This is Mary Tillotson.
And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about scientist, explorer and writer Wade Davis. He is working to try to save cultures throughout the world that are in danger of disappearing.
Wade Davis has been exploring the mostly unknown areas of the world for more than twenty-five years. He has traveled from the mountains of Tibet to the deserts of North Africa, from the Canadian Arctic to the rain forests of Borneo.
“Light at the Edge of the World” is his latest book. It is published by the National Geographic Society, where he is an Explorer-in-Residence. The book includes pictures Mister Davis has taken of these hidden places of the world, places which face many threats. The pictures are beautiful and unusual. Some of the images remain in your memory long after you close the book.
One picture shows a guard leaning out a window in a bright orange wall of a Buddhist religious center in Tibet. In another, the yellow light of the sun is just beginning to appear over the morning fog in the forests of the Waorani people in Ecuador. Another picture shows a caribou walking along a huge expanse of white snow in British Columbia, Canada. In another, an Ariaal woman of Karare in Kenya, wearing many bright red necklaces, carries a large load of firewood on her back.
Other pictures show evidence of a disappearing way of life. For example, one picture is of fallen trees by a river that flows through the forests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. A large yellow machine rests on the cleared land. A young woman tries to wash in the now polluted river. It is evidence of what is happening to the home of the Penan people in Borneo. They lived by hunting and gathering food as they moved through the forests.
However, Mister Davis says the Malaysian government is permitting companies to cut the trees on more than seventy percent of the Penan territory. As a result, the traditional way of life of the Penan is gone. And all their history, which is part of the forest, is lost.
In “Light at the Edge of the World,” Wade Davis writes about what native groups could teach about different ways of living and thinking. He describes their daily lives, and the threats to their traditional ways. He explains their strong relationship to the land they live on, and the ceremonies that tie them to each other and to nature. For these groups, the land is alive. Mountains, rivers and forests are not just thought of as supports for human life.
Wade Davis’s hope is that through this book and other projects he can help people understand the value of what he calls the ethnosphere. He created the word ethnosphere, he says, because words have power. The word describes the total of all thoughts, beliefs and stories of the different cultures alive in the world today. He wants to get people to see that there is a link of cultural, spiritual, intellectual and social life that goes around the planet. He says, “The ethnosphere represents all we are and all we have created as humans.”
Mister Davis says the ethnosphere is being damaged more rapidly and severely than the biosphere – the plants, animals and insects of the world. The sign of this, he says, is in the loss of languages. He explains it this way. Throughout all of human history, about ten-thousand languages have existed. Today, about six-thousand are still spoken. Yet half of these are not being taught to children, which means they will be lost as soon as the older speakers die.
Each language contains the history of a culture. It represents the intellectual and spiritual knowledge that comes from ancestors down through the years. Languages express the belief systems, traditions and ways of understanding the world that are different for each group of people. Wade Davis says that each way of looking at the world helps us all understand the complex human experience.
Wade Davis was born in British Columbia, in northwest Canada. He has degrees in anthropology -- the study of humans, and botany -- the study of plants. He received his doctorate in ethnobotany from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ethnobotony is the study of how plants are used in a culture.
One of the most important influences on his life was a professor at Harvard, Richard Schultes. He was known as the world’s leading expert on plants that are used as medicines and plants that affect the mind.
Professor Schultes had left Harvard in the early Nineteen Forties to spend six months in South America along the Amazon River. He ended up spending twelve years there making maps of rivers. He lived with more than twenty native groups. In that time, he collected more than twenty-seven-thousand examples of plant life, including two-thousand medicinal plants.
Wade Davis was a student at Harvard when he met Professor Schultes in Nineteen-Seventy-Three. He told the professor that he too would like to go collect plants in the Amazon. Two weeks later Wade was on his way.
He spent fifteen months there during that first trip exploring the Amazon River and Andes Mountains of South America. Through the years, he lived with fifteen native groups in eight Latin American countries and collected six-thousand plants.
After his first trip to the Amazon area, he went to Haiti to investigate plant mixtures thought to create a zombie, a live person who appears to be dead. He wrote about the experience in the book, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” an international bestseller published in Nineteen-Eighty-Six.
Wade Davis has spent years traveling in South America along the Andes Mountains and the Amazon River. His book, “One River, Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest,” tells about his experiences there.
He explored many other places, including Tibet, the Arctic and Malaysia. He has experienced daily life that is very different from modern western life. He tells the story of how this way of life is disappearing as forests are cut, rivers are polluted, and native homelands are seized.
Wade Davis says his worldwide travels have been driven by a simple desire for knowledge, for understanding how other people live. But, he says, what also was pushing him into his explorations was the need for excitement.
One of the pleasures of travel, he says, is the chance to live among those who have not lost the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind. He says he does not learn a lot about the nature of being alive from people who live in modern western ways. The joy of learning about what it means to be human comes from those who live in other ways.
Mister Davis says he goes up into the Andes Mountains and spends a month in a village where an older member of the group tells the future by throwing coca leaves. “I see his people use traditional ceremonies to re-establish their sense of belonging to the Earth. It is here I see a window open wide to a place beyond my imaginings.”
In his books and in public speeches, Wade Davis mourns the way ancient peoples throughout the world are being torn from their past and pushed into the future. “Change is not the problem,” he says. “All through history, cultures have changed to meet the pressures of more modern times. We are not talking about how we stop history, or change. The real question is how do we direct the flow of change so it does not do harm to living cultures.”
He says traditional cultures should be permitted to change at their own speed and in their own ways. It is very possible, he says, to use both blowguns and computers. It should not be a choice of either one or the other.
For example, offering modern medicine to native groups should not mean the death of shamanism, the ancient method of healing. The two traditions can support each other.
Wade Davis points out that the physical destruction of groups of people is condemned worldwide. But the destruction of ethnic traditions is considered in many places to be good policy. He thinks that governments and individuals can be educated to realize this is wrong.
Wade Davis says that every culture that disappears reduces human knowledge about the natural world, ways to react to common problems, and even the meaning of existence. In his book, “Light at the Edge of the World,” and through National Geographic Society programs, he tells the stories of the many cultures of the world. He hopes to use his explorations and storytelling about what he finds to try to awaken everyone to the wonder of the ethnosphere.
This Special English program was written by Marilyn Christiano and produced by Caty Weaver. This is Mary Tillotson.
And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.