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The Clouded Leopard: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire

by Wade Davis

In his novel Justine Lawrence Durrell made the observation that “We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behaviour and even thought.” Wade Davis, a Canadian anthropologist and Harvard-trained ethnobotanist, has lived his life – and built a career – on demonstrating the truth of this assumption. Early on, Davis identified botany as the common ground that was needed to overcome the cultural barriers in his studies of indigenous peoples. “I became an ethnobotanist,” he writes, “because I could not imagine any other way of understanding the lives of the people of the forest.”

In The Clouded Leopard, his collection of travel essays, Davis explores the different facets of the relationship between human beings and their surroundings. Spanning a lifetime of Odyssean experiences, the subjects of this collection are diverse and often bizarre: he writes about a narwhal hunt on Baffin Island, his experience smoking hallucinogenic toad venom in the interest of learning more about the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica, and tells the life story of Bruno Manser, a Scandinavian who travelled to Malaysia, where he was adopted by the nomadic Penan forest people.

The stories themselves are a fascinating read. Davis’s prose is richly descriptive, full of scientific detail that resonates with poetic meaning. Only occasionally does his poetry run away from him, becoming vague and inchoate. Still, the themes that he explores throughout his writing are fairly uniform, easily grasped but sometimes repetitive. The collection is best read one essay at a time – its strength lies in the individual essays, rather than the collection as a whole.

Davis celebrates diversity of every kind and makes a compelling argument for the protection and conservation of the environment and the ways of indigenous peoples. What distinguishes the traditions of present and past indigenous civilizations from modern Western society, argues Davis, is loyalty to the land and the meaning attributed to it. The landscape is not just our environment, he argues, it is our circumstance, our history, and for many, a portal to the spirit world. If modern society can rediscover this connection to the landscape, Davis argues, then perhaps we will learn to look after our own environment.


Reviewer: Sasha Chapman

Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 224 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-55054-632-5

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 1998-9

Categories: Criticism & Essays