at the bedside by all of her extended and large family.

Now it was really amazing because my sister and I, a prominent lawyer, and I’ve done well, could have afforded that surgery. In the States, that family might’ve had a choice between the economic well-being of the family and the life of that daughter. Now we in Canada say that’s not a choice any human being in a civilized society should have to face or make. And the Emperor’s Hotel, as you know, the fanciest hotel in Victoria, had a policy that any family member who had a relative in an intensive care unit got a free room for the night. So as we got kicked out of the ICU, the two families came together, poured into our cars, and we all drove back to the Empress. And we all went to the old Bengal bar in the lounge — in that legendary lounge in the hotel there.

And all the Mennonites don’t drink so I bought them juice, some tea and whatever they wanted. My sister had a glass of wine. I had a beer, and we toasted, but we didn’t toast our loved ones who had survived the day. We didn’t even toast this amazing unknown doctor who’d saved their lives. We toasted our country, because it was only our country, and in this case, our healthcare system that had brought these two families together from two ends of the country, geographically, ends of the country in terms of religious belief, ends of the country in terms of socioeconomic status. And yet in that moment, we were all as one. In a sense, children of the same nation, grateful to a nation that had made this moment, not just the survival of our loved ones, but this moment, us being there together in that bar communicating to each other with such grace, devotion, and affection. And it was our country that made us that possible. And that to me is the essence of patriotism, not flag rap demagoguery, but the quietness of appreciation that you won the lottery to have been born in a country like Canada.

Mongabay: What would you say to a young person who’s concerned about the fate of the planet and the state of things right now?

Davis: I think the most important thing I would say to a young person is it’s not your responsibility. It’s not your fault. It may be your obligation, but it’s not your fault. How many commencement speeches began with, “The world’s a mess, it’s up to you, the new generation to fix it.” I mean, what kind of BS is that? They didn’t make it. You’re the one who made the world a mess. You, the old people, get out and fix it. I think one of the things I’ve learned, which really has helped me a lot, is my father wasn’t a religious man, but he had profound sense of right and wrong. And he used to say to me, “There’s evil, and there’s good in the world, take your pick and get on with it.”

And that may sound almost biblical, but it’s interesting, we in the West have this idea that if we just work hard enough, good is going to vanquish evil. We have that in the image of the son of God, Christ, and the fallen Archangel devil that are always in battle with each other. But the hope is that eventually, one day, whether there’s a rapture, whatever the people say, the devil is going to be beaten. Well, that’s not going to happen. If there’s one thing we know in history of the world is that evil is tenacious. And in Eastern religions, they don’t have that sense of things.

So, for example, the question that is so obvious, if God is all-powerful, why does he allow evil to exist in the universe? When you ask that question in the European tradition, you were burned at the stake as a heretic. But when Lord Krishna was asked that very question, why, if God’s all-powerful, does he allow evil in the universe? Lord Krishna said, “To thicken the plot.” In other words, there’s always evil and good, and you’re not going to beat evil, and you’re not going to win. And the purpose in life isn’t really to win. There are two things that cause bitterness in old age, and the one goal in life should be to reach your older years without bitterness. And bitterness tends to happen to those who look back on a life of decisions imposed upon them by the outside when they’ve succumbed to that kind of social pressure. And contentment comes to those who have been the architect of their own lives. And they look back on decisions made by them, perhaps not always correct or the best, but at least they own them. And so they are responsible for who they are. That’s, that’s the key to contentment and peace of mind in old age.

Rainforest in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Rainforest in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

So on that front, I say to young people, be patient. It takes time to form something as unique as an original life. Give your destiny time to find you. Don’t compromise. And at the same time, I say, don’t think that you’re — the other bitterness also comes with people who expect to win, expect to change the world. One of my favorite writers, Peter Matthiessen, and I read this at a time when I did think I could change the world. That was my entire purpose in life, if you will, in my youth. Peter wrote that “Anyone who thinks they can change a world is both wrong and dangerous.” And he had in mind people like Hitler, Mao, and Stalin. But what he was also saying is, in a Buddhist sense, it’s not a destination. It’s not about winning every battle. It’s about the process.

The Pilgrim embarks on a journey, but the goal is not a physical place. It’s a state of mind. And by the same token, as you work your way through life, yes, it’s not a reason not to fight battles, and you may win a battle, an environmental battle for something, and you may lose a battle, but don’t identify yourself with that outcome. And don’t allow yourself to succumb to despair when you are defeated. Because if you realized that it’s not about an end game, it’s about a path of life. And that’s what my father meant when he said, “Choose your side and get on with it.”

You’re never going to roll evil off the cliff, but you can roll righteousness up the mountain, and you’ll never stop pushing it because it always needs to be pushed. Because it’s an internal battle between good and evil. And that may sound almost apocalyptic or even evangelical in its essence, but I think it’s really true. And because of that, at least in my life, I’ve found that even though I’m 66, I have the exact same energy for new causes, the same energy for new passions, the same excitement when I embrace a new book project. And it’s because I don’t expect any of my books to change the world. I just expect them to be my contribution to that world. And in that sense, I think it allows one to really have peace of mind. And I think it’s kind of true. The Buddhist Dharma is not about the twiddling of thumbs. The Buddhists are onto something.

Mongabay: Thank you so much.

Davis: I hope people get out and get a chance to look at the book Magdalena: River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia. It’s a beautiful book.

Editor’s note: this story was updated with some of Davies’s photographs on October 23, 2020

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