Wade Davis

Presented by Robin Stanford to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
October 1st, 2019

Wade Davis is a brilliant scientist, who writes with the soul of a poet.  He’s a Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist, who started writing non-fiction because he was convinced that the lessons of anthropology were too important to be sequestered away in academia.  To date, Davis has published 20 books as well as hundreds of articles for magazines and scientific journals. His award-winning books have appeared in 19 languages and have sold approximately 1 million copies.  Davis is also a gifted photographer and documentary film-maker.

As a celebrated scientist, Davis is very much in demand as a professional speaker, giving 60 to 70 talks per year, all over the world.  He talks to everyone, from advising world leaders at the United Nations to lecturing at scientific conferences or universities to speaking at literary events like Calgary’s Wordfest.

In 1985, while still a student at Harvard, Davis published his first best-selling book, The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies and Magic. The book was made into a Hollywood movie in 1988, A TV movie in 1990, and is still the subject of countless documentary TV shows today.  This early literary success was a tremendous influence on the rest of his career, giving him the freedom to pursue meaningful projects on his own time and terms. Even in this fast-paced and at times terrifying account, Davis explains how cultural differences result from choices rather than innate differences in ability, and how cultures change over time.

Davis has spent much of his life exploring for plants and living among Indigenous groups in remote locations all over the world.   He is considered one of the most articulate and influential western advocates for the world’s Indigenous cultures. 

While working as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., his mandate was to help the Society change the way the world views and values culture. During this time, he wrote The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, which documents some of the astounding achievements of non-Western cultures. Davis considers The Wayfinders as “a celebration of culture and diversity”.

Davis’s love for travel and adventure comes through in his writing. Although he writes non-fiction, his beautifully written, almost poetic prose reflects the influence and inspiration of Whitman, Snyder, Hemingway, and Durrell.  Durrell’s views on the link between landscape and culture resonated with Davis who writes: “in all of my books I’m an anthropologist and a historian focused on the nature of the landscape in which people choose to live out their destiny”. 

An interest in history began during childhood with a favourite book, a condensed version of Winston Churchill’s six volumes on the Second World War.  Davis is obsessive about research and spent nearly 13 years researching and writing Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.

Early in his writing career, Davis was known as an adventurer and often referred to as a real-life Indiana Jones. Thirty-five years later, he’s still got that adventurer vibe, but now, he’s perhaps better known as a conservationist and activist.