The title chapter of The Wayfinders tells of Polynesian navigators’ ability to travel great distances in canoes by reading signs of the ocean, sky, animals and wind. Traversing cultures whose people, like the navigators, have an intimate knowledge of their environments, this book illustrates human brilliance and the capacity to be deeply attuned to our inner and outer worlds.
Derived from his Massey Lecture series of the same name, Wade Davis, celebrated Canadian author and anthropologist, argues that indigenous cultures are guiding lights on how to live sustainably.
He notes that the stakes are higher now than ever, as 50 per cent of the world’s languages face extinction and as climate change becomes more urgent. From the San of the Kalahari, whose culture evolved through surviving in one of the driest regions on the planet, to the Elder Brothers of the Sierra Nevada, who believe that they are guardians of the world, Davis shares an abundance of examples for inspiration.
Reflecting on the meaning and consequences of the actions of our own culture, such as plans to mine the mountains of the Sacred Headwaters in Northern British Columbia, the book also offers a refreshing critique of development and the history of anthropology itself. Davis points, for example, to the fact that genocide is universally condemned, but ethnocide – the destruction of a people’s way of life – is often sanctioned as official development policy. Also, the yardstick by which we measure a culture’s excellence is clearly partial to our own coming out on top; if we were to perceive it based on spiritual intuition, the health of the land, or the level of generosity and respect for others, modernity would not be quite so hot.
Perhaps the most important and illuminating message to come from the whirlwind of Davis’ travels is that instead of being destructive, humans are vital to the world, bringing meaning and order through the customs, myths and rituals of culture. Journeying through multiple dimensions of time, the People of the Anaconda renew the entire cosmic order; the Indians of the Andean Cordillera bring the natural laws of reciprocity full circle by exchanging the spiritual energy of the coca leaf; and the Aborigines of Australia continually co-create the world through walking the Songlines of Dreamtime. As the people of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta believe, people are not the problem but the solution.
Waorani hunters smell and identify animal urine at 40 paces; Polynesian navigators sense the presence of islands by the reverberation of waves against the canoe; Arabs of Timbuktu detect the direction of water in the desert by scent; Inuit never get lost in a world of ice; and Tibetan Buddhists reach enlightenment in this lifetime. Together, they awaken our memory of every person’s choice to apply his or her innate ability to sense deeply, and set the world on a more positive course.
For those interested in history, sustainability or the future of humanity, The Wayfinders is an astonishing read about people whose connection with the Earth and with themselves has remained intact.
Mary Edwards is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.