On a break from college, Wade Davis, age 20 at the time, crossed the Darién Gap—the roadless, desolate, and dangerous 100-mile stretch of swamp that divides Central from South America. He was clueless, compassless, and on foot. And yet somehow he was chosen to be his group’s guide.
His swagger certainly helped.
At 26 (and still alive), Davis entered graduate school under Harvard University’s legendary Richard Evans Schultes in the field of ethnobotany, where he learned to search for new medicines from the plants that indigenous peoples use. But merely cataloging plants was not his style, so he applied for a doctoral dissertation grant to discover the recipe for zombie poison in Haiti. He got the grant—along with a note from the academic reviewers that said, “Davis must be told he will be killed if he tries to do this work.”
In Haiti the swagger helped again. He won the locals’ trust by drinking unidentified potions in a sorcerer’s hut, winning impromptu horse races, and weaving luminous stories of that improbable land called Canada. He became probably the only white man ever to be initiated into Haiti’s secret societies. And he got the recipe for zombie poison—part graveyard-snatched human bone, part buried toad, part toxic puffer fish, and more parts magic than an outsider had ever been willing to see.
His success brought instant fame. Davis stepped off the Haitian coast directly into a deal for what would become a best-selling book about voodoo culture, The Serpent and the Rainbow. Then he sold the movie rights, earning more money and becoming better known than the professors judging his work.
Ethnobotany’s rock star returned to Harvard and got his Ph.D., but he turned away from academia just the same. “My forte was as a storyteller, grounded in the kind of training that I had in the academic world,” he explains today.
In fact, for Davis botany was “a metaphor, a conduit to culture” itself. With the language of plants offering entrée to the people he found fascinating, he took off with rain forest nomads and wrote another book; he traveled with Inuit in the Arctic and wrote yet another.
In the course of his travels, he coined the term ethnosphere to describe the cultural web that encompasses the diverse dreams, myths, thoughts, products, and intuition of every culture on earth. Preserving that diversity is what Davis desires most. “Half the languages of the world are disappearing in this generation,” he says.
Davis does not consider preservation to be his job, however. “I’m not in the business of trying to save the Peruvian Indian farmer any more than he’s in the business of trying to save me,” he says. Instead, his goal is taking the rest of us to realms of cultural splendor so great that we will understand, finally, their value to the world. Toward that end he works full-time as explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society, holding perhaps the only job-with-benefits on par with astronaut for pure adventure and thrill. As a professional explorer, Davis travels the ethnosphere so he can discover and describe it in a stream of moving and popular exhibits, books, and films. His award-winning two-hour special for the History Channel, Peyote to LSD: A Psychedelic Odyssey, airs April 20, and the IMAX film Grand Canyon Adventure, made in collaboration with environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., premiered in March.
DISCOVER met with Davis in his Washington, D.C., home among the artifacts of his eclectic life: a tool for skinning the eyelids of wolves, a compound microscope, an upright piano, and an ornate wooden mask, carved in his likeness by an old Kwakiutl friend, who told him, “That’s your lips in old age, because you never shut up.”
When did you start exploring?
I was at Harvard in 1974, and Harvard was very intense in those days. I got there and I got very radicalized within about three days over the Vietnam War, so I spent most of my first year writing pamphlets and smashing windows, basically, and demonstrating. Then after a couple of years I was exhausted, and I was just gonna take some time off.
I was with my roommate, David, who was from a Montana ranch family. And we’re in a café in Harvard Square, and there was a National Geographic—ironically—map of the world right in front of us. And David looked at the map. We were downing a cup of tea or a beer or whatever it was. And he suddenly looked at me, and he looked at the map, and he pointed to the Arctic, and he looked at me. And I had to go somewhere, so I just—plunk—Amazon. And within two weeks he was in the Arctic, and he never came back. He’s still there. He lives in Alaska—I see him all the time. And in three weeks I was in the Amazon, where I stayed for a year and a half.