Voices for Biodiversity

The Wayfinders

I dare you to venture into the scorching Kalahari Desert. No iPhone for GPS. No internet to Google, "how to survive in the desert." No solar cooker or CamelBak. Just you, your brain and your human intuition. Of course, it's silly to expect a technology-addicted Westerner to adapt to such an inhospitable climate before death comes knocking. But within that same Westerner is the capability to thrive off such a forbidding landscape. Within that same Westerner is the capacity to navigate the Pacific Ocean by the wind, the swells, the clouds, the sea creatures and the stars. Within that same Westerner lives the imagination to transcend the confining Western worldview that ultimately tethers the mind to one narrow perspective of the world and our relation to it.

The same biology that has allowed humans to flourish all over the world, from the Andes mountains to the Australian outback, from the Arctic tundra to the jungles of Borneo, can be found in any human being, from the factory worker in Mexico to the civil engineer in China. From an almost identical genetic blueprint, thousands of cultures have arisen, cultures that reveal the awesome magnitude and potential of the human spirit. Tragically, more than half of these cultures are in danger of extinction. In his book The Wayfinders, Wade Davis beautifully and elegantly reveals why someone in the "modern" world should care. And after reading this eye-opening book, care this "modern" person does.

Davis' mesmerizing prose brings the reader into the midst of the cultures he describes. The reader accompanies him on ocean voyages with Polynesian Wayfinders, experts trained to absorb every subtlety of the sea, earth and sky and to memorize the precise location of their vessel based on those signs. Davis also takes the reader on treks through the Amazon into the villages of the Barasana – people who find significance in everything, living or non-living – and along the steep slopes of the Andes on a pilgrimage representing the mixture of Christianity and indigenous religions. These are only a few of the rich cultures explored within the pages of this book. In addition, the reader travels to the forests of British Columbia, the deserts of Australia, the mountains of Tibet, and more. Through his descriptions, Davis confirms his assertion that the spark of humanity manifests itself in a multitude of ways. To limit one's scope to see worth only in the technological advancements of Western society is to inhibit true appreciation and understanding of the vast array of human accomplishment.

The book does not merely enlighten the reader with its captivating illustrations of the varied and remarkable applications of the human psyche. It also illuminates and explores the vital connection between culture and nature. Humans have lived for thousands of years in a balance with the natural world, yet our "modern" society is witnessing the dramatic and accelerated degradation of the planet. It is no coincidence that cultures are disappearing along with the world's flora and fauna. All of the peoples described by Davis possess some sort of sustaining reverence for the natural world. In the animals, forests, mountains, valleys, plains, rivers, lakes and oceans, they see the origins of humanity. To those of us who do not view nature as the embodiment of religious deities or ancestral spirits, the earth remains a soulless resource for exploitation. Davis illustrates that when we are more in tune with the mystical side of nature and place cultural significance on our environment, we are more inclined to protect, even cherish, it. Human perception plays a crucial role in determining our relationships with the natural world.

Davis' anthropological insights are invaluable to an enlightened perspective of the world and humanity. He grips the reader with his stirring and sagacious observations and instills a sense of wonder for the astounding range of human potential. The reader cannot help but feel enriched after reading The Wayfinders. In Wade Davis, these cultures of the world have found a compelling advocate who imparts his wisdom with artful prose and inspires the reader to see the world in a new light. It is one of those rare books after which one cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude and awe.

Photos are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. 1) Photo of Kalahari hunters is used under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 Generic and is courtesy of Frank Vassen; 2) Photo of Incan ruins is used under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 Generic and is courtesy of An en Alain 3) Photo of Wade Davis is courtesy of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

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Julia Osterman
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