Wade Davis has been compared to Indiana Jones, the intrepid fictional archeologist brought to life in cinema by co-creators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Several linkages ring true. Jones and Davis are both explorers of antiquity; both are audacious globetrotters; both endure monumental physical pain and emotional discomfort in gritty pursuit of extraordinary treasures.
But this is where comparisons fall apart. In Spielberg’s four movies about the colorful swashbuckler, Indiana Jones chases after priceless “hardware artifacts” such as the Crystal Skull of Akator or Ark of the Covenant. Davis pursues “software artifacts” of vanishing cultures; his treasures are language, ritual, social custom, and ancient wisdom.
Brandishing whip and pistol, Jones brutally dispatches evildoers; Davis engages adversaries with pen and oratory. Davis’ quest is not for material riches but for preservation of biological, psychological, cultural, and spiritual diversity—maybe even protection of the Penan of Borneo, Inuit of North America, Moi of New Guinea, and Waorani of Amazon lowlands.
An explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society, the Harvard-educated ethnobotonist and anthropologist has invested over 25 years of his career exploring, investigating, describing, photographing, and writing about ancient cultures, native tribes, and flora and fauna in isolated destinations, from Amazonia to the Canadian wilderness. He is an author of nine books, including global bestseller The Serpent and the Rainbow, a spellbinding account of the voodoo culture.
His remarkable book catalog also includes:
- Award-winning One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest
- Canadian best-seller Light at the Edge of the World: a Journey through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures
- Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire
- The Clouded Leopard: A Book of Travels
- The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
Davis, born in 1953, is aware that his core values reflect the context in which he came of age, and he expresses his awakening into adulthood with a keen sense of history.
“There were major sociological and historical forces converging at the time the Baby Boom Generation was born. Our parents were scions of the Victorian and Edwardian eras where progress was taken as a given, improvement as destiny— the inevitable domination and success of European society.
“Suddenly all of that dies in the blood of Flanders Fields, and we birthed the nihilism of the 20th century. This gave us notions of modernity; this gave us Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Our parents had gone through this incredible upheaval of the spirit—not just The Great Depression and World War II. You can understand their collective exhaustion. We didn’t know about this in our youth.”
What Davis did know, as did many Baby Boomers maturing during the 1960s and 1970s, was that a future characterized by “Happy Housewife” and “Organization Man” would not be manageable. Drawing on his thoughtful love of literary masters, he embraced a precipitating gift of self-awareness early in life. He understood what he did not want, which became a giant first step.
His awakening arrived in the summer of 1968 during a high school field trip to Colombia. As he wrote in Light at the Edge of the World:
“Life was real, visceral, dense with intoxicating possibilities. I learned that summer to have but one operative word in my vocabulary, and that was yes to any experience, any encounter, anything new. Colombia taught me that it was possible to fling oneself upon the benevolence of the world and emerge not only unscathed but transformed. It was a naïve notion, but one that I carried with me for a long time.”
His passion for novelty also originated from dread of an overly manicured life as he witnessed his parents’ resigned acceptance of a predictable, prosaic, and regimented middle-class existence.
“Hemingway said the key to being a writer is to have something important to say,” Davis recalls. “And second he advised writers to first live an interesting life.
“Early on I never had aspirations to be a writer, but I desperately wanted an interesting life because the opposite is a world of conformity and banality. My father called his work ‘the grind.’ I had to escape that, and I think our whole generation felt a need for change.”
“Where I came from was like so many of us. I remember turning on my clock radio and listening to The Beatles, particularly ‘A Day in the Life’ from the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album and I thought, ‘Wow, there’s got to be another way. This is what works for me.’”
Energized and propelled by his generation’s commanding cultural imperatives, Davis discovered Harvard University, a quixotic hotbed for confrontations between Boomers and the establishment outside academia. In a recent essay on creativity, he reflects upon this time:
“In the summer of my junior year I had a job fighting forest fires and our camps were filled with young American draft dodgers. We were obedient Canadian lads. They by contrast had an irreverence and disdain for authority that was electrifying. One had a copy of Life Magazine with the Harvard student strike of 1969 on the cover. In a raw atavistic way I concluded that this had to be the school to attend. I arrived alone in Boston in the fall of 1971.”
He became opposed to the Vietnam War, investing time and energy to shape public opinion through demonstrating and pamphleteering. A tenacious struggle to end the war exhausted him, and so, like many of his peers, he looked to the wider world for answers to profound questions about war, peace, and humanity’s fundamental nature. He decided to hitchhike into the unknown.
During a moment of spontaneous decision-making while at a café with his Harvard roommate, he pointed to Africa, as depicted on an old National Geographic wall map, as his next destination. Making such an abrupt decision to explore territories near the equator, he sought counsel from a scholar who would become his mentor: Richard Evans Schultes, a Harvard professor widely regarded as the greatest 20th century explorer of the Amazon. After meeting with Schultes, who intuitively embraced this ambitious, idealistic student from Canada, Davis journeyed within a fortnight to the Amazon where he lived with fifteen ethnic groups in eight South American countries while collecting over 6,000 botanical specimens.
The plants, and the wisdom he has reverently accepted from them, have given Davis intimate access to indigenous cultures worldwide and penetrating insights into the cultural equivalent of environmental desecration. Just as modernization is under-girding destruction of the planet’s biodiversity, technological innovation and proliferation are also destroying many of the world’s oldest cultures and languages.
During a speech at the LOHAS Forum, an annual gathering of like-minded professionals and business executives committed to promoting human health and environmental sustainability, Davis made palpable the plausible monochromatic path of humanity’s future:
“When each of you in this room was born, there were 7,000 languages spoken on earth. Now a language isn’t just a body of vocabulary or set of grammatical rules; a language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle to which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of social and spiritual possibilities. And of those 7,000 languages spoken the day you were born, today fully half are on their way to extinction.”
Like the planet’s biosphere, the health of which depends on species diversity, humanity’s ethnosphere also depends on diversity for our collective psychological health. Davis defines his neologism as the cultural web that encompasses the diverse dreams, myths, thoughts, products, and intuition of every culture on earth.
Within another generation, humankind will lose the exclusive wisdom, insights, and knowledge of peoples who have carried their traditions from generation to generation with inimitable languages and stories. Analogous to losing a plant species that could have provided a cure for pancreatic cancer, when humanity loses a unique language and primordial wisdom it codifies, we might be losing ways of understanding our mortal existence that could cure mental cancers: war, xenophobia, racism, and existential loneliness.
As Davis cautions in Light at the Edge of the World, “Every view of the world that fades away, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life and reduces the human repertoire of adaptive responses to the common problems that confront us all.”
Davis does not consider it his primary crusade to save indigenous cultures from homogenization and cooptation by the world’s most powerful western and eastern countries. Rather, he views his responsibility as explorer-in-residence for National Geographic to make the rest of us aware of what our species stands to lose when these ancient cultures become absorbed and rendered extinct by dominating ideologies.
His uncommon career elucidates how millions of Boomers have chosen to live outside normal boundaries and typical expectations. He has shifted his own paradigms by taking inordinate risks, not dissimilar from many entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, educators, social activists, scholars, and politicians from the same generation.
In his essay on creativity, he provokes today’s young people with the enlivening possibilities of risk-taking: “If you place yourself in situations where there is no choice but to move forward, no option but success, you create a momentum that in the end propels you to new levels of experience and engagement that would have seemed beyond reach only years before.”
Gathering vivid experiences from around the globe, seeking paths to constant self-improvement, finding creative new ways to express observations and values, Wade Davis’ career stands as a metaphor for the generation in which he was born.
He has experimented and illuminated, tested choices and found grounding, traveled peripatetically and stood motionless to discover subtle and sustainable lessons of biological and cultural variety. And he has taught millions of readers and admirers that mitigation from potential calamities we face as a species may be found through preservation of biological, cultural, and language diversity.
In a journal he carried with him on his first trip to Colombia during the revolutionary summer of 1968, Davis jotted down a promise to himself that became a life credo: risk discomfort and uncertainty for understanding.
This is one providential man’s bequest, and by extrapolation, another gift to the future from a wildly creative, irrepressibly hopeful generation.
No individual can represent an entire generation of males, but Wade Davis comes as close as I’ve discovered in representing a totality of values that spring from the formative years for Boomer males, especially those of the leading-edge.
He is accessible and articulate about how Boomer culture propelled him into a most interesting life story. And stories are the key to reaching this generation most effectively. As Wade Davis teaches, it is the stories of the peoples inhabiting this planet that make it polychromatic and rich. Stories teach us about other ways of being outside the technological frameworks of modernity. Davis’ stories can teach marketers more about a generation than numbers or stereotypes or simplification.
A generation is a story, writ large, just like stories of an indigenous culture somewhere in South America. When astute marketers anchor product marketing around this generation’s dynamic narrative, they have an opportunity to achieve unparalleled sales success.
The above profile is an excerpt from Generation Reinvention: How Boomers Today Are Changing Business, Marketing, Aging and the Future. This 279-page book explores a growing body of research, arguments, insights, and speculation over how Boomers are impacting aging and commerce. Implications from my book are monetary and personal, local and international, intergenerational and multicultural. To learn why these conclusions are significant for your work and future, you can get a copy from online book retailers, including Amazon. Thank you for following my blog and, of course, your interest in Generation Reinvention.