Books

Vagabound in the wilds

A Canadian botanist makes a plea to preserve disappearing world

John Bemrose November 4 1996
Books

Vagabound in the wilds

A Canadian botanist makes a plea to preserve disappearing world

John Bemrose November 4 1996

Vagabound in the wilds

Books

A Canadian botanist makes a plea to preserve disappearing world

JOHN BEMROSE

The spring of 1974 marked a watershed for Wade Davis. That was when the then-21-year-old native of British Columbia walked into the office of his Harvard professor, the eminent botanist Richard Schultes, and announced that he had saved some money and wanted to go to the Amazon to collect plants. It was an astonishing request. Davis had completed only two years of his undergraduate anthropology course and knew next to nothing about the rainforest. Schultes, on the other hand, was already a legend. He had spent 12 years in the Amazon, collecting 20,000 plants—including 300 unknown to science—and living among tribes still virtually untouched by Western civilization. He was also the world’s greatest expert on plant hallucinogens: he had brought teonanacatl (a hallucinogen used by the Aztecs and the natural source of LSD) to the attention of the outside world, giving a major if unintentional boost to the drug culture of the Sixties.

As Davis tells it in his sixth book, One River (Distican, $37)—a compelling account of explorations in South America—the great man barely took time to consider. Looking up from his desk, he said simply: “When do you want to go?” Ten days later, Davis was in Colombia. There, he met up with another Schultes protégé, botanist Tim Plowman, and the two set off on a yearlong odyssey that took them the length of South America. One River describes that trip, and also—in even more detail—recreates the famous travels of Schultes in the middle of the century. The double-barreled focus of the book makes it one of the richest ever written about South America. Combining botanical lore, history, sensitive evocations of native cultures and a good deal of old-fashioned adventure, it is as fascinating and densely varied as the rainforest itself.

It is also a very different book from Davis’s famous first one, The Serpent and the Rainbow, his 1986 exploration of the Haitian Vodoun religion. That self-dramatizing, first-person narrative became an international best-seller, inspired a bad movie and led many commentators to compare Davis to the dashing archeologist hero of the Indiana Jones films. Certainly, Davis has had his share of macho adventures: he once walked across the near-impassable swamp of the Darien Gap, between Panama and Colombia. And he shares Harrison Ford’s rugged good looks. In Toronto recently to promote One River, the 42-year-old author sipped Earl Grey tea while delivering anecdotes and facts with machine-gun rapidity. There is something driven about the man, as though his mission to alert the world to the destruction of its precious botanical and cultural resources has taken possession of him. “I believe that this century will be remembered not for its wars and technological innovations,” he declares, “but for the mas-

sive destruction of both biological and cultural diversity.” And he drives his argument home with an impressive battalion of facts: “There were once 15,000 languages spoken on the planet, each one a unique flash of the human spirit. Now there’s six or seven thousand. In another century, linguists tell us, there’ll only be 350.”

That, really, captures the essence of Davis’s vision. His entire career as an author, lecturer, television writer and international consultant on ecological issues has been dedicated to stopping the relentless reduction of the wild world and its inhabitants—or what is left of them—into the standardized monotony of Western consumer culture. But unlike most people who take up this cause, Davis knows many of the vanishing cultures and places firsthand. One of the strongest features of One River is its evocation of South American native tribes whose names—Waorani, Guahibo, Guambiano, Cubeo, Ingano and many others—run through the text like a paean to human diversity. Davis has lived with several of these peoples,

listened to their shamans (“I never met a shaman who isn’t somewhat psychotic—that’s his job,” he comments) and even sampled the hallucinogens that form the basis of their religious life. Such experiences have their dangers; a number of Davis’s colleagues have died in the field. He himself has been sick with malaria and hepatitis and gotten lost more than once, but he believes that “you have to develop, even to the point of being naïve, a kind of blind faith in the benevolence of the world. You have to cast yourself on its mercy.”

That openness gives his writing a particular edge. His evocations of the rainforest, where the air “is a fluid heaviness,” are memorable, but his description of native cultures is even better. Writing of Tomo, a Waorani hunter, Davis recalls the extraordinary skills he has learned in his youth, including being able to imitate virtually every bird in the forest. Later, he follows him on a hunting expedition during which Tomo suddenly kills a bird in a single blur of movement that involves taking out a poison dart, inserting it in his blowgun and hitting his quarry through a screen of leaves.

Although trained as a scientist—under Schultes, Davis eventually earned his PhD in ethnobotany, a discipline that studies the links between plants and human cultures—Davis embraces a wider, more holistic view. That saves One River from the narrowness that afflicts many defenders of the rainforest, who argue that it should be saved because it may be a source of future pharmaceuticals, or because it is the “green lungs of the planet.” While Davis certainly agrees with such points, the very richness of his book generates a much deeper, less utilitarian insight: the rain forest and its people should be preserved because they are a miracle of creation, unbelievably complex and unique, whose existence exalts life as a whole.

Davis thinks that was Schultes’s view as well, though he admits that, with his rather dry and practical personality, Schultes was not much inclined to philosophic speculation. Davis places his mentor among such great British botanists as Schultes’s own hero, Richard Spruce, a traveller in the Amazon during the last century. Davis believes such men were able to confront their isolation in the wild only by wearing cultural blinders. “Schultes was the last of the great, European-style explorers to encounter, directly, the unknown,” Davis explains, “and in order to protect himself he went down those rivers in a sort of bubble of his own rationality. I think that’s why Schultes only got colors,” Davis adds, referring to his mentor’s failure to experience any wild visions while sampling hallucinogens in the field.

Schultes liked to travel alone, or with a single Indian guide, living off the land and at night reading from the volumes of Homer and Virgil he carried in his knapsack. He seemed comfortable in such isolation, but it came to an end when the United States declared war

on Japan. One of Davis’s most compelling chapters—he says it took him two years to research—tells the forgotten story of how Schultes was hired by the U.S. government to search the Amazon basin for blight-resistant rubber trees. With the Japanese conquest of Malaysia and its huge rubber plantations (which yielded virtually all the world’s rubber), the Allies needed an alternative supply. Working with hired crews, Schultes found it for them along the banks of the Amazon. But the new plantations that resulted were abandoned after the War—a made-inWashington bureaucratic decision that not only destroyed Schultes’s project, but, according to Davis, left a “sword of Damocles” hanging above the industrial world. Unlike the hardy trees Schultes selected, the Malaysian plantations are vulnerable to acts of biological terrorism: the introduction of a few spores of blight could wipe them out— and with them, the world’s main source of natural rubber, a crucial component of radial tires and other products.

Davis—who is married to artist and anthropologist Gail Percy, with whom he has two young daughters—took seven years to write One River, and feels that he has now said everything he wants to about South America. He is currently at work on a new book, Sheets of Distant Rain, inspired by 20 years of recording the stories told to him by a Gitksan elder in northwestern British Columbia. Davis and his family, who live part of the year in Washington, also own a hunting and fishing lodge in British Columbia’s remote Stikine Valley. “I consider that place home,” Davis says. ‘We try to spend at least two months of the year there.” That is difficult sometimes, because Davis is constantly on the go. Besides giving the public lectures that supply most of his income, he is the vicepresident of a new bio-tech drug company, Andes Pharmaceuticals. But for all his worldly success, Davis remains a romantic, ill at ease with what he calls “the sordidness of the 20th century. I was born in the wrong time,” he adds. “A hundred and fifty years ago you could travel anywhere, and the world was still pristine.” He still gets away whenever he can to spend time among aboriginal people—with whom, he points out, “any Indiana Jones macho crap is completely out of place. You have to dance the rhythm of the other culture, in a way that can never be taught. It’s a matter of gesture and repartee and a willingness to eat beside them on the stony ground.” □