Ethnographer, Writer, Photographer, Filmmaker, Motivational Speaker
Wade Davis is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. Named by the NGS as one of the Explorers for the Millennium, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” In recent years his work has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, Mongolia and the high Arctic of Nunuvut and Greenland.
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An ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among fifteen indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6000 botanical collections. His work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies, an assignment that led to his writing Passage of Darkness (1988) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986), an international best seller later released by Universal as a motion picture.
His other books include Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rain Forest (1990), Shadows in the Sun (1993), Nomads of the Dawn (1995), One River (1996), which was nominated for the 1997 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction, The Clouded Leopard (1998), Rainforest (1998), Light at the Edge of the World (2001), The Lost Amazon (2004), Grand Canyon (2008), Book of Peoples of the World (ed. 2008) and The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, the 2009 Massey lectures. His books have been translated into fifteen languages, including Basque, Serbian, Korean, Mandarin, Bulgarian, Japanese and Malay, and have sold approximately 800,000 copies worldwide.
Davis’s latest books include: Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, published by Knopf 2011 and The Sacred Headwaters published by Greystone, also in 2011. In 2012 and 2013 three additional books will appear including a second book of photographs covering Davis’s work 2000-2010. Davis will edit the journals of Oliver Wheeler, and also produce a work of literary nonfiction on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Sheets of Distant Rain will follow in 2014.
Davis is the recipient of numerous awards including: The Explorers Medal, the highest award of the Explorers Club (2011), the Gold Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (2009), the 2002 Lowell Thomas Medal (The Explorer’s Club) and the 2002 Lannan Foundation $125,000 prize for literary non-fiction. He has been granted Honorary Degrees (Doctorate of Sciences) from University of Victoria (2003), University of Guelph (2008), and Colorado College (2010), and (Doctorate of Laws) from the University of Northern British Columbia (2010) and the National College of Natural Medicine (2011). In 2004 he was made an Honorary Member of the Explorer’s Club, one of twenty. In 2012 he received the David Fairchild Medal, the most prestigious award for botanical exploration.
A native of British Columbia, Davis, a licensed river guide, has worked as park ranger, forestry engineer, and conducted ethnographic fieldwork among several indigenous societies of northern Canada. He has published 195 scientific and popular articles on subjects ranging from Haitian vodoun and Amazonian myth and religion to the global biodiversity crisis, the traditional use of psychotropic drugs, and the ethnobotany of South American Indians. Davis has written for National Geographic, Newsweek, Premiere, Outside, Omni, Harpers, Fortune, Men’s Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Natural History, Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, and numerous other international publications.
His photographs have appeared in some 20 books and more than 80 magazines, journals and newspapers, including National Geographic, Time, Geo, People, Men’s Journal, Outside, and National Geographic Adventure. They have been exhibited at the International Center of Photography (I.C.P.), the Marsha Ralls Gallery, Washington, D.C., the United Nations (Cultures on the Edge exhibition 2004), the Carpenter Center of Harvard University, and the Utama Center, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Select images are part of the permanent collection of the U.S. State Department, Africa and Latin America Bureaus. Davis is the co-curator of The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes, first exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and currently touring Latin America. In 2012 he will serve as curator of The Wayfinders, an exhibit scheduled for November 2012 at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. A first collection of Davis’ photographs, Light at the Edge of the World, appeared in 2001 published by National Geographic Books, Bloomsbury and Douglas & McIntyre. A second collection is under contract for fall 2013 publication with Douglas & McIntyre.
Davis’ research has been the subject of more than 900 media reports and interviews in Europe, North and South America and the Far East, and has inspired numerous documentary films as well as three episodes of the television series, The X-Files.
A professional speaker for over twenty-five years, Davis has lectured at the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, California Academy of Sciences, Missouri Botanical Garden, Field Museum of Natural History, New York Botanical Garden, National Geographic Society, Royal Ontario Museum, the Explorer’s Club, the Royal Geographical Society, the Oriental Institute, Musée du Quai Branly, Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, the Chattaugua Institute, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank as well as some 150 universities, including Harvard, M.I.T., Oxford, Yale, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, Duke, Vanderbilt, University of Pennsylvania, Tulane and Georgetown.
He has spoken at the Aspen Institute, Bohemian Grove and on numerous occasions for the Young President’s Organization. He has spoken four times at the TED Conference, and appeared as well at numerous offsite TEDx conferences. His clients have included amongst others Microsoft, Shell, Hallmark, Fidelity Investments, International Baccalaureate, Bank of Nova Scotia, MacKenzie Financials, Healthcare Association of Southern California, National Science Teachers Association, Promega, NDMA (Non-prescriptive Drug Manufacturers Association), International Baccalaureate, European Council of International Schools, Canadian Association of Petroleum Geologists, Canadian Association of Exploration Geophysicists, American Trial Lawyer’s Association, American Judges Association, American Bankers Association, Centaur Technology, Canadian Association of Actuaries, Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, as well as several leading pharmaceutical companies including Warner-Lambert, Bayer, Miles, Bristol-Myers, and Abbott Laboratories.
An Honorary Research Associate of the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden, he is a Fellow of the Linnean Society, Fellow of the Explorer’s Club, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Davis was a founding board member of the David Suzuki Foundation and he recently completed a six-year term on the board of the Banff Centre, Canada’s leading institution for the arts. He currently serves on the board of the Amazon Conservation Association. In 2009 he delivered the CBC Massey lectures, Canada’s most prestigious public intellectual forum.
Davis was the series creator, host and co-writer of Light at the Edge of the World, a four-hour ethnographic documentary series, shot in Rapa Nui, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Nunuvut, Greenland, Nepal and Peru, which is currently airing in 165 countries on the National Geographic Channel and in the USA on the Smithsonian Network. He is a principal character in Grand Canyon Adventure, a 3D IMAX film, released by MacGillivray Freeman in 2008. Currently playing in 55 theatres worldwide, the film has grossed $30 million. Other television credits include the award winning documentaries, Spirit of the Mask, Cry of the Forgotten People, Forests Forever, and Earthguide, a 13 part television series on the environment, which aired on the Discovery Channel in 1990. Davis has recently completed a new four-hour series for the National Geographic, Ancient Voices/Modern World, which was shot in Australia, Mongolia, and Colombia. It is currently airing worldwide on the National Geographic Channel as the second season of Light at the Edge of the World.
When not in the field, Davis and his wife Gail Percy divides their time between Washington, D.C., Vancouver and the Stikine Valley of northern British Columbia. They have two daughters, Tara 23, and Raina 20.
A professional speaker for more than twenty years, Davis has presented to diverse and distinguished audiences, including delivering the 2009 CBC Massey lectures, Canada’s most prestigious public intellectual forum. He has lectured at the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, California Academy of Sciences, Missouri Botanical Garden, Field Museum of Natural History, New York Botanical Garden, National Geographic Society, Royal Ontario Museum, the Explorer’s Club, the Royal Geographical Society, the Oriental Institute, the Chattaugua Institute, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank as well as some 200 universities, including Harvard, M.I.T., Oxford, Yale, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, Duke, Vanderbilt, University of Pennsylvania, Tulane and Georgetown.
He has spoken at the Aspen Institute, Bohemian Grove and on numerous occasions for the Young President’s Organization and at the TED Conference. His clients have included Microsoft, Shell, Hallmark, Fidelity Investments, Bank of Nova Scotia, MacKenzie Financials, Healthcare Association of Southern California, National Science Teachers Association, NDMA (Non-prescriptive Drug Manufacturers Association), International Baccalaureate, European Council of International Schools, Canadian Association of Petroleum Geologists, Canadian Association of Exploration Geophysicists, American Trial Lawyer’s Association, American Judges Association, American Bankers Association, Centaur Technology, Canadian Association of Actuaries, Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, as well as several leading pharmaceutical companies, including Warner-Lambert, Bayer, Miles, Bristol-Myers, and Abbott Laboratories.
Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures
One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live among peoples who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel the past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, recognize its taste in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that nomadic hunters exist, that jaguar shaman yet journey beyond the Milky Way, that the myths of Athabaskan elders still resonate with meaning, is to remember that our world does not exist in some absolute sense but rather is just one model of reality. The Penan in the forests of Borneo, the Vodoun acolytes in Haiti, the wandering holy men of the Sahara teach us that there are other options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interacting with the Earth.
This lecture moves throughout the world, from Borneo to Tibet, from the high Arctic to the Amazon, as Davis shares his experiences as an anthropologist and plant explorer. For three years he traveled in the Andes and Amazon, living among a dozen or more tribes as he searched for new sources of medicines and studied coca, the most sacred plant of the Inca and the notorious source of cocaine. Collecting some 6000 botanical specimens, working with traditional healers and shamans, Davis traversed the Andean Cordillera at fourteen points and twice descended the Amazon from source to mouth. In 1982, his research took him to Haiti to study zombies, the living dead of Vodoun folklore, and investigate the first medically documented case. Working among the secret societies, he identified a folk preparation that contained a powerful nerve poison capable of inducing a state of apparent death so profound that victims could actually be misdiagnosed as dead. This study, the basis of his dissertation research at Harvard, led to two books, Passage of Darkness and The Serpent and the Rainbow. From Haiti Davis moved to Borneo where he lived among the Penan, a nomadic people of the rain forest whose way of life has within the last twenty years been compromised by the highest rate of deforestation in the tropics. He later chronicled their plight in Nomads of the Dawn and Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rainforest. More recently his research has taken him to the high Arctic, Tibet and the Orinoco delta in Venezuela, research expeditions which are chronicled in his most recent books One River, Shadows in the Sun, The Clouded Leopard, and Rainforest.
If there is one lesson to be drawn from these travels, it is that cultural and biological diversity are far more than the foundation of stability, they are an article of faith, a fundamental truth that indicates the way things are supposed to be. If diversity is a source of wonder, its opposite- the ubiquitous condensation to some blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture witnessed in all parts of the world- is a source of dismay. There is a fire burning over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Quelling this flame and reinventing the poetry of diversity is the most important challenge of our times.
One River: The Life and Times of Richard Evans Schultes
This lecture, illustrated by archival footage and photographs, follows the life and adventures, the tragedies and discoveries of Richard Evans Schultes, the greatest Amazonian plant explorer of the 20th century. In 1941, having studied the peyote cult of the Kiowa and journeyed into the mountains of Oaxaca to solve the mystery of teonanacatl and ololiuqui, the long lost sacred hallucinogens of the Aztec, Richard Evans Schultes took a leave of absence from Harvard and disappeared into the Northwest Amazon. Twelve years later he returned from South America having gone places no white man had ever been, mapping uncharted rivers and living among two dozen Indian tribes while collecting 25,000 botanical specimens, including 300 species new to science and over 2000 plants used as medicines, poisons and hallucinogens by the Indians. Author of 10 books and over 496 scientific articles, he has been called by HRH Prince Philip” The Father of Ethnobotany”. The world authority on hallucinogenic plants and rubber, Director Emeritus of the Harvard Botanical Museum, recipient of numerous awards including the Cross of Boyacá, Colombia’s highest decoration, he is a living link to the great natural historians of the 19th century and to a distant era when the rainforests stood immense, inviolable, a green mantle stretching across an entire continent.
This lecture, based on the book, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, is an eloquent and vivid account of Schultes’ explorations, a celebration of the perseverance and wisdom of Indian peoples, and a lament for the terrible rate of destruction of landscape, culture and spirit that time has wrought throughout the Americas.
The Serpent and the Rainbow: An Exploration of Haitian Vodoun, Secret Societies and Zombies
According to popular Haitian belief, zombies are the living dead, individuals raised in a trance from their graves by malevolent sorcerers and led away to face a life of terror and uncertainty. In early 1982 a team of prominent physicians and psychiatrists approached the Harvard Botanical Museum with an astonishing report of the discovery of the first medically documented case of zombification. Professor Richard Evans Schultes, then Director of the Museum, assigned Wade Davis the task of traveling to Haiti to search for the formula of the folk preparation reputedly employed by Vodoun sorcerers to induce a state of apparent death so profound that victims could actually be misdiagnosed as dead. This lecture recounts the discovery of that toxin- a powder containing an extremely potent nerve poison 160,000 times stronger than cocaine which drastically reduces metabolism and brings on total peripheral paralysis, even though consciousness is retained.
In searching for the poison, Davis was propelled into a world beyond his imaginings, a world of spirit possession and animal sacrifice, of sorcerers and priests, secret societies and Tonton Macoute, the dreaded militia of the Duvalier regime. Davis discovered that zombification is but one thread woven through the fabric of an extraordinarily rich culture. He came to realize that the Vodoun religion itself is not a black magic cult but, on the contrary, a complex metaphysical worldview that is but the distillation of profound religious ideas that have their origins in the ancient civilizations of West Africa. In becoming the first outsider ever to have been initiated into the Bizango secret societies, he was able to meet actual zombies, study their past, and explore the reasons for their demise. Based on unprecedented access to the inner workings of these societies, he concluded that zombification as both a magical and physical phenomenon is a form of social sanction, a form of punishment for individuals who transgress the established codes of the traditional society. In providing a material basis and sociological rationale for zombification, this presentation attempts to demystify one of the most misunderstood and exploited of folk beliefs, one that has been used unjustly to denigrate an entire people and their remarkable religion.
This study became the basis of his dissertation research at Harvard and led to his writing two books Passage of Darkness and The Serpent and the Rainbow, an international bestseller that appeared in twelve languages and was later made into a feature film by Universal Studios.
Wade’s name came to my attention while I was planning the final dinner event of the year of centennial celebration of the Boone & Crockett Club to be held in the Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. When I had an opportunity to read his curriculum vitae, I was fascinated, but after having spent several hours with him and heard him speak, I was moved to a deep sense of respect… Even though this was a tired group of men who had worked hard and enjoyed a bit of libation and gastronomic delights, they gave him a standing ovation at the conclusion of his presentation. In my experience, that has never occurred at any other time. I can state personally that I have never been more fascinated with an individual. I can assure you that I would recommend him to any potential audience as one of the most entertaining, instructive and thought provoking men that I have ever heard.
– James “Red” Duke, M.D. Professor, Department of Surgery, Medical School, The University of Texas.
Not in my many years as head of the Heely Lectures have we had quite the success accorded to Wade’s visit. Apart from his charm, wit and intellect, his eagerness to participate in classes and be available for students and faculty alike gave everyone he met a thrill of excitement. Here was a man who had, as they say, done it all and could communicate with verve and depth the meaning of his experiences both in the wilds of the jungle and the university. His lecture was accorded a standing ovation. I could have expected nothing better.
–Ed Robbins, Director of Activities, The Lawrenceville School
I would like to extend my sincere thanks for your visit to speak on behalf of Maplewood Mall to the more than 2000 children of the White Bear and Maplewood school districts. Your presentation was informative and enlightening; but even more it was exciting and filed with passion. The group from Maplewood totaled over 1000 children, all grade 4s. I could not believe how some of them had been sitting on the gym floor for up to 30 minutes before your presentation and hardly moved during the show!
–Jeff Carver, Marketing Director, Maplewood Mall
I’ve had at least twenty lecturers come in to SIU in the last two years. Never has any one of them been so cooperative or so flexible. He did four lectures in one day! The students, faculty even the high school students that were visiting were thrilled with his presentations. He enchanted everyone with his easy manner, quick wit and genuine friendliness. And, of course, he is positively brilliant. He’s a student programmer’s dream come true.
– Yvonne Hawk, Chair, Student Programming Council, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
His lecture was spellbinding, not only because of its content and accompanying slides, but because Dr. Davis’ ability to weave together elements of history, biology, anthropology and psychology into a fascinating story. The audience was kept on the edge of their chairs for the entire hour and a half that he spoke. Campus faculty, staff and student responses to his lectures and talks were unanimously overwhelming. Consensus had it that his visit to the Campus was not only the best of the four lecturers of the Series, but that Wade Davis was one of the best speakers that the Campus has ever had.
–Christopher Migliaccio, Director, Department of Continuing Education, Miami-Dade Community College
Your lecture was a tremendous success and will be talked about for a long time. You cannot imagine how rewarding it was to go to my 9 am International Studies class Friday morning and feel the almost palpable energy and enthusiasm from 30 students. And this after your Wednesday night lecture! These are students who usually need some time to wake up and who are often quiet and reserved. Yet on Friday they were still as excited as they had been on Wednesday night after your talk. They had never heard anyone speak with such power, style and sensitivity. Spellbinding is an understatement. You, your books, and your lecture have left a permanent impression on many of us and we cannot thank you enough for enriching our lives.
–Annette Sampon-Nicolas, Director, International Studies, Hollins University
Your keynote address had something in it for just about everybody. Feedback from both faculty and students has been overwhelmingly positive. An estimated 400 people- twice the usual turnout for this event- came to hear your morning lecture. Your name keeps popping up in class discussions and student essays. The ripples are still spreading from your having jumped into our little pond.
–Linda Van Blerkom, Department of Anthropology, Drew University
Thanks you once again for joining us during the college’s 25th anniversary celebration. What a memorable impact you had on our college community! Hardly a day passes without several people telling me how impressed they were with you and your presentation. Yes, I know we paid you, but you gave us so much that money can never buy. For that, we will always be grateful.
–Vern Loland, President, Spokane Falls Community College
Your visit was an outstanding experience for those who had the privilege of hearing your lectures, visiting with you informally, or listening to your class presentations. It is a rare occurrence for an individual to have the communication skills and knowledge to deliver a scholarly lecture filed with facts and information in such a captivating manner so as to generate serious thinking and actually change attitudes and values. You were able to do this! You are a master story-teller. Many students wrote reaction papers to your evening lecture and I would like to include several of their comments.
- I was enthralled. He had me hanging on every word.
- When I left, I wasn’t ready to leave
- Listening to Dr. Davis was an experience I will never forget.
- Dr. Davis was awesome! His lecture was incredible! He is a genius!
- I have never listened to a speaker as interesting as Dr. Davis. He has opened my mind and changed my life.
- Dr. Davis was an ambassador of the human spirit. I loved his lecture and learned so much in such a short period of time.
- I couldn’t believe he had lectured for an hour and a half. The time flew!
- Every word made you want to hear more
- I wish it would have lasted longer
- I was so enthralled by the presentation that I found it hard to take notes
Most of these comments are from college freshmen, and I think it is very clear that you have had a profound effect on these individuals. This is exactly what I had hoped would happen.
–Audrey Gabel, Emeritus Professor of Biology, Black Hills State University