Sunday, September 27, 2009

Shadows in the Sun - book

Shadows in the Sun, Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire, Wade Davis (Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1998).

Wade Davis, with undergraduate degrees in anthropology and biology, soon discovered that if one wanted to live among diverse peoples and get to know and understand them, the best way was through their indigenous knowledge of flora and fauna, knowledge they seemed willing to share with others. Thus he took his Ph.D. in ethnobotany from Harvard University and has traveled widely and lived for various lengths of time with many different human groups, ranging from the Arctic Circle to the Amazon, and many places in between. This book consists of fourteen essays recounting his experiences and education among these various peoples, and they were interesting and educational indeed.

His primary concern that runs through all of the essays has to do with the understanding and preservation of human knowledge, mostly as it refers to flora and fauna. He deals with such diverse phenomena as Voodo, hallucinating drugs, the rubber industry, hunting in the arctic, Clouded Leopards in Tibet, Red Cedar of the Northwest Coast, Shamanic healing, logging in Borneo and elsewhere, and other topics as well. He is concerned that traditional knowledge, along with traditional cultures, should be preserved at all costs, not only because of the potential for important scientific breakthroughs, but also just for its own sake. He reminds us just how little we know about so many things, and how it is that through our greed and negligence we have allowed so much to disappear forever. He is a fine writer, as well as an accomplished scientist, and he obviously writes for a broad audience, not merely for his fellow scientists. His language is sometimes poetic and I wonder in some cases if the poetics are the best m├ętier for his message. For example, I do not know precisely what to make of his claim, “Each incident of extinction represents far more than the disappearance of a form of life; it is the wanton loss of an evolutionary possibility and its irrevocable severance from the stream of divine desire.”

To emphasize the importance of using local knowledge and customs he gives what I think is a marvelous account of a failed British expedition (sorry it is so long):

“The British mostly failed. They wore tight woolens, which turned sweat into ice. The Inuit wore caribou skins, loose, with one layer of hair toward the body, another turned out to the wind. The British slept in cloth bags, which froze stiff with ice. The Inuit used the heat of one another’s naked bodies on sleeping platforms of ice covered with caribou hides, in snow houses that could be assembled in an hour. The British ate salt pork and, to prevent scurvy, carried lime juice in glass jars that broke with the first frost. The Inuit ate narwhal skin and the contents of caribou guts, both astonishingly rich in vitamin C. Most disastrous of all, the British scorned the use of dogs. They preferred to harness their young men in leather and force them to haul ridiculously heavy sleds made of iron and oak. When the last of Franklin’s men died, at Starvation Cove on the Adelaide Peninsula, their sledge alone weighed 650 pounds. On it was an 800-pound boat loaded with silver dinner plates, cigar cases, a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield—in short, everything deemed essential for a gentle traveler of the Victorian age….Like so many of their kind, they died, as one explorer remarked, because they brought their environment with them. They were unwilling to adapt to another.”

This is by no means an unusual example of the attitudes and behavior of many of the earliest travelers and explorers, in Africa, Asia, Australia, the Arctic, and elsewhere. Davis believes that this kind of knowledge should not be lost, just as he believes we should not be destroying species of plants and animals we know so little about. There could easily be secrets locked into creatures and plants that could be of enormous value. One can only agree that we should not be so cavalier when it comes to destroying our planet, but one could also argue that these attempts are coming much too little and too late as so much has already been destroyed. Davis is an ecologist and environmentalist as well as a scientist. What he has to say is of great importance and these essays are well worth reading. Unhappily, one could also look at them as horror stories as basically that is what they are, a record of virtually unending human stupidity around the globe by a parasitic species that seems to be intent upon fouling its own nest and destroying the very host it depends upon, all the while boasting about its accomplishments and questionable superiority. These essays are well-written, accurate in their facts, very informative, and alas, therefore depressing.

Wade Davis, born a Canadian, has been the recipient of many grants, associated with National Geographic and the organization, Cultural Survival, which was created at Harvard by the late anthropologist, David Maybury-Lewis, and is dedicated to helping small groups that are in danger of disappearing because of developments out of their control.

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