A conversation with Wade Davis

What we stand to lose in “Beautiful British Columbia”

interview by Sonya Weir

Wade Davis is a Canadian anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author and photographer whose work has focused on indigenous cultures. In 2009, he was chosen to be the speaker for the Massey Lectures for his publication The Wayfinders. More recently, the National Geographic Society named him as one of the “Explorers for the Millennium.” Special Event November 10: Wade will discuss his newest book, Into the Silence, The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest at a special event hosted by the Vancouver International Writers Festival; 7:30PM, St. Andrews Wesley United Church, 1022 Nelson St, $21 (plus service charges). Call 604-629-8849 for tickets or visit vancouvertix.ca

Sonya Weir: How did you discover you wanted to work with indigenous cultures?

Wade Davis: I was always intrigued with different cultures. I grew up in Montreal at a time when the French and the English didn’t speak to each another. I don’t know how significant this is, but I do recall that in the neighbourhood I lived, which was a sort of suburban, commuter Anglophone community plunked on the back of an old French Canadian village, there was literally a boulevard that divided the two worlds. I remember being sent to the corner grocery store; a little mom-and-pop operation, to get cigarettes or milk or whatever my mother needed and I remember that sense of being on the edge of something. Looking across the street, I was aware that I just had to cross that street and there was a different language, a different religion and a different way of being. I was enchanted by that, at some level, but also sort of perplexed by the subtle prohibition, not from my family but from the culture itself at that time in Canada, against crossing that road. I think that was my first inkling of my interest.

And when I was 14, I was very fortunate to have had a schoolteacher in Montreal who took a handful of us to Colombia for the whole summer. The other lads were older than I was – they were 16 – and some of them were billeted with wealthy families in the city of Cali. I, fortunately, was with a more modest family up in the mountains so I didn’t see the other Canadians all summer, and whereas some of them felt homesick, I felt like I had finally found home. I became completely enchanted with Latin culture. I just loved it. I think that was sort of the beginning.

And being from British Columbia and spending time in logging camps and fighting forest fires as a kid brought me into contact with the First Nations and their terrible plight and the lack of respect we had for First Nations circa 1969-70. All those things had a great impact on me. When I went off to Harvard, I didn’t know what I was going to study. The day before I had to decide what my major would be, I just happened to walk through the Peabody Museum and I saw these fantastic dioramas of indigenous people from all around the world. I walked out into the sunlight and ran into a friend of mine and casually asked him what he was going to study and he said “anthropology.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Well, you study about Indians.” And in a kind of Forrest Gump moment, I just said, “Oh, that’s good. I’ll do that.” And that’s how I signed on for anthropology.

SW: It has certainly shaped your entire life.

WD: It certainly did. And then I was so fortunate to fall into the orbit of two extraordinary mentors – one in anthropology and one in ethnobotany – David Maybury-Lewis, to whom I dedicated the book The Wayfinders and Richard Evans Schultes, about whom I wrote a biography, One River.

SW: What inspired you to write your new book Into the Silence, the Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest?

WD: In 1996, I was travelling with a close friend of mine, Daniel Taylor, on an ecological survey across Tibet. It was a long journey of 4,000 miles and we happened to come by Everest just as the disaster was unfolding that Jon Krakauer wrote about in his wonderful book Into Thin Air. All of Kathmandu was abuzz with the significance of the tragedy and I think, for people like Daniel, who had been raised in the Himalaya, the commercialization of Everest had become a real concern, particularly since it had led to such unnecessary loss of life. The next fall, by chance, Daniel and I were back in Tibet together on the east face in the Kama Valley trying to photograph snow leopards and clouded leopards and we got caught in unusual snow conditions. Daniel began to speak of the Everest of his imaginings, which was the Everest of his father, who was a very close friend of Howard Somervell, who climbed with Mallory in 1922 and 1924. I became completely enchanted by this idea of these Englishmen in tweeds reading Shakespeare in the snow at 20,000 feet. When I returned to Vancouver, I dropped into MacLeod’s bookstore and was chatting with Don, the owner, and suddenly I noticed right behind his head on a shelf of rare books, first edition accounts of the expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924. Those became the first purchases in a research collection for this book that would, in time, grow to over 600 volumes.

What interested me from the very start was not whether George Mallory reached the top before his death, but rather what was going through his mind as he walked towards the summit. My thought from the very beginning, and it is actually in the first letter that I wrote to my agent that resulted in the book contract with Knopf, was my sense that, for the men who lived through the mud and blood of Flanders and the Great War, life mattered less than the moments of being alive. I wasn’t suggesting in any way that they were cavalier about death. Only that for them death had no mystery. They had seen so much of it that it had nothing more to teach them, save that of their own. I was not suggesting that Mallory deliberately walked to his death, as if knowing he was going to die. Not at all. He was a devoted father and he had a wonderful wife and a great life to look forward to. Rather, for that entire generation, the whole kind of gestalt of death had shifted and what mattered was how one lived. I think it is true that, after the war, the climbers were prepared to take a level of risk that would have been unimaginable before the war. By the time of that third climb, of course, Mallory was indeed a man obsessed. The mountain had become him and he had become the mountain. That alone propelled him into the void.

SW: And you have a second book coming out this fall?

WD: Yes, The Sacred Headwaters, which will be launched in Canada in early November. It’s a photo book of what is arguably both the most beautiful and imperilled region in the country, a place that unfortunately most Canadians know little about. By a wonder of geography three of our most important salmon rivers, the Stikine, Nass and Skeena, are born in remarkably close proximity to each other in a stunningly beautiful valley known to the Tahltan First Nation as the Sacred Headwaters. It has sometimes been described as the Serengeti of Canada because of the remarkable populations of Osborne caribou, grizzly bears and wolves. Working with the National Geographic, I have been fortunate to travel throughout the world, sometimes to as many as 30 countries in a year. But there is no place that I have experienced that in its raw beauty can compare to this extraordinary region right at our doorstep here in British Columbia. Yet as is occurring in so many wild corners of the planet, the entire Sacred Headwaters is being swept by a tsunami of industrial development.

I only wish more Canadians were aware of what is being done in their names by government and industry in the remote reaches of the country. I suppose part of the challenge lies in the fact that while Canadians love the idea of the North, few of us go there. We’re the most thoroughly urban society in the industrial world. When I met with the former premiere, Gordon Campbell, I was surprised that even he had never been to the northwest quarter of the province, an area of land the size of Oregon.

Were Canadians to know what is occurring in the remote reaches of the Stikine, the Skeena and the Nass, I am quite certain they would be outraged. So in a certain sense, the book attempts to bring the country to the people, with stunning images and a text that both celebrates the remarkable resistance of the elders of the Tahltan First Nation and exposes the manner by which a small number of individuals and companies are gaming a provincial environmental assessment process transparently skewed in favour of the industrialisation of the wild.

I recruited colleagues from the international league of conservation photographers, which is a group of the best nature and wildlife photographers in the world and we raised support for them to come and do a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition. None were paid for their efforts, but thanks to them we have a portfolio of images that is simply stunning. David Suzuki generously contributed a foreword and Bobby Kennedy Jr. wrote a very moving afterword.

This region of British Columbia is to my mind simply the most beautiful place in the country, and as significant an expanse of wilderness as remains in North America. John Muir called the lower third of the Stikine a Yosemite 120-miles-long, and he named his beloved dog after the river. Five million tourists visit The Grand Canyon of the Colorado every year; 27,000 run the river itself by raft every season. By contrast, Canada’s most dramatic canyon that of the Stikine, is celebrated by international kayakers as the K2 of white water challenges. In all of history, less than 50 people have ever gone down it and no raft has ever made it.

The book is an attempt not only to celebrate this extraordinary land– it’s the kind of place you could hide England in and the English would never find it – but also to alert Canadians about what is about to befall it. Americans today would give anything to reverse the egregious policies that led to the loss of Glen Canyon. In Canada, we still have time to stop massive developments that are in every way as ill conceived as the fateful decision to build that canyon dam and destroy the jewel of the American Southwest.

If Glen Canyon famously was the canyon that nobody knew, Todagin Mountain is today the mountain that nobody knows. A wildlife sanctuary in the sky, it is an upland plateau that soars above the nine pristine headwater lakes of the Iskut River, the main tributary of the Stikine. Home to the largest population of Stone Sheep in the world, with enormous populations of wolves and grizzlies, it is wildlife habitat so rich that government long ago severely restricted hunting; only bows are allowed. Were Todagin to exist in any other place it would have long ago been protected as national park or world heritage preserve. Instead, the government has authorised Imperial Metals, the 75th largest mining company in Canada – a small company, a handful of men, essentially – to construct an open pit copper and gold mine, processing some 30,000 tons of rock a day for thirty years. The mine will inundate Black Lake with 183 million tons of toxic tailings and generate 307 million tons of waste rock. There are 4,000 copper mines in the world. To place one on Todagin Mountain, given its location and the extraordinary economic significance and beauty of the headwater lake district that it anchors, is like drilling for oil in the Sistine Chapel.

The Red Chris is but one of the many industrial proposals threatening the Sacred Headwaters. Shell Canada seeks to extract coal bed methane from a tenure of close to a million acres, a project that could imply the construction of as many as 6,500 wells with roads and pipelines creating an industrial matrix over the entire headwater valley.

None of these developments can proceed without power. And the government has asked the people of Canada to absorb the $404 million cost of building a 287-kilovolt transmission line to nowhere – for its terminus, Bob Quinn Lake, is today nothing but a highway yard. Imperial will construct its own small line 70 miles south to tap into the provincial grid. The government will speak of expanding provincial infrastructure, Imperial of its private investment. There will be no talk of subsidies, even as Imperial begins construction of a mine that will benefit few and compromise the lives of so many. What is perhaps most scandalous is the fact that $130 million of the costs of expanding the power grid is coming from our national Green Infrastructure Fund. I think Canadians would be shocked to know that funds set aside to green our economy are, in fact, being used to subsidize power to a mine that in its very conception is certain to destroy an iconic mountain and one of the richest wildlife sanctuaries in North America.

SW: What does the word sustainability mean to you?

WD: Sustainability implies the adoption of an entirely new set of priorities, a societal imperative that ensures to the extent possible that our economic activities generate no net loss of our natural capital. It is perhaps less a goal to be achieved as much as a perspective that may allow us to change the fundamental way by which we treat the biosphere.

It’s interesting to consider how we came to view the natural world as we do, as a mere commodity to be exploited at our discretion. We take this to be the norm, but viewed through the anthropological lens, it is quite anomalous. Most cultures around the world live by a very different set of values. Indeed, many consider the Earth to be animate, alive and responsive to the needs of humans just as humans have reciprocal obligations to the lands that cradle their destinies and inspire their dreams.

Our mindset can be traced back to the Greeks, but it found its perfect distillation in the Enlightenment. When Descartes said that all that exists is mind and matter, with a single phrase he de-animated the world and swept away all instincts for myth, magic, mysticism and metaphor. As Saul Bellow said, “Science made a housecleaning of belief.” The liberation of the individual from the tyranny of faith and from the potential tyranny of the collective was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. But with the freedom came other challenges, alienation and isolation, a sort of cosmic loneliness as we abandoned the protective cloak of comfort that community and belief and faith provided. The important point is that, in de-animating the Earth, we granted ourselves licence to violate the natural world in a manner that would have been unimaginable to other people.

I wonder how different things might be if each of us had to confront directly the consequences of our demands on the natural world. Imagine if there was a law saying that before any person or company can destroy a mountain, pollute a river, tear down a forest, or violate an alpine lake, he or she or the entire board of directors of the enterprise must take their children to the place, camp for a week and listen as the local elders explain what the proposed industrial actions will do to the land and imply for the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Imagine if all of the children got together, apart from the adults, and made a deal, a fair exchange, as children are inclined to do. For every tree destroyed on Tahltan lands, for example, the kid from the city would sacrifice one of his mother’s favourite flowering shrubs from her garden. For every drop of toxic waste placed into a river or lake in Tahltan territory, an equivalent discharge would be dripped into the water supply of their suburban neighbourhood or into a family swimming pool that all those kids enjoy. This idea, of course, sounds far-fetched, even ridiculous, to the urban ear, but it is exactly what the Tahltan elder James Dennis means when he says, “Our land is our kitchen. When you bring your poison onto our land you are poisoning our kitchen.”

Such fairness and balance ought to be the norm, the way we, as Canadians, take measure of the impacts and potential of these various industrial projects. Unfortunately, we live by quite another code of conduct. This does not imply that we have no voice and no obligations. These projects will go ahead only if we accept that people who have never been on the land, who have no history or connection to the country, may legally secure the right to come in and by the very nature of their enterprises leave in their wake a cultural and physical landscape utterly transformed and desecrated.

They will go ahead only if we continue to endorse a process that grants mining concessions, often initially for trivial sums, to speculators from distant cities, even as we place no cultural or market value on the land itself. They will go ahead if we maintain that the cost of destroying a natural asset, or its inherent worth if left intact, need not have a metric in the economic calculations that support the industrialization of the wild. They will go ahead if we remain committed to the notion that no private company has to compensate the public for what it does to the commons, the forests, mountains, and rivers, which by definition belong to everyone. That it merely requires bureaucratic permission to proceed.

They will go ahead as long as we continue to embrace a mindset that has no place in a world in which wild lands are becoming increasingly rare and valuable, even as we strive as a species to live in a sustainable manner on a planet we have come to recognize as being resilient but not inviolable.

The people of the Sacred Headwaters, the men and women of the Tahltan First Nation – all those who have rallied against these developments – have a very different way of thinking about the land. For them, the Sacred Headwaters is a neighbourhood, at once their grocery store and sanctuary, their church and schoolyard, their cemetery and country club. They believe that the people with greatest claim to ownership of the valley are the generations as yet unborn. The Sacred Headwaters will be their nursery.

The elders, almost all whom grew up on the land, have formally called for the end of all industrial activity in the valley and the creation of the Sacred Headwaters Tribal Heritage Area. In the end, what is at stake is the future of one of the most extraordinary regions in all of North America. The fate of the Sacred Headwaters transcends the interests of local residents, provincial agencies, mining companies and those few among the First Nations who favour industrial development at any cost. The voices of all Canadians and of all people deserve to be heard. Surely, no amount of methane gas, copper or gold can compensate for the sacrifice of a place that could be the Sacred Headwaters of all Canadians and indeed all citizens of the world.

SW: What did you make of Bolivia’s initiative “The Law of Mother Earth?”

WD: I think it’s idealistic and noble and an indication of how people feel and that they are frustrated. I think social change is happening. I’d like to think we will come around to a new appreciation of the limits of the world we live in. When I wrote the book The Wayfinders and did the 2009 Massey Lectures, the publisher added a subtitle to the book: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World and it sort of forced me to answer that question. In the end, I came down to two words: climate change. What I meant by that was not to suggest that we go back to a pre-industrial past or that any indigenous people or any culture around the world be limited in their access to the genius of modernity and the brilliance of science. What I was really trying to suggest is that the very existence of these other ways of thinking, these other ways of being, these other visions of life itself, in a sense, show us there are alternatives and it puts the lie to those who essentially say, “We cannot change” as we know we all must change the fundamental way we interact with the natural world.

7 thoughts on “A conversation with Wade Davis”

  1. Yeah, yeah, yeah…First Nations have heard it all before. Some White Knight in dubious armour coming along first to tell us what parts of our land are untouchable and then telling us how we should live in our own land. Nothing to help make us equal benefactors in the richness of our land. Wade Davis wouldn't be anyone special if he wasn't out exploring the world on other peoples' dime and putting pen to paper.
    It takes money to provide him with a voice and to ferry him around the world to experience indigenous cultures. Where does that money come from? Well part of it is generated from products made from mining.
    I am a Tahltan and without a doubt only too aware of the resources our people are blessed with in our traditional land. But the sad fact is this, humans are breeding like rabbits and we have reached 7 billion in number. The pressure for resources is only going to build and build. Third world and developing countries want what North Americans have taken for granted…access to a better standard of living. And they are quickly coming to the point where they can afford what they want.
    Instead of waxing poetically about sacred landscapes deal with the real issue of overcrowding and emerging economies being able to pay for raw resources. Until then guys like Wade Davis get rich bemoaning the loss of landscapes and my people continue to be a marginalized minority in the grand scheme of society today. Tell me how newborn Tahltan are going to live in a wage economy if they cannot work in their own land? I am tired of White people telling the brown man's story as though they have lived it. They haven't so shut up already!

  2. A very thoughtful and informative interview, imho, thanks!
    I must disagree on one point however, his attribution of what I call the "what went wrong" question solely to the Greeks and Descartes. My trip to Ancient Egypt last winter revealed that yes the Greeks got a lot wrong, what we now call "the heresy of rationalism" i.e. if you can't measure it or count it, it doesn't exist, which is the OPL (official party line) today. But the other half, the desacralization of the world, is thanks to the inventions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, "the heresy of monotheism". They took the sacred out of the world and projected it into an invisible being somewhere up there in the sky, while the world became man's "to have dominion over." Both these roots believed they had been informed by the 4000-year-old Egyptian world view, which can accurately be called "the last western civilization." But the Egyptians did not disclose all their secrets either to Moses and the Hebrews, or to the many Greek philosophers who visited there. They went away with only partial understandings, and built their world views on those misunderstandings. Which is why we cannot call the west "civilized" as it is based on these degenerated foundations. 'Ours' is, in fact, a degenerate world view. I realize that's a bit telegraphic, for it took a whole year to finally answer this lifelong question "what went wrong". But the good news is, and this is the legacy of the twentieth century, that thoughtful and sensitive people everywhere began to question such a formulation, as Mr Davis does here. The forgotten fundamentals have been seeping back into the public domain for quite some time now—Buddhism, Hinduism, the entheogens, aboriginal cultures everywhere, and now the Occupy movement's "1% versus the 99%" now-widely-accepted formulation. So, yes change is happening, and rather quickly it seems, and it's about time! as there's not much of that imaginary substance left.
    Thanks again,

  3. We are very happy to see such a thoughtful individual given room to speak in this crowded media landscape. Thank you Common Ground.

  4. Davis' passion for the Sacred Headwaters and the Todagin Plateau in particular resonates deeply with me. I stood upon the heights of the Todagin and looked upon Grizzlies and Stone sheep one summer's day in 2004, guided by a young Tahltan; the site is staggering not only for its natural grandeur, but its astoundingly easy accessibility from the Cassiar Highway on foot. It is only a short hike uphill from one's car into one of the finest wildlife viewing areas of the world. Properly stewarded, the area could be used as an educational wildlife reserve without comprimising its essential values to the Tahltan people.

    Clearly, the notion of exploiting resources in an intensive and polluting fashion from these sacred grounds is a crime against nature and generations to come. The powerlines must be stopped from reaching the Iskut Valley. Keep it up, Mr. Davis, and may your book be a resounding success.

  5. I am agitated to learn that $130 million of our National Green Infrastructure Fund is to be used to subsidize power to this mine.  There is no other need mentioned in the article, so why are we paying for this??  The thought of the destruction of this pristine wilderness is heart-breaking.  I will be sharing this information with everyone I can.   Thank you, Mr. Davis, for the article and the knowledge.

  6. I took the time to read the whole interview with Wade Davis by Sonya Weir. As a newcomer to BC (although I lived here in the late 70's and early 80's) reading this interview encourage me, for Wade Davis is talking of us as the most uban society in the world. What it means is that people in Vancouver totally ignore what is going on in their province and the mining companies know that. That is why they can do anything they want because we don't care about anything not happening in the nightlife of Vancouver. We are responsible as much as anyone concerning the activities going on up north in the province. We all depend on nature for our survival. Mining companies are not known for their social and environmental awareness. We must use our powerful collective voices to say no to the destruction of our land.

    • Marc, thanks for your comments. Many people in Vancouver DO care…deeply! Those of us who love this city BECAUSE it affords us the opportunity to be in the city during the week and get out there into our beautiful and bountiful wild places as often as we all make time for. May this tradition continue to flourish so many more grow to take the time to advocate for it’s protection as people like you & I and Wade Davis do.


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