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Keeping ancient wisdom alive

A Buddhist nun at a Nepalese monastery greets a visitor.
(Photo: Wade Davis)
Bearing a globe-trotting pedigree that would make Indiana Jones blush, anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis is taking a break from his travels and writing to speak in Ottawa about our shared human adventure. Davis, who was born and raised in Canada, is an explorerin- residence at The National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. He has made a career of peering into the heart and soul of cultures in every corner of the world, from the Himalayan mountains to the high seas of the South Pacific, delving into the lives of peoples whose histories define each place. His stories are peppered with unforgettable encounters — chanting shamans leading drug-laced religious rites, sleepless Polynesian navigators “raising” islands from a featureless horizon and the sparkling eyes of a Buddhist nun who has spent decades meditating in the same monastery room.

In his stories, Davis showcases the many different ways humans approach life. Technological and economic forces are rapidly narrowing this broad spectrum, he warns, ushering in a far more homogeneous global society. The pursuit of material progress is razing the treasures of unique landscapes, banishing traditional societies to obscurity and extinguishing a collective past.

“There is a fire burning over the Earth,” he writes, “taking with it plants and animals, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written language composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets and saints.”

Far from being a collection of relics and artifacts, the exotic world that Davis portrays in his books, such as last year’s The Wayfinders, reflects humanity’s true face. He asks us to reconsider the trajectory of our headlong plunge toward a spiritually impoverished future, calling, instead, for a new quest to respect and preserve our many cultural roots.

“What ultimately we will discover on this journey will be our mission for the next century,” he says. “Quelling this flame — and rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of the human spirit as expressed by culture — is among the central challenges of our time.”

Davis, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s 2009 Gold Medallist, will be at Ottawa’s Centrepointe Theatre on April 28 as part of the Society’s Speaker Series.

— Tim Lougheed

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