Wade Davis on What it Means to be Human and Alive

TreeHugger: Could you give us an example?

Davis: One of the things that I write about in my most recent book, The Wayfinders, is how certain cultures create a notion of what one might call sacred geography. And I don't mean that in a sort of hippie ethnography. I mean, really: what does it mean for a people to believe that the Earth is animate and responsive, and that human beings have reciprocal obligations to the Earth just as the Earth itself must provide for the wellbeing of human beings?

Well, many cultures around the world have precisely that sense of a spirit of place and landscape. And they look upon climate change as something that is their responsibility.

I spent some time in Peru recently at a remarkable ritual called the Qoyllur Rit'i, which is a pre-Columbian ritual that's been influenced by 500 years of Christianity, but it's almost like an Andean Woodstock. You have tens of thousands of Indians, all through the southern Andes of Peru, who come together in a sacred valley called the Sinakara, just after the Pleiades reemerged from the sky and before Corpus Christi. And they carry their crosses from their home communities, high into the sacred valley, to implant them on a glacier that descends from an extraordinary mountain. And they leave the crosses overnight. And then the next day, the crosses, empowered by Pachamama, empowered by the Earth, are carried back to the communities.

Traditionally the pilgrimage is completed with the act of chipping off small bits of the glacier and carrying them back to the community, so that the elders and those incapable of making the arduous pilgrimage can still benefit from the positive energy that comes out of the ritual retreat.

Watching the recession of those glaciers, the people themselves have decided no longer to chip that ice away. It's an amount of ice that is of course trivial in the scheme of things, but again, they're taking personal responsibility.

We forget that we treat climate change as part of an engineering problem or a technical problem, but for people who really think the Earth is alive, they have a responsibility for the maintenance and wellbeing of the Earth, they watch the impact of climate change and they feel it in very deep psychological ways.

That's something you have to factor into your thoughts about climate change. Yes, people talk about the Ganges becoming a seasonal river within a generation or two with the melting of the ice in the headwater glaciers. That will affect the water supply of five hundred million people. But the Ganges is also a sacred river of over eight hundred million people. What will it mean to them when the river no longer flows to the sea?

One of things to begin to think about with this is: where did we start to think about the land as we do? A kid from Montana who is raised to believe a mountain is a pile of rock is going to have a very different relationship from a kid from Peru raised to believe that a mountain is a spirit or deity. The issue is not who's right and who's wrong, but how does a belief system of both parties change or influence their relationship to landscape.

I was raised in the rainforests of British Columbia to believe that those forests existed to be cut. That was the foundation of the ideology of scientific forestry that I learned in school and practiced as a logger in the woods. That made me profoundly different than my friends amongst First Nations who believed that those forests were the abode of spirits, the crooked beak of heaven, and the cannibal spirits that dwelled at the north end of the world that had to be embraced during the Hummet's initiation so that the wisdom of the wild could come back to the crop lives.

The interesting things isn't whether I was right about whether forests are really cellulose and board feed or if they're spirits. Look at the consequences of the two belief systems. The First Nations lived in those forests with a modest ecological footprint for generations. In but two or three generations, my particular cultural heritage tore those forests asunder.

I think it's worth remembering where we got this idea. When Descartes famously said that "all of existence is mind and matter," in a single gesture he not only swept away all instincts for mysticism, myth and magic, he also devitalized the Earth. A process that reached it's culmination in the twentieth century when Saul Bellow famously said "science has made a housecleaning of belief."

For us, the Earth has become just an inanimate object ready to be exploited for our own economic needs. Most people around the world do not view the Earth that way. That doesn't mean that they're sitting there in some kind of innocent bliss, having no impact on the Earth. Rather, they have this complex reciprocal relationship with the Earth which is played out in ritual. Ritual obligations that go both ways.

Tags: Amazonia | Canada | Extinction | Latin America | TreeHugger Radio


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