In his latest book "Light at the Edge of the World - A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures" Wade Davis is quite frank about the motivations behind his around-the-globe adventuring. He says he is driven to the ends of the earth by "simple" curiosity and a horror of boredom. A Harvard-trained botanist and anthropologist, Davis has spent 25 years finding his way into places that most of us don't even know exist . . . and would most likely hesitate about going to even if we did.
From the high Arctic, to the Amazon, to Africa, Tibet, Haiti, Peru and Sarawak, Davis turns his camera and his intelligence. In his travels, the sciences of ethnobotany and anthropology have served him well. As an explorer he takes in the whole glorious panoply of data about people and plants, medicine, language, landscapes, history, custom, and creation myths. He records it painstakingly. Then, he deftly makes sense of it. The motifs of an astonishing array of human cultures dazzle with colour and clarity. Intricate patterns of thought, belief, myth and tradition emerge. Davis calls this body of knowing the "ethnosphere."
The ethnosphere is about those peoples of the earth whose essential humanity has been defined by the landscapes in which they are nurtured. For these people of the ice, the forests, the river deltas, the jungle, the desert sands, and the high mountain plateaus, daily life is both a precise and a fully variant exercise of knowledge and understanding - a long-accumulated wisdom that this world stands much in need of.
"When asked the meaning of being human they respond with ten thousand different voices. It is within this diversity of knowledge and practice, of intuition and interpretation, of promise and hope, that we will all rediscover the enchantment of being what we are. . ." writes Davis.
Of course, it isn't just science that happened to Davis on his way to the edges the world. Like all true pilgrims Davis has continually encountered within himself that intense inner dimension of spirit that is the nature of a human journey. In the enigmatic photographs of this book and the accompanying text, a reader can trace the writer being touched by his subjects, being himself altered by those gestures of imagination, mystery and dream imminent in the people and places he so passionately studies. It is this sense of excitement and spontaneity of learning, eloquently shared, that makes the book such a good read.
In the end, Davis' curiosity is more vast than simple, as is his capacity to absorb knowledge. As for his horror of boredom, perhaps his fears are more profound. As he tells the story, one of Margaret Mead's greatest nightmares was that one day we would wake up, look around and find ourselves all to be the same, and, what's worse, in doing so we wouldn't even remember what we lost.
This book is much more than an exciting travelogue, or a romance of far away places and exotic peoples. Davis' underlying theme is urgent and challenges the complacency of daily life in an industrial and technological society. In Davis' view, the survival of the world's indigenous cultures is crucial to our communal creativity and resourcefulness, if, as he says, those "imperatives driving the highest aspirations of our species were to be the power of faith, the reach of spiritual intuition, the philosophical generosity to recognize the varieties of religious longings." Indeed, if we are to know ourselves to be who we are.