Sunday, February 25, 2007

Wade Davis explores Earth's disappearing cultures

A trip to the Arctic to look at Inuit hunting techniques

A trip to the Arctic to look at Inuit hunting techniques

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis

Wade Davis explores Earth's disappearing cultures

Updated Mon. Feb. 5 2007 2:27 PM ET

Andy Johnson, News

The planet is facing a cultural crisis that is more drastic than the threat of global warming and the loss of endangered species, says Wade Davis, Canada's only National Geographic explorer in residence.

After roughly five years of work, Davis' new four-part television series, "Light at the Edge of the World," argues that the world's cultural fabric is unraveling at a frightening pace.

"You know, the year that I was born, there were 6,000 languages spoken on Earth," Davis says at the beginning of the series. "And of the 6,000 languages spoken on Earth, fully half aren't being taught to children, which means that effectively, unless something changes, they're dead."

The message that culture -- the feature that adds texture and colour to our world -- is our most valuable non-renewable resource, comes out loud and clear in the series, set to begin airing Feb. 7 on the National Geographic Channel.

Davis, an author, anthropologist and ethnobotanist, treks to some of the most remote corners of the globe to tell his story. The four segments focus on Peru, Polynesia, the Himalayas and the Arctic.

In Peru, he explores the religious amalgamation of traditional spiritualism, such as mountain worship, and Catholicism -- that is embedded in the descendants of the Inca who believe that the land is alive.

In Polynesia, Davis delves into the ancient ways of the "wayfarers" -- world-class ocean navigators whose accomplishments more than 2,000 years ago, he likens to Western countries reaching the moon. From Hawaii, Davis sails in a traditional Polynesian ship with a man who has dedicated his life to carrying on the ancient traditions of his ancestors, and teaching the skills to a new generation.

In the Himalayas -- by far the most personal segment for Davis -- he treks deep into the mountains of Nepal where he sojourns with Matthieu Ricard. The once promising French scientist is now a Buddhist monk, and he takes Davis to visit a nun who has been in a meditative retreat for 45 years.

And in the Arctic, both in Canada and Greenland, he explores the effects of melting ice on traditional Inuit hunting techniques, and efforts to preserve indigenous culture in the face of rapidly changing technology.

The mission

In each of the segments, Davis, 53, is accompanied by both a local authority on the region, and an authority from the academic world, who shed light on the culture from different perspectives.

"This all grew out of my mission at the Geographic, which is to help change the way the world views and values culture, and it grows out of a conservation mission that recognizes that the loss of language and cultural diversity is as important a problem as the loss of plant and animal species, and if anything it's happening at a far greater rate," he told in an interview from Washington D.C.

Davis said he and director Andrew Gregg chose the four remote locations based on the incredible stories they found that illustrate the effect of human choices on cultural survival, as well as sheer cultural uniqueness that reveals "the diverse facets of the human imagination that become manifest in culture," Davis says.

The objective, he says, is not to freeze cultures or to isolate them from the modern world to ensure they never change. Rather, he wants to instill a deep appreciation and value for cultural diversity in those who watch the series or read his book by the same title.

"All you can try to do is change the way the world views and values culture, which doesn't mean freezing people out of the benefits of modernity. On the contrary. It's how do we find a way to live in a truly multicultural, pluralistic world? How do we find a way to ensure that all people in an ideal world can benefit from the genius of modernity ... without that engagement demanding the death of their ethnicity?"

In the end, Davis says, the message is a positive one. Yes cultures are being destroyed at a frightening rate, but humans are the agents of that change, and therefore humans can be also become the agents of cultural survival -- if they so choose.

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