on April 17, 2010
With the converging crises of imminent energy scarcity, environmental degradation, resource depletion and economic insolvency, suddenly I'm recognizing the apogee of our modern civilization may have passed us by a few decades ago. Being on the slope of globalization's decline as opposed to its ascent or plateau is a precarious position, mainly because the evidence increasingly indicates an ever more bleak definition of the future. But that's precisely why I found Wade Davis' 2009 CBC Massey Lectures collected in The Wayfinders so deeply inspiring. The way we define our lives and the meaning of being a human is far from an absolute and objective answer to reality, it has been the result of numerous decisions made in a compounding form over hundreds of years. Because humanity at large expresses itself in the form of modernity is largely a result of the ever growing demand our lifestyle has on ever more hard to reach raw material inputs. Although I listened to this entire series of lectures through the CBC Ideas Podcast, Davis' presentation hit me with much more gravity the second time around.
The genius and intelligence recognized by modern humanity is only in that of highly advanced technology while the genius of the cultures detailed in The Wayfinders takes many different forms. Each culture is far from trivial but an answer to the questions that come with being human, all of these answers just as impressive as our own. Our tendency is for to look at the naked and painted body of the native as a failed attempt at modernity. A native to be saved by induction into our economic system with all the benefits of employment and monetary exchange. Even until the 1960's some Australian textbooks included the Aboriginals among, "interesting animals of the country". To this point Davis quotes from the testimony of a Penan nomad to the UN General Assembly in 1992, "The (Malaysian) government says that it is bringing us development. But the only development that we see is dusty logging roads and relocation camps. For us, their so-called progress means only starvation, dependence, helplessness, the destruction of our culture and the demoralization of our people. The government says it is creating jobs for our people. Why do we need jobs? My father and grandfather did not have t o ask the government for jobs. They were never unemployed. They lived from the land and from the forest. It was a good life. We were never hungry or in need... In ten years all the jobs will be gone and the forest that has sustained us for thousands of years will be gone with them."
Davis is able to continue his discussion without resorting to the "noble savage" or the Hobbesian, "nasty, brutish and short" dichotomy. For the cultures he touches on from Australia, the Americas, Africa and Asia it is clear that a genius is required to flourish in harsh environments, against any odds we would consider possible. And all of this despite harmful environmental degradation brought about by our lifestyle. Denial of climate change is a luxury provided by a temperate environment and disconnection from the natural world. For native peoples, when the glaciers their ancestors have worshiped for generations are disappearing and the Arctic lands they've hunted annually for all of history fail to freeze but for a few months there is no ideology, only survival.
I was nearly drawn to tears by the examples of rituals and lifestyles Davis uses to illustrate the depth of beauty of human experience. The Pacific islanders sailing thousands of kilometers between beautiful islands with wind blowing through their hair to complete the Kula gift sharing ring live the lives we can only experience through fictional characters projected onto glowing rectangles. The indigenous have no sense of paid employment, of work as burden as opposed to leisure as recreation. These cultures are the definition of the human experience that we have lost and try to replace through futile substitutes. These people experience pain and suffering along with glory and triumph, but through the full spectrum of being human, as opposed to our path which fails in its attempts to shield us from the realities of death and darkness.
These cultures have disappeared rapidly over the last hundred years, entire ways of life wiped out in less than a generation. Davis wonders why we have a universal rejection of genocide yet the ubiquitous practice of ethnocide destroys more than individuals but whole solutions to the human experience. We may discredit an indigenous approach to life, but they disdain the fact that so many of our own suffer from abject poverty. A native tribesman from Malaysia when observing the homeless in Canada said, "How can homelessness exist, a poor man shames us all."
The most important lecture included in this collection was the discussion of sacred geography, of the stewardship shown by indigenous to their land. When the Spanish tore down Incan churches and monuments, building Christian churches and monasteries in their place, the native villagers celebrated because this further confirmed the sacredness of those sites. Likely not the reaction the Spanish intended. If we are to look at cultures in terms of success and failure, wouldn't the successful culture be the one that has survived for over 50,000 years in the harsh deserts of Australia as opposed to our modern world on the verge of extinction after only 300? An idea of a sacred connection to land may be dismissed as meaningless superstition, but if it does not draw from an actual spirit world, perhaps it was the technological solution created long ago to ensure our species wouldn't destroy the earth.
Davis has convinced me that when we talk about threats to our planet such as climate change or peak oil, we're really talking about the end of our globalized civilization and not the extinction of humanity. Our species can exist in many other forms that live far more meaningful lives than the "modern man". And for that reason, no matter how bleak the global situation may appear to be, the existence of the indigenous and their ability to maintain ancient wisdom despite all odds is a reason for hope.
on January 19, 2010
The amount of research that has gone into this book is staggering! This book will change the way you see the world and your place in it. While on one hand it gives a very depressing view of our past and our motives, it also provides the perspective that can save our planet. This book should be a must read in every school around the world!
on September 2, 2012
Davis seems to have been EVERYWHERE, but never loses that sense of awe and wonder that pushes the reader to genuinely think about human experiences beyond his/her own. He notes that cultures and languages are being lost at a rate greater than biodiversity loss, and the wonders of human achievements and resilience are being wiped out. Culture is a funny thing: It can unite societies, but it is immensely fragile. Thousands of years of adaptations, oral history and knowledge, can be be wiped out within a single generation of ignorance and neglect.
The book explored the various ways different cultures found their way in the world. Some examples: Aborigines practiced environmental stewardships for TENS of thousands of years, although they have no need for the concept of linear time. Polynesian navigators became human supercomputers in order to find specks of land across the vast Pacific Ocean without compasses, sextants, and GPS's. Nomadic tribes in Northern Kenya accrued huge herds of cattle as an adaptation to a land of recurring drought. These practices were all woven elaborately into the customs and traditions of each unique culture; it's all very fascinating stuff.
In modern times, we have a tendency to dismiss these incredible and ingenious achievements that allowed indigenous people to survive and thrive. Sometimes it's unintentional; other times it's outright disturbing. Heyerdahl of the Kon-Tiki fame, ignited the public's imagination with his voyage across the Pacific, but dismissed the reams of evidence that pointed to this great achievement was of Polynesian origins. An Australian politician in the 20th century declared that "there is no scientific evidence the the aboriginal is a human being at all", a commonly held notion that led almost to the extinction of one of the oldest and continuous ways of life in the world. Development agencies, with the noble intentions of helping nomadic tribes settled, destroyed a culture that was developed around surviving drought.
All of these intriguing insights address the central question of the book: Why are cultures worth saving? I'll leave with one of the most powerful passages of the book:
"Were I to distill a single message from these Massey Lectures, it would be that culture is not trivial. It is not decoration or artifice, the songs we sing or even the prayers we chant. It is a blanket of comfort that gives meaning to lives. It is a body of knowledge that allows the individual to make sense out of the infinite sensations of consciousness, to find meaning and order in a universe that ultimately has either. Culture is a body of laws and traditions, a moral and ethical code that insultates a people from the barbaric heart that history suggests lies just beneath the surface of all human societies and indeed all humans. Culture alone allows us to reach, as Abraham Lincoln said, for the better angels of our nature. (p. 198)"
I highly recommend this book. As modern Western culture continues to grapple with issues of depression, meaning, and what it means to become an adult human being, I can't help but feel that there are things we can learn from other
on December 8, 2009
Wade Davis always writes beautifully, and I think this book is one of his best. It is sobering and shocking. At the same time, it is moving, profound and hopeful. It is the work of a man who has great humanity and wisdom, together with admiration and respect for the peoples and cultures he writes about. I found it to be a genuinely beautiful book.
on February 12, 2011
The sub-title describes this wonderful book best: "Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World"...
Once again, Wade Davis provides piercing insights into the world's cultures that modern man has tried to, and continues to work at, annihilating and erasing from our lives at such a tremendous cost to our combined humanity. His writing is exquisite! He details his discoveries with a loving eye, and any criticism is tempered by his thoughtful presentations in an attempt to provide answers or solutions to what was uncovered as being off track. I so appreciate anyone who attempts to solve problems... not just rattle away about what is wrong, painting everything in dark tones as if beyond redemption.
I am thankful I discovered this great anthropologist's work while preparing for an upcoming visit to one of his many favorite countries. I cannot imagine what would have been missed without benefit of his great experience and knowledge when interpreting such adventures.
"The Wayfinders" is made up of lectures produced for the Massey Lecture series presented at the University of Toronto, but reads as though written for a print audience only. I consider this one of his best books since it provides the in-depth back story to his great DVDs and other works.
on May 7, 2011
It's hard to believe the extent to which European explorations and settlement among indigenous peoples around the world discredited their sophistication in science and technology. This book gives insights into a half dozen indiegenous people and their skill and expertise in natural science, architecture, astronomy, agriculture, and other areas of science. Virtually all of this body of knowledge was destroyed by the "conquerors". Only today are we beginning to understand, and respect, that which was lost for so many millennia.
on March 5, 2014
In "The Wayfinders" Wade Davis makes clear how the knowledge and wisdom of the old world, the world that exists now only in the worlds most remote places, is relevant and even necessary in todays modern world.
It is a journey through the centuries and a revelation of how what came before us defines part of what we are today.
Mr Davis is not just an author, he is an artist who paints with words.
James Michael Dorsey
Author of Tears, Fear and Adventure