Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Review on a Wade Davis Book

Wade Davis, a Canadian writer, ethno-botanist and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, is the author of Light at the Edge of the World. (DON DENTON / CP Archive)

Authors see the world around us

Two Canadian books examine cultures at risk, migrating birds

PERHAPS IT IS because spring seems too far away yet or perhaps it’s because of the increasingly stark news about the environment that I have chosen these two books for the first column of Mojo’s Miscellany.

Two books that invoke a reverence for the beleaguered world which we inhabit.

When choosing titles to review, I will follow my instincts and my heart to find books that will captivate, entertain, provoke and inform you; new, old, fiction and non-fiction, from Canada and the world.

Well, a miscellany — in other words "a collection of various things."

We are not the only ones waiting for spring. Five billion land birds migrate annually from North America. They will soon be taking flight to return to their northern breeding grounds.

You do not have to be a birdwatcher or bird fancier to be enthralled by the Atlas of Bird Migration (Firefly, $35).

I don’t think anyone can read this volume without feeling wonder at the feats of birds large and small.

The book is crammed with information, maps, diagrams, photographs and illustrations. All these facts only increase the sense of awe at this natural phenomenon.

The atlas has been written by contributors from around the world under the general editor, Jonathan Elphick, so the information is global in scope. The material is comprehensive and presented in very clear prose, with diagrams augmenting the information.

You can see how a crane spirals up on air thermals. This thermal soaring is "one of the most energy efficient ways of migrating," but it is only possible for birds with long, broad wings. Not all birds fly to migrate of course. Penguins and auks migrate by swimming.

This book may make you stop and think the next time you’re lucky enough see a bobolink, say in a field in the Annapolis Valley. "Bobolinks make one of the largest migrations of any North American land bird." Their migratory flights may take them as far as 8,000 kilometres to Uruguay or Argentina.

The Bay of Fundy is one of the world’s largest staging posts; an area where millions of birds stop "to rest and replenish their fuel reserves."

Even if you are not a birdwatcher, after reading the Atlas of Bird Migration, you may want to take advantage of our proximity to one of the busiest bird highways in the world to witness this natural miracle.

Light at the Edge of the World (Douglas & McIntyre, $16.95) is written by Canadian explorer Wade Davies. Yes, his job title is explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and Davis has often been called "a real life Indiana Jones."

Davis is a Harvard trained ethnobotanist, anthropologist and the author of many award-winning books. His first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow (Simon & Schuster, $21.50) about voodoo in Haiti, is still a bestseller.

This recent book is a text-only publication of a previous, lavish photographic edition of Light at the Edge of the World. It’s wonderful that this collection of essays is available at a price that makes it accessible to many readers.

Davis explains that there is a looming "cultural" crisis far worse than the environmental crisis we now face. In fact, he asserts that even the worst-case prediction of the destruction of "biological diversity" doesn’t compare to the decimation of the "world’s languages and cultures." Davis believes that "a language is as divine and mysterious as a living creature."

Cultures and languages naturally ebb and wane but always new growth and development flourish from this cycle. "Change itself does not destroy a culture," writes Davis, "since all societies are constantly evolving." Now there is not natural evolution so much as "just assimilation and acculturation."

The book’s subtitle is A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures and in these seven essays, Davis takes us on extraordinary journeys as he meets shaman and tribal elders from many cultures.

He visits northern Canada, Borneo, Tibet, Kenya and spots all over the globe.

In describing the interconnected worlds of many tribes and peoples, Davis enhances our understanding of the human spirit. He also examines how politics play into the destruction of cultures and ethnic groups.

The essay, The Last Nomads, chronicles the plight of the Waorani in the Amazon, and the Penan in Borneo. The intensive logging that is destroying the homelands of the Penan is also destroying their culture. In the Penan language, there is "one word for ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’, but six for ‘we’," Davis learns. This nomadic tribe places great value on community and, since they carry everything on their backs, "they have no incentive to accumulate material things." Davis says "the fate of the vast majority of those who sever their ties with their tradition will not be to attain the prosperity of the West" but to live in poverty, squalor and in a constant struggle to survive.

Davis is neither naive nor fostering a romantic image of a simple, primeval life. He is asking that we look with a "broader perspective" at other ways of being in the world.

While it is "simple curiosity" that motivates Davis to undertake his journeys, it is clearly a passion to preserve the richness he finds that has compelled him to write these essays.

In northwestern British Columbia, Davis meets Alex Jack, "an old Gitxsan man who had lived in the mountains most of his life."

Davis explains that Jack told a story "in such a way that the listener actually witnessed and experienced the essence of the tale. . . . Every telling was a moment of renewal, a chance to engage . . . in the circular dance of the universe."

Wade Davis is that storyteller too.

Mary Jo Anderson is a freelance book reviewer who lives in Halifax.

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