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Wade Davis

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Profile: Celebrated anthropologist, explorer, and author Wade Davis shows no signs of slowing down

Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

It’s rare to encounter someone who can describe their life’s mission in five words. Even more unusual is the ability to trace that mission across 40 years on the page and screen. British Columbia anthropologist Wade Davis – who is also a renowned photographer, ethnobotanist, author, filmmaker, and former National Geographic explorer-in-residence – has always been driven to “celebrate the wonder of culture.” With the October release of Wade Davis: Photographs, his dedication to changing how we view and value human culture comes alive in 150 colour images.

“One of the joys of being at the Geographic as an anthropologist,” says Davis, 62, “was the opportunity to be in the field, or even the headquarters, with these world-class photographers – many of whom I travelled with and many of whom were extremely generous to me.” Davis often served as the still photographer on his film sets and shot thousands of photos while exploring nearly 100 different countries. “I just realized that I had this extraordinary portfolio of images,” says Davis, “and I wanted to publish them.”

Davis describes the book, which was pulled together in an estimated six weeks last summer, as a visual complement to The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, the volume that accompanied his 2009 Massey Lecture. The new photography collection also fulfills a publishing contract the author signed with Douglas & McIntyre before the company’s 2011 bankruptcy and subsequent sale to Harbour Publishing. “I dedicated the book to Scott McIntyre,” says Davis, “who I think is such a great hero of Canadian culture.”

In a funny twist of fate, Davis has a second book on shelves published by former D&M imprint Greystone Books. In Cowboys of the Americas, Davis wrote the text that accompanies photographs by his friend Luis Fabini, who spent 10 years documenting cowboys from Uruguay to Alberta. “As it turns out,” says Davis, “everything you know about the American cowboy is not true.”

Speaking from his office at the University of British Columbia where he is a tenured professor in the Department of Anthropology, Davis quickly demystifies subjects from gunfights to the iconic Marlboro Man to the role of indigenous people on the western frontier. Writing the text for Cowboys took the author on a fascinating intellectual and historical journey – and he’s eager to share what he learned. “Hemingway said that the most important credential of a writer is to have something to say that the world needs to hear,” says Davis. “I can’t really write a book unless there’s something that I feel like I’m revealing to the world.”

Clearly, Davis has always had something to say. His professional and creative resumé is dizzying – and nearly impossible to capture in a few sentences. But highlights include more than 20 books; a PhD in ethnobotany from Harvard University; the 2011 Explorers Club Medal; honourary degrees from five post-secondary institutions; the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize for literary non-fiction; more than 200 published articles, photographs featured in 30 books and 100 magazines; 25 years of public lectures (including four TED talks); and membership in the Order of Canada.

Davis says he’s often asked what makes him so prolific. “Until this UBC position,” he says, “I’ve never had a ‘job.’” A lifetime of self-employment has given him the freedom to pursue meaningful projects on his own time and terms. “I never mistake activity for results,” says Davis, who adds that he doesn’t keep a typical nine-to-five schedule. Shooting, writing, doing fieldwork, and travelling the world (often with his wife, Gail Percy) erase any conventional lines between life and work.

In addition to his UBC post, Davis is currently working on a book about Oliver Wheeler, the first Canadian on Mount Everest and surveyor general of India. He’s also helping his friend, former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, to write his memoirs. But more than anything else heaped on his very full plate, Davis says his heart is in Colombia. His 1996 title, One River, has sold about 13,000 copies in Colombia alone, and continues to draw big audiences for his talks and lectures. “It’s the country that made my career possible,” says Davis, “and now I have a chance to give back.”

In January, he’ll travel the Rio Magdalena with a team of journalists, naturalists, and high-profile figures including Colombian singer Carlos Vives to celebrate the rebirth of a country once ravaged by violence. Davis can’t wait to return to this “river of life.” It’s a through line in his own career – and where he sees his future. “I was thinking about how this river never stops flowing,” says Davis. “It used to carry the bodies of the dead, and now it carries the dreams of the living.”