By Wade Davis
House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2009
This book comprises the 2009 Massey Lectures broadcast in November, 2009, as part of the CBC Idea Series. I borrowed it from my library but am adding it to my holiday wish list.
When I was last at university I planned on getting a degree in Cultural Anthropology. Due to changes in my life this didn’t work out, but I am still fascinated by the subject.
Wade Davis, now the Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society, has spent decades living with and getting to know different peoples all over the Earth. While we are all aware and disturbed by the loss of species, both flora and fauna, across the planet, few know that many anthropologists believe that we will lose fifty percent of the 7,000 languages spoken around the world today within next 50 years. Human cultures are going extinct at an alarming rate.
From the islands of Polynesia to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria of Columbia and the High Arctic of Greenland, Davis tells of the people who live and thrive in these many different environments. Their skills and accomplishments are amazing. Take for example the Polynesian Wayfinder, navigator of the canoe Hokule’a.
It is one thing, for example, to measure the speed of the Hokule’a with a simple calculation: the time a bit of foam or flotsam, or prehaps a mere bubble, takes to pass the known length separating the crossbeams of the canoe. Three seconds and the speed will be 8.5 knots, 15 seconds and the vessel slogs at a mere 1.5 knots.
But it is quite another to make such calculations continually, day and night, while also taking the measure of stars breaking the horizon, winds shifting both in speed and direction, swells moving through the canoe, clouds and waves. The science and art of navigation is holistic. The Navigator must process an endless flow of data , intuitions and insights derived from observations and dynamic rhythms and interactions of the winds, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef – in short the constantly changing world of weather and the sea. From page 60.
Most of these people are what Westerners would consider poor and suffer for lack of modern conveniences, but they carry within their cultures the abilities to adapt and survive in marginal landscapes. They are physically and spiritual connected to the land they where they live and, it seems, wonder at us and all we have and do. Some of them want what we have, many do not, regardless of what those of us who cry for development and modernization choose to believe.
What made this book wonderful for me was the level of description and detail, the care Davis’ has taken with each person he writes about, each story he tells. Davis has spent years visiting with and living with many different individuals who are part of these many different cultures. He has come up with some interesting observations.
The problem is not change. We have this conceit in the West that while we have been celebrating and developing technological wizardry, somehow the other peoples of the world have been static and intellectually idle. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Change is the one constant in history. All peoples in all places are always dancing with new possibilities for life. Nor is technology per se a threat to the integrity of culture. The Lakota did not stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow for the rifle any more than a rancher from Medicine Hat ceased being a Canadian when he gave up the horse and buggy in favour of the automobile. It is neither change nor technology that threatens the integrity of culture. It is power, the crude face of domination. We have this idea that these indigenous peoples, these distant others, quaint and colourful as they may be, are somehow destined to fade away, as if by natural law, as if they are failed attempts at being modern, failed attempts at being us. This is simply not true. In every case these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiably and overwhelming external forces. This is actually a optimistic observation, for it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be the facilitators of cultural survival. From page 166/167.
In the end, Davis believes that we in the West have much to learn from indigenous cultures. In fact, in order for us to survive climate change and our massive impact on the planet, we need to realize and honor the fact that there are different ways for human beings to live, to thrive in social and spiritual connection with each other and with their home ground. I was enthralled by this book, saddened in some ways, but also filled with joy in the knowledge that these people are out there, living in ways that are not destroying the planet. There are some wonderful videos on this subject here.