Although he’s been known to chow down on termites, Wade Davis contents himself with a plain bagel and a cup of coffee when we meet at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel early one morning this past July.
The world-famous anthropologist has just flown down from his summer home in the Stikine Valley of Northern B.C. and is on his way to Iceland to give a speech. Then it’s back to the West Coast as a guest at Bohemian Grove, where he will rub shoulders with the world’s business and political elite at the ultra-secret annual getaway in a forest outside of San Francisco. As we chat before a backdrop of taxiing jets, it’s clear that Davis’s cultural interests extend well beyond the Amazon rain forest and the followers of Haiti’s Vodoun religion. Returning every summer to his retreat in Northwestern B.C., he has cast a particularly critical eye on the business culture here in his own native province. Davis’s official title is explorer in residence for National Geographic, which means that for 15 days every year he goes wherever the magazine sends him and writes up the results of his journey. He keeps an address in Washington, D.C., which he calls home for most of the year. And if this week’s itinerary is any indication, he obviously spends a lot of his days jetting around the globe. But the Vancouver-born anthropologist clearly has powerful ties to his home province. He has been spending summers in the Stikine Valley for the past 30 years, and the fishing lodge he bought there 20 years ago has been a constant in the lives of his two daughters, Tara, 19, and Raina, 16. “Stikine is the well I draw on for the rest of the year,” he explains. “I worked eight years as a ranger for the Parks Branch, and I’ve seen a lot of beautiful land in B.C.,” he says. “I’m sometimes in 30 countries a year. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places, but there is no place in the world as beautiful as the Stikine Valley of British Columbia.” Davis’s accomplishments are too numerous to list but include writing a handful of books, one of which – The Serpent and the Rainbow – has been translated into 10 languages and was made into a motion picture. In addition to National Geographic, he has written for dozens of international publications, including Newsweek, Harpers, Fortune, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He’s even credited with inspiring three television episodes of The X-Files. As our conversation progresses, it’s clear that it’s not just B.C.’s natural beauty that draws out the passion of the 53-year-old world explorer, but what he sees as the cultural depravity of those entrusted with its preservation. Davis isn’t a tree hugger opposed to any development in our province. But having spent the past 30 years studying cultures around the globe, he’s astounded at a gap in our own cultural fabric; he sees a lack of any recognition that certain natural features are so vital to our culture that they might be revered as sacred. Davis describes a spot in the mountains of Tibet that is the site of the headwaters of India’s three great rivers: the Brahmaputra, the Indus and the Ganges. The site is considered sacred by the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cultures – three billion people in total. The very suggestion of development, Davis says, would bring shame not only to the prospective developer, but to his descendants in perpetuity. Davis describes a similar place near his home in the Stikine Valley: on the Spatsizi Plateau is a meadow from which spring the headwaters of three of Canada’s greatest rivers – the Stikine, the Skeena and the Nass. Considered a sacred site by the Tahltan First Nation, to the rest of Canada it’s a natural resource, ripe for development. Davis points to Shell Canada Ltd.’s application to extract coalbed methane as one of many applications in the region. Davis acknowledges the stringent environmental guidelines that are part of any development application, but adds that “missing from that calculus of economic planning is any metric that places any figure on the inherent value of the land left alone.” Of Shell’s application in particular, he says, “To me that says a lot about Canada, that we’re even prepared to consider such an initiative.” The question, he says, “is not whether there will be development or not, but development at what pace, on what terms and for whose benefit?” Having watched his kids grow up alongside those of his Tahltan neighbours, Davis has developed an obvious affinity with the First Nations people of the Northwest. And he wonders why the benefits of local development seem to flow one way, out of Aboriginal communities. He wonders why kids in towns such as Prince George, Terrace and Williams Lake all benefit from public swimming pools and skating rinks while Tahltan kids are killing themselves in astounding numbers out of sheer boredom and desperation. Tears well up as Davis continues. “When will Gordon Campbell promise me that my friends the Tahltan will have the same facilities that his kids get based on the bounty of the wealth coming out of their land? I want an indoor swimming pool in Iskut. I want an indoor hockey rink. I want an elders’ centre so the elders can get together. I want proper schools. And I want teachers who are trained in the particular needs of that community. And when this government can promise those things to my friends, who are burying their children every damn day, then I’ll get behind this development.” Click here to listen to an audio clip from David's interview with Wade Davis.