Great talk from TED 2003 by explorer Wade Davis talking about some of the many human cultures that are fast disappearing – and with them their infinite variety of ways of being and knowing and wisdom…
“one of the intense pleasures of being able to travel the world and do ethnographic research is the opportunity to live amongst those who have not forgotten old ways:
who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in the bitter leaves of plants …”
While here in the west we build great institutions and edifices to prove our ideas are right and so must be shared by all, nature offers us many opportunities to learn from infinite variety – including human of ways of living, being and understanding.
“All of these peoples teach us that there are other ways of being, other ways of thinking,other ways of orienting yourself in the Earth.”
Wade shares with us a story from from South America about people and plants - ayahuasca…
“Now, if you begin to look at the idea that these cultures could create different realities, you could begin to understand some of their extraordinary discoveries.
‘Take this plant here. This is ayahuasca, which many of you have heard about, the most powerful psychoactive preparation of the shaman’s repertoire.
“What makes ayahuasca fascinating is not the sheer pharmacological potential of this preparation, but the elaboration of it. It’s made really of two different sources:on the one hand, this woody liana which has in it a series of beta-carbolines, harmine, harmaline, mildly hallucinogenic — to take the vine alone is rather to have sort of blue hazy smoke drift across your consciousness — but it’s mixed with the leaves of a shrub in the coffee family called Psychotria viridis.
“This plant had in it some very powerful tryptamines, very close to brain serotonin, dimethyltryptamine, 5-methoxydimethyltryptamine.
“If you’ve ever seen the Yanomami blowing that snuff up their noses, that substance they make from a different set of species also contains ethoxydimethyltryptamine. To have that powder blown up your nose is rather like being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity.
“But the thing about tryptamines is they cannot be taken orally because they’re denatured by an enzyme found naturally in the human gut called monoamine oxidase. They can only be taken orally if taken in conjunction with some other chemical that denatures the MAO. Now, the fascinating things are that the beta-carbolines found within that liana are MAO inhibitors of the precise sort necessary to potentiate the tryptamine.
In our western tradition [of about 300 years only] we would set up research funds, chairs, whole departments of PhDs and technicians, set up charitable foundations to raise more funds do outreach and advertise the great good we’re binging to the world whilst building complex supply chains, industrial systems of collecting, cataloguing and testing specimens: we’d strike a committee to strike committees tasked with the job of deciding a taxonomy for categorising what we find; we’d write papers, go on TV, lobby Parliament, argue, call for more funds, more time to do more research.
“So you ask yourself a question. How, in a flora of 80,000 species of vascular plants, do these people find these two morphologically unrelated plants that when combined in this way, created a kind of biochemical version of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts?
“Well, we use that great euphemism, “trial and error” … but you ask the Indians, and they say, “The plants talk to us.”
The plants talk to us.
“Well, what does that mean? This tribe, the Cofan, has 17 varieties of ayahuasca… all of which are referable to our eye as one species.
“And then you ask them how they establish their taxonomy and they say,
“I thought you knew something about plants. I mean, don’t you know anything?”
“And I said,
“Well, it turns out you take each of the 17 varieties in the night of a full moon, and it sings to you in a different key.
“Now, that’s not going to get you a Ph.D. at Harvard, but it’s a lot more interesting than counting stamens.
Now, that’s not going to get you a Ph.D. at Harvard, but it’s a lot more interesting than counting stamens
“The problem is that even those of us sympathetic with the plight of indigenous people view them as quaint and colorful but somehow reduced to the margins of history as the real world, meaning our world, moves on.
“Well, the truth is the 20th century, 300 years from now, is not going to be remembered for its wars or its technological innovations, but rather as the era in which we stood by and either actively endorsed or passively accepted the massive destruction of both biological and cultural diversityon the planet.
“Now, the problem isn’t change. All cultures through all time have constantly been engaged in a dance with new possibilities of life.
“And the problem is not technology itself. The Sioux Indians did not stop being Siouxwhen they gave up the bow and arrow any more than an American stopped being an American when he gave up the horse and buggy.
“It’s not change or technology that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere. It is power, the crude face of domination.
“Wherever you look around the world, you discover that these are not cultures destined to fade away; these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to: whether it’s the egregious deforestation in the homeland of the Penan –a nomadic people from Southeast Asia, from Sarawak –a people who lived free in the forest until a generation ago, and now have all been reduced to servitude and prostitution on the banks of the rivers, where you can see the river itself is soiled with the silt that seems to be carrying half of Borneo awayto the South China Sea, where the Japanese freighters hang light in the horizonready to fill their holds with raw logs ripped from the forest — or, in the case of the Yanomami, it’s the disease entities that have come in, in the wake of the discovery of gold.
“Or if we go into the mountains of Tibet, where I’m doing a lot of research recently, you’ll see it’s a crude face of political domination. You know, genocide, the physical extinction of a peopleis universally condemned, but ethnocide, the destruction of people’s way of life, is not only not condemned, it’s universally, in many quarters, celebrated as part of a development strategy.
“And in the end, then, it really comes down to a choice: do we want to live in a monochromatic world of monotony or do we want to embrace a polychromatic world of diversity?
do we want to live in a monochromatic world of monotony or do we want to embrace a polychromatic world of diversity?
“Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, said, before she died, that her greatest fear was that as we drifted towards this blandly amorphous generic world view not only would we see the entire range of the human imagination reduced to a more narrow modality of thought, but that we would wake from a dream one day having forgotten there were even other possibilities.
“And it’s humbling to remember that our species has, perhaps, been around for 150,000 years.
“The Neolithic Revolution — which gave us agriculture … we succumbed to the cult of the seed; the poetry of the shaman was displaced by the prose of the priesthood; is only 10,000 years ago.
“The modern industrial world as we know it is barely 300 years old.
“Now, that shallow history doesn’t suggest to me that we have all the answers for all of the problems that will confront us in the ensuing millennia.
“When these myriad cultures of the world are asked the meaning of being human, they respond with 10,000 different voices.
“And it’s within that song that we will all rediscover the possibility of being what we are: a fully conscious species, fully aware of ensuring that all peoples and all gardens find a way to flourish.
“And there are great moments of optimism.
we will all rediscover the possibility of being what we are: a fully conscious species, fully aware of ensuring that all peoples and all gardens find a way to flourish.
The guy’s a genius – a veritable indiana jones, a great photographer, film maker, author and poet – and guess what: -he ‘s Canadian too…
- Wade Davis’ Incredible Home Office & Overhead Library (firewireblog.com)
- National Geographic explorer Wade Davis on Enbridge, First Nations and mining (vancouverobserver.com)
- Disappearing Ancient Wisdom (mightyturk.wordpress.com)
- Saving a pristine backyard wilderness: Wade Davis at TED2012 (ted.com)
- TreeHugger Radio: A Final Episode and Nine of Our Favorite Moments With Amazing People (treehugger.com)