Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Wade Davis (@wadedavisofficial, daviswade.com), professor of anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. Between 2000 and 2013, he served as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. Named by the NGS as one of the Explorers for the Millennium, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.”
An ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, Wade holds degrees in anthropology and biology and a PhD in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among 15 indigenous groups while making some 6000 botanical collections. His work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies, an assignment that led to his writing The Serpent and the Rainbow, an international bestseller, later released by Universal as a motion picture. In recent years, his work has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, Mongolia, and the high Arctic of Nunavut and Greenland.
Wade is the author of 375 scientific and popular articles and 23 books, including One River, The Wayfinders, Into the Silence, and Magdalena. His photographs have been widely exhibited and have appeared in 37 books and 130 magazines, including National Geographic, Time, Geo, People, Men’s Journal, and Outside. He was curator of “The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes,” first exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. In 2012 he served as guest curator of “No Strangers: Ancient Wisdom in the Modern World,” at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. He was curator of “Everest: Ascent to Glory,” Bowers Museum, February 12–August 28, 2022. National Geographic has published two collections of his photography: Light at the Edge of the World (2001) and Wade Davis: Photographs (2018).
His 40 film credits include Light at the Edge of the World, an eight-hour documentary series written and produced for National Geographic. His most recent film, El Sendero de la Anaconda, a 90-minute feature documentary shot in the Northwest Amazon, is available on Netflix.
A professional speaker for 30 years, Wade has lectured at over 200 universities and 250 corporations and professional associations. In 2009 he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures. He has spoken from the main stage at TED five times, and his three posted talks have been viewed by 8 million. His books have appeared in 22 languages and sold approximately one million copies.
Wade, one of 20 Honorary Members of the Explorers Club, is Honorary Vice President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and recipient of 12 honorary degrees. He has been awarded the 2009 Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the 2011 Explorers Medal, the 2012 David Fairchild Medal for botanical exploration, the 2015 Centennial Medal of Harvard University, the 2017 Roy Chapman Andrews Society’s Distinguished Explorer Award, the 2017 Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration, and the 2018 Mungo Park Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In 2016, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 2018 he became an Honorary Citizen of Colombia.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Wade, welcome to the show. It is an honor to have you. I’ve been meaning to reach out for a very long time and I appreciate you carving out the time in your schedule.
Wade Davis: Well, thanks very much, Tim. It’s great to be with you.
Tim Ferriss: And I suppose I should just say as a bit of context, the catalyst for reaching out was not one of your many TED Talks, although I’ve listened to many. It was not One River, although I’m familiar with that as well. It was actually being gifted The Wayfinders by a friend of mine. And I suppose just as a way of setting the stage, if you wouldn’t mind, could you explain the basic intent of that book and the lectures that preceded it? And I’m curious, since it was published sometime ago, if there is one story that you wish people would become familiar with, or a chapter that you wish you could compel many, many people to read at this point in time?
Wade Davis: Yeah, well that’s a wonderful beginning, Tim. The Wayfinders was a book put together in a really wonderful tradition in Canada called the CBC Massey Lectures. And it’s a fantastic event where once each year they pick what they call a public intellectual, and you’re asked to give five different talks in five different cities before live audiences. Those talks are recorded for broadcast on the radio three times during this coming year, and then the lectures themselves are wrapped up into a book. And it’s kind of an interesting thing because as opposed to most public speaking, you’ve got a lot of things going on. You’re recording for live radio, you’ve got a live audience, and you’re also essentially delivering the lecture that’s already been published and often is in the lap of the audience if they’ve bought the book. But it’s a great tradition. Martin Luther King gave them, I was the first anthropologist since Claude Lévi-Strauss,
The Wayfinders has a very conversational style and I think that’s one reason it’s been quite successful, and particularly for college students. And the basis of the book was really the mission that I had at the National Geographic. I was very fortunate to be recruited as the first class of what the Geographic was calling their explorers and residents, which is kind of an odd term because none of us were ever in residence.
They wanted to demonstrate, personify that they didn’t just report science, they generated science. And so that they recruited seven individuals, Jane Goodall, Bob Ballard, who found the Titanic, Sylvia Earle, the great oceanographer, a host of incredible characters, Johan Reinhard, the high-altitude archeologist who found the Ice Maiden, a perfectly preserved Incan mummy on Llullaillaco. And they recruited me as a cultural anthropologist, and it was very much part of a conservation mission. In the second hundred years, having told you about the world, National Geographic was going to help you save the world. And my mission, as defined in my contract, was to change the way the world viewed and valued culture in a decade. And the way to do that was not through politics or polemics, but through storytelling.
Because storytellers, as you well know Tim, change the world. And what we were trying to share with the public was kind of the fundamental revelation of anthropology. The idea that the other peoples of the world aren’t failed attempts of being you. They’re not failed attempts of being modern. Every culture is a unique answer to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that, they do so in the 7,000 different voices of humanity. And all those answers kind of collectively become our human repertoire. And so we also wanted to draw people’s attention to the kind of haunting fact that out of those 7,000 languages spoken the day you, Tim, and I were born, by absolute academic consensus, half are not being taught to children. Which means they’re moribund, on the brink of extinction, if not exhaustion.
And that means in effect that we’re living through an era where half of humanity’s intellectual, social, spiritual, even ecological knowledge is at risk. And at the same time, and this is the amazing thing, we’re living through an era where geneticists have finally proven it to be true what philosophers and poets have always dreamt to be true, that we really are all brothers and sisters. And I don’t mean that in the spirit of hippie ethnography. I mean that studies of the human genome have shown without doubt that the genetic endowment of humanity is a continuum. Race is a total fiction. We’re all cut from the same genetic cloth. We’re all descendants of Africa, including those of us who walked out of the ancient continent 65,000 years ago. But here’s the astonishing thing. If we’re cut from the same genetic cloth, by definition, we share the same genius.
And how that genius is expressed is simply a matter of choice and cultural adaptation. And so there is no hierarchy in culture. That old Victorian idea that we went from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized, to the Strand of London. That Victorian societies sat at the apex of a pyramid that went down to the so-called primitives of the world, absolutely ridiculed by modern science, shown to be an artifact of the 19th century, irrelevant to our lives today, and as distant from those lives as the idea of clergymen in that era who believed the Earth was only 6,000 years old. So then the question is, how do you share this? How do you reveal this kind of wondrous thing about culture to the world? You know, you have to show, you can’t tell. Polemics are never persuasive. So the reason that book, The Wayfinders, it tells the story of the expeditions that we did to share this message across the world. And so we deliberately, and it wasn’t easy, we didn’t want to simply go out as so many ethnographic filmmakers tend to do, celebrating the exoticism of the other. We really wanted to go to places where the beliefs and practices revealed this extraordinary universal truth. And I think if you asked which was the most extraordinary of all, and it would have to be the Polynesian Wayfinders.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that blew my mind.
Wade Davis: The type of story of the book. I mean, this is just an amazing thing if you think about it. Even today, members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society can name 250 stars in the night sky. They can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon just by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of their sacred canoe, The Hōkūleʻa, this great vessel that is a symbol of this Polynesian renaissance. In the darkness in the hull, they can distinguish as many as five different sea swells, again, moving through the water, distinguishing those caused by local weather disturbances from those that pulsate across the ocean and can be followed with the ease with which terrestrial explorer would follow a river to the sea. And each of these chapters in that book, Tim, and the subjects also became films, of course that we did for the Geographic. I kind of tried to find, not a punchline, but a kind of line that would sum it all up. And so with Polynesia, it was very simple. If you took all of the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to an understanding of the ocean, what you would get is Polynesia.
Tim Ferriss: I found it so striking, and I may be using the wrong terms, that the captain and the navigator were two entirely distinct functions. And that’s a great example to me of perhaps just a fundamentally different way of viewing seafaring when you come from a western lens. And I really enjoyed that book. I encourage everybody to pick it up. And if it’s okay with you, I would love to actually segue to another culture, another group.
Wade Davis: But Tim, before we leave Polynesia, let me just add one thing that just to clarify things for your listeners. The amazing thing about this tradition was that it was based on dead reckoning, which means that you only know where you are by remembering how you got there. And it was the impossibility of doing that that kept most European transports hugging the shores of continents until the British solved the problem of longitude with the invention of the chronometer. But we know that 10 centuries before Christ, from an ancient civilization called Lapita, the ancient ancestors of the Polynesians set sail into the rising sun. And this idea of dead reckoning means, and back to your navigator, why he’s not running the ship, because he or she must sit monk-like on the back of the vessel, remembering every shift of the wind, every tack, every sign of the sun, the moon, the stars, the birds, the salinity in the water, every one of these empirical observations, and the order of their acquisition. And if that memory chain is broken, the voyage can end in a disaster. And all of this has to be done by an individual who lives in a civilization that lacks the written word. So all of this has to be placed in memory over a three-and four-week voyage. Think about that. Tell me that is not a form of genius.
Tim Ferriss: Not just a form of genius, but a form of endurance. Almost beyond belief. How many hours of sleep on average over the voyage per day, or per night with that navigator get?
Wade Davis: It’s a great question because they kind of catnap in a way, but they can’t really do much more than just catnapping. It’s funny, this idea of sleep. We’re so wired to the clock that we feel that we’ve somehow done something filthy or nasty if we only sleep four hours. But many societies around — I spend a lot of time in the Arctic, and one of the things that’s fascinating is that winter is a time for sleep, the air of perpetual darkness. And summer, the light is luminous all day long and it’s not even appropriate to sleep. You kind of catnap with your dogs, but there’s just too much to be done.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s shift just a bit or maybe entirely to the Kogi peoples of Northern Colombia. You are deeply, deeply familiar and intimate with Colombia and its people. I had the opportunity through a mutual acquaintance, Dr. Mark Plotkin, to meet a mamo and small group of Kogi, but it was a very cursory experience and they were very select with their words and communication. Could you describe the Kogi people of Northern Colombia and perhaps just paint a picture for people of what that culture and what those peoples look like? Because I find them to stand out, at least for me, amongst the cultures I’ve been exposed to in a number of ways.
Wade Davis: Yeah, it’s truly remarkable. They live in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The highest coastal mountain range on Earth that soars out of the Caribbean coastal plain to about 20,000 feet. There are four indigenous groups, the Kogi you mentioned, the Wiwa, the Arhuacos, and the Kankuamo. The Kankuamo in the 19th century kind of cut a Faustian deal with the greater Colombian society and endured a great deal of assimilation. And they’re kind of struggling to get back to their traditional ways. But the other three societies remain absolutely extraordinary. And in a bloodstained continent, you can almost say they were never conquered by the Spanish fully. They are descendants of an ancient civilization called Tairona, which suffered immensely in the first decades of the Spanish conquest. And the survivors fled into this mountain massif where they lived almost in total isolation, very little reference to them in the colonial documents, for 200, if not 300 years.
And it’s almost as if they had suffered so much that they made a kind of collective vow never to screw up again. And I think that accounts for their intense religiosity. Many people call them the Tibetans of South America, but they live to this day inspired by a ritual priesthood, the mamos, the sun priests. And the training for the priesthood is extraordinary. It was first reported in the 1940s by Reichel-Dolmatoff that the acolytes were taken away from their families at the age of two and three, and then sequestered in the shadowy world of darkness for 18 years during which time they absorbed the religious beliefs of their society. And it’s their sincere convection that those beliefs, those rituals, those prayers literally maintain the cosmic, or we might say the ecological balance of the world. And according to Reichel, after 18 years in which the world only existed as an abstraction, the young acolyte was taken out and taken on a journey.
And for the first time in his life at the age of 18 or 19, he saw the horizon. He saw the mountains, he saw the sun, and suddenly the priest who has trained them all these years says, “You know it’s that beautiful, as I’ve promised you. It’s yours to protect.” Now this was almost a fable within anthropology because Reichel never saw the ritual. He never went on one of those pilgrimages to the Heart of the World. Then an amazing thing happened. I first lived with the Arhuacos when I was a lad of 19 and 20. In fact, when you mentioned, it’s amazing, I’ve now been close with them for almost 50 years. They, in fact, the Arhuacos call me their Mamo Occidental. I was once with President Santos, the Nobel laureate, the first time he ever visited Nabusimake. And the mamos had asked me to be there to welcome him, and I hitched a ride in the presidential plane.
And when we got to the community, there was a kind of formal ceremony in which the president introduced his invitados, his ministers and so on. And he got around to me and he couldn’t have been more generous with his praise and his kind words, but he was interrupted by one of the mamos who said, “You don’t have to tell us about that guy. He’s our ambassador in North America.” And so I have a very wonderful relationship to them. But here’s what was extraordinary. In one wintry day in Washington, the Colombian ambassador then, Carolina Barco, a good friend of mine, turned up at my office at the Geographic with a political leader, Danilo Villafañe and three mamos, one from each of the three cultures. Wiwa, Kogi, and Arhuaco. They were there because the BBC had made a film and the Arhuacos felt they hadn’t had their say and they wanted to make their own film.
So they’d come to me and as I’m looking at this guy, Danilo, he looks so much like an old friend of mine. So I pulled out a book of mine, One River, which happened to have a photograph in the frontispiece of one of the chapters. And I showed him the photo and that was Danilo’s father, and who was murdered by the paramilitaries. And I said to Danilo, “Son, you don’t remember, but when you were a little infant, I carried you on my back for weeks up and down the mountains with your father.” And he was so touched by that and the connection was so strong that he invited us to do what I would’ve thought was the impossible. To actually go along on a journey to the Heart of the World and make a film about this idea and the pilgrimage. And the idea is very simple.
As you come out of the sacred temple — and what we discovered is they don’t stay 18 years in the darkness, but 18 years in seclusion around the temple and a ritual diet, not seeing women. And then they do go from the temple to the ice, and from the ice back to the sea, and from the sea back to the temple, completing this sort of sacred devotional pilgrimage of the divine. And we made that film. Unfortunately at the very penultimate stage of the pilgrimage, we were kind of ambushed by the FARC and we had to escape and turn our cameras over to one of the Wiwa lads that we had trained in cinematography. And with incredible skill, he finished those segments of the film. So we actually had the entire pilgrimage documented. But I think there’s a bigger point to make about the elder brothers, as they call themselves. They dismiss all of us who have ruined the world as the younger brothers.
And these are societies that do not view the world through an extractive paradigm. They do not think that the world is just a kind of a stage set upon which only the human drama unfolds. They don’t buy into the old Descartesian idea that all that exists is mind and matter, and that only things that can be measured can exist. That whole kind of idea that we develop in the European tradition that has now become so dominant, so powerful, so ubiquitous, but it is not the norm. It is highly anomalous. Most societies interact with the natural world through the kind of metaphor of reciprocity. Some idea that the Earth gives its bounty to us. We owe our fidelity to the Earth. And that’s very much how the mamos see their role as representatives of the natural order of things. It’s funny, when I was first asked by them to go and be there, when President Santos arrived, one of my close friends, a man called Mamo Camilo, said to me something very profound.
He said, “Peace won’t matter,” and this is after 50 years of Colombia’s horrific war. “Peace won’t matter if it’s only an excuse for the three sides to come together to maintain a war against nature. It’s time for us to make peace with the entire natural world.” And as we flew up to Valledupar on the presidential jet from Bogota, all of the president’s aides were peppering him with statistics for his speech in the community that was going to be broadcast internationally. And I kind of sheepishly put up my hand and I said, in Spanish, “President Santos, for the mamos, statistics don’t matter a rat’s ass. What they care about is what’s in your heart.” And then I told him what Mamo Camilo had said. And President Santos, an incredibly wonderful man, incorporated that and made that the theme of his speech that went out that day to the world.
Tim Ferriss: I was very struck by, and I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I’ll just say, struck by how central pagamientos — offerings and payments — seem to be to certainly the mamos, but broadly speaking, the Kogi. And I appreciate all the context that you just provided. I would also love you, and we could spend five hours just discussing what I’m about to bring up. But I also would love to ask you about coca. So many people are familiar with coca as a leaf that is chewed or something that has turned into cocaine. But could you talk a bit about mambe? So this is a word and something that has come up in my radius a number of times, but what is mambe? Where is it used? How is it prepared?
Wade Davis: Coca is a generic term for two different cultivated species and four different varieties that have been exploited by people in South America, perhaps as long as 8,000 years, certainly 5,000 years. And I should say that coca is to cocaine what potatoes are to vodka. And the two main types of coca, one is called Colombian, that’s Erythroxylum novogranatense, and the other is a classic coca of the Southern Andes, of Cusco and Lapas, that is Erythroxylum coca. Now in pre-Columbian times, a variety of that was taken down the Amazon into the jungles of the northwest Amazon. And this variety, which is known as Erythroxylum coca variety ipadu is cultivated vegetatively, not from seed. It also has half the alkaloid concentration. And so in a very interesting way, the peoples of the Anaconda, all these extraordinary societies, the Barasana, Macuna, Tukano, Cubeo, Ticuna, I mean there’s scores of these extraordinary cultures.
They’ve learned to take the leaves, roast them over a clay griddle, and then rather than taking the leaf orally and mixing some kind of alkaline with it, baking soda or limestone or ashes of certain plants, as you’ll see in the mountains of southern Peru, they add the ash of the leaves of the tree known as yaruma. And then they pound the two together until you get a very fine powder, which becomes even more fine when sifted through palm fiber. It’s the consistency of talc. And with mambe then, you take the actual coca with a bone like this. This is a mambe bone right here. And you put the wad onto your mouth and you let the saliva kind of soften it and you don’t really talk or breathe, or the whole works will just explode as a green cloud. And as it’s moist, you then lift it up as a quid.
And the advantage of course is that by taking coca in this way, you absorb the entire plant and thus all the nutrients. I mean one of the, just be before I just finish that, then the other coca, the coca of the Kogi that we talked about, that is Erythroxylum novogranatense, it’s the coca of Colombia. And that coca was taken down the coast to Trujillo in the northern desert of Peru. And that became the preferred coca of the Inca. It’s got a little wintergreen oil in it, it’s Erythroxylum novogranatense variety truxillense, and that of course was a preferred coca that to this day, Coca-Cola imports each year by the ton allowing their beverage to really be the real thing. The fascinating story, Tim, is that I worked with Tim Plowman, a protege of my professor Schultes, Mark’s professor, in the ’70s, and we were charged to work out the botany, the ethnobotany, the ethnography of coca.
And at that time we thought that the coca of Colombia, for classic botanical reasons, was derived from the coca of Peru. But now that we have DNA, we see a greater story. It turns out that these two sacred plants used for 8,000 years, revered as a divine leaf of immortality by every culture in the Andes, all come from the same wild ancestor, a species known as Erythroxylum gracilipes, which grows along the eastern flanks of the Andes. Now that may seem like arcane botany talk to many of our listeners, but it’s actually a miracle. Because to have two revered plants independently domesticated through a process of artificial selection, thousands of miles apart, and yet each deemed to be sacred essence of the divine, is unheard of. No precedent in all of the history of botany and of human cultures. And so this is the richness of coca.
Now, the extraordinary thing is that the efforts to eradicate coca fields began 50 years before there was a cocaine problem. In the 1920s, physicians in Lima in particular looked up into the Andes and their concern for the well-being of Andean people was matched in intensity only by their ignorance of Andean life. And when they saw illiteracy, poor sanitation, one social pathology after the other, they had to find a cause. And because issues of economics, land distribution, inequity came too close to challenging the bourgeois foundations of their lives in Lima, they had to find the evil source. And the source was coca. And they blamed coca for every ill in the Andes. And through all those years, these doctors and physicians and nutritionists never did the obvious, a nutritional study to show just what this plant actually had in it. And when we finally did that in the mid-1970s, Andrew Weil, Tim Plowman, Jim Duke at the USDA, we discovered, horrified our backers at the DEA and the US government, because it turns out that coca has a tiny amount of cocaine in it, absorbed benignly as a mild stimulant by the mucus membrane of the mouth, absolutely without harm.
The plant also has more calcium than any plant ever studied, perfect for a traditional diet without a dairy product. It also is chock full of vitamins. It even has enzymes that enhance the body’s ability to digest carbohydrate at high elevation, making it perfect for the potato-based diet. So in one simple nutritional study that could have been done at any time, we put into stark profile these hideous efforts that are underway, to this day, to destroy the traditional fields. And we showed that this was a plant that had been used with no evidence of toxicity, let alone addiction, for at least 5,000 years. And so one of our big efforts today is to decouple coca from cocaine and create a nutraceutical market for the plant that will give a legal market for the 150,000 families in Colombia alone that depend on cultivating coca for their survival. And also through taxes may just give Colombia the revenue necessary to pay the cost of peace, having drained its treasury for 50 years to pay the cost of a war only made possible by the sordid profits of prohibition.
Tim Ferriss: So we may come back to coca, and as you’re discussing the nutritional profile, it makes me also think of the role that coffee serves in some populations in the world. But I would love to go to some well-trodden ground, and this is out of personal curiosity and also because I think that many people will want to hear more of the background here. And then we’re going to probably come to discuss a number of mentors of yours. But I would love to hear you expand on TTX and Datura stramonium, if I’m pronouncing that right, and how you came across these two in combination. Because I think Datura stramonium, also known as Jimson weed, if I’m not getting that —
Wade Davis: Yeah, that’s right.
Tim Ferriss: — incorrect, grows right in my driveway in Texas. It’s found in all sorts of places. TTX, a little less so. But could you just provide the background on where you came across these two?
Wade Davis: Sure. This is an incredible story, a kind of an assignment of a lifetime that would completely change my trajectory. I had done a lot of work in the Amazon, three years in fact, through the Andes and the Amazon. And I had studied anthropology, but I never really understood the real message of anthropology until I went to Haiti. I’ll explain that in a moment.
But what happened is that a very well-known psychopharmacologist by the name of Nathan Kline, psychopharmacology being the study of the action of drugs on the brain, had been going to Haiti for many years. The psychiatric institute bore his name. He had set it up. A close colleague of his at McGill University, Heinz Lehmann, had a former student, Lamarque Douyon, who is now the director of that psychiatric institute. And Douyon was fascinated by the Haitian zombie phenomena, and of course by folkloric belief, the zombie is a living dead. It’s an individual who has had their soul stolen by sorcery, kind of propelled into a perpetual state of purgatory, said to be associated with enslavement.
And this was sort of something very much from the realm of the phantasmagoric. But Douyon had been paying attention and investigating every case that came his way. And finally he discovered this remarkable story of a man called Clairvius Narcisse, who in the early 1960s had been misdiagnosed dead, or he been diagnosed dead by two physicians, both American-trained and one an the American, in the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Central Haiti, an American-directed institution that keeps impeccable records. And this man claiming to be Narcisse later walked into his village in about 1980, ’81, claiming to be the long-lost brother. The family member had no doubt, but they immediately told him to get lost and he had to escape to the police station for his own safety. And when Douyon looked into this, he was able to secure death certificates. Scotland Yard verified with their forensic expertise, the fingerprints that belonged to the sister of the deceased.
There were a score of lines of evidence that suggests that this man clearly had been misdiagnosed dead and somehow turned up in the realm of living. And in fact, Douyon went to the family members and put together a questionnaire of intimate information of the family background, all of which this man answered correctly. So the bottom line is that Douyon and Lehmann and Dr. Kline went public saying they felt they had found the first zombie. Now that drew their attention to reports of a folk poison that was said to bring on a state of apparent death so profound it could fool a physician. Now this poison wasn’t just mentioned in travelers’ accounts and missionary memoirs and in ethnographic reports, it was specifically mentioned in the penal code of the country. But Douyon had not been able to find the poison. He hadn’t secured a formula of it. And this was key to the whole question of the Haitian zombie. It was either something from the realm of fantasy or if it was real, there had to be a natural product. And if that product existed, that could make someone appear to be dead such that they could come back in the realm of living undamaged, that had huge potential medical applications as Kline saw it.
So they came to Harvard, Schultes said he was too old to go, but he said he knew someone who could do the job. And that’s how I was hired to go down to Haiti to secure this poison. Now remember, I wasn’t looking for a poison that could kill people. Lots of things can do that. I was looking for something much more rare, which was a poison that could bring someone to the state of apparent death so profound, it could fool a physician and yet the victim could survive. And so I did what one does. I contacted a sorcerer who was very — he had been described by the BBC as the incarnation of evil. He was nothing of the sort. He had a whorehouse and a bunch of Dominican women and he had been a junior member of the Tonton Macoutes. But I was able to establish, through a little bit of theatrics, a good relationship with him.
Tim Ferriss: What was the group that you mentioned? I’m not familiar with it. A junior member of what group?
Wade Davis: The Tonton Macoutes. Tonton in Creole means “Uncle.” Macoute means “shoulder bag.” This was the nickname for the volunteers for the national security. The militia that was set up by François Duvalier in the wake of his presidential election in 1957. And this is a pivotal part of the story because Duvalier was the first president in a hundred years to say that Vodou was legitimate religion. He had Vodou temples in the presidential palace. He wore the costume of Baron Samedi, the guardian of the dead, of the graveyard. He played Vodou like a charm. And he used the secret societies as his base of power. And from them, as my research would discover, he created this notorious force, the Tonton Macoutes. And it means that if you misbehave, they will come and take you away in their shoulder bag. And so I went out with Marcel after this bit of theater that we did to — it was kind of funny. I’ll tell you about it sometime —
Tim Ferriss: I want to hear about the theater. Yeah. How do you develop a rapport?
Wade Davis: Well, what happened was I went to him with a good friend of mine, Max Beauvoir, who, when he died, was sort of heralded as a Pope of Vodou, an amazing kind of conduit for the outside world to understand Vodou. And again, I should say right off the top, Tim, that we have this idea of Vodou from the movies. It couldn’t be more wrong. And just think for a moment, if we were asked to name the great religions of the world, what continent would we leave out? Sub-Saharan Africa. And of course, Vodou is not a black magic cult. It’s a Fon word from Dahomey or Benin that means “spirit” or “god.” It’s just the distillation of very profound religious ideas that came over during the era of slavery and then became transformed within the soil of a new world. That’s why you have Hoodoo in the American South, Candomblé in Brazil, Obeah in Jamaica, and so on — Santería in the DR, and of course, Vodou in Haiti.
And Vodou took a particular strong form in Haiti because as opposed to the other countries I mentioned, Haiti was an independent Black country, the only one in the world for a century, gained its independence in 1804. And at that time, much of its population, the slaves, had literally been born in Africa. So in many ways, you can almost argue that Haiti’s more Africa than Africa itself at this point. But at any rate, I saw Marcel and he made me the powder, but I knew the way he made it, the ingredients, that it was kind of bogus. And so instead of telling him that, I doubled what I had promised to pay him, and as I left the hounfour, the temple, I mentioned I was going to try it on an enemy I had in the capital and I’d let him know how it worked.
And then with a deliberate piece of theater, Max Beauvoir and I stormed back a week later and screamed and yelled at him that we had nearly gotten killed, that his powder was worthless, so he couldn’t do a thing. And of course he, then, got furious and he went into the inner sanctum in the temple and came out with a bottle, a little vial. And he said in Creole, “If you don’t think I know how to make poison, drink this, you won’t walk out of here alive.” And then all the Dominican girls started going, “Bwè! Bwè! Drink, drink, drink!” And it was a bit tense. And so I said to Marcel, “Look. It’s not that you don’t know how to make good poison. I came all this way because I know you can. I’m just saying what you made me is garbage. And if you give me garbage, you’ll never see me again. But if you give me the real thing, you might make a lot of money from us.”
And then I walked out. And I went back the next day and the proper ingredients were drying on the clothesline. And then we went into the inner sanctum, the temple, and he took a bottle of raw alcohol with human remains in it and all kinds of animals and gore of one sort or the other, and he handed it to me and I took a big drink and handed it right back to him. And he laughed. And I think it was the first time of many times that a Haitian would say to me, “Ki kalite Blan say ou?” — “What kind of White are you, anyway?” And so that was the beginning of my relationship.
Tim Ferriss: Were you not worried about drinking that?
Wade Davis: No.
Tim Ferriss: What was the expectation of the ingredients?
Wade Davis: Well, it was just a ritual vessel of magical things.
Tim Ferriss: I see.
Wade Davis: He’s a sorcerer, a negative priest, and it’s all been pickled in sugar cane alcohol. Part of it is, it’s not like macho. It’s actually a more subtle, more poetic, more beautiful thing. Tim, how do you break down the barrier between yourself and the people with whom you find yourself living as a guest? And it’s never bravado or macho. It’s actually always love and empathy and letting people know that you believe they’re somebody. And it seems so simple, but you’d be astonished how many people I encountered, particularly in Haiti, including Dr. Kline, who had no way whatsoever of hanging out with those folks, just couldn’t do it.
And that’s what I’ve been doing all my life. But the important thing is, from the Haitian point of view, the poison is not what makes a zombie. And that’s really important and that explains how I got the formula so quickly. But the funny part of this story is that it was Easter Sunday when I returned to the United States through JFK airport, and I had this suitcase made of surplus 7UP tin cans that was filled to the gunnels with human bones, all the ingredients in various forms. I had a live Bufo marinus toad in my backpack, the biggest toad in the world, 10 inches across, and I had no permits. And you couldn’t do —
Tim Ferriss: Customs dream.
Wade Davis: Yeah. You couldn’t do this post 9/11. But I went up to this customs agent and I just said, “Well, let’s just see what he says.” So I opened up this thing, so only he could see it. And he slammed it shut, Tim. And I’m not going to give you exactly what he said because they are children listening to your podcast.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no. This doesn’t need to be family friendly. What did he say? You can tell us.
Wade Davis: He literally said in a New York accent, “Look, it’s Easter fucking Sunday. I didn’t even want to work fucking work today. I don’t know who the fuck you are. Just get the fuck out of here.” And that’s how the zombie poison came into America.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Thank God for Easter Sunday and that guy.
Wade Davis: But then here’s where we get to your TTX. I analyzed the plants, took the reptiles to the herpatologist and all the various creatures to the various specialists. And I finally got around to the fish. And I went to see the ichthyologist in the basement of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. And this was like out of a movie. And I say to this wonderful character, “Did you find anything in those fish?” And he had his head inside a white shark. And as he heard me, he bounced his head against the teeth, pulled his head out and said, “I thought you were the poison people” because our museum was the world center for the study of medicinal toxic plants and hallucinogens, and then he goes to the shelf and he doesn’t pull out The Journal of Ichthyology, he pulls out a pocketbook dimestore novel, and it turns out to be written by Ian Fleming.
And it was either From Russia with Love or from Dr. No. And at the one end of those two books, 007 gets kicked in the shin by the bad guy and dies and he comes back to life in the next book because he’s been kicked with the poison tetrodotoxin. And that is what blew open the zombie study.
Tim Ferriss: TTX. Tetrodotoxin.
Wade Davis: Right. Because tetrodotoxin is a big molecule that selectively blocks sodium channels and brings on peripheral paralysis, dramatically low metabolic rates, and consciousness is retained until death. And when you looked at the symptoms of Narcisse, they match perfectly the symptoms of victims of fugu fish poisoning in Japan. The fugu fish is a culinary delicacy. The chef must eliminate most of the TTX, but not all, because he wants the connoisseur to enjoy the pleasant after effects of a mild intoxication. But because some people screw up, lots of people have died.
And there was a whole literature in Japan and in the public, in newspapers, case after case after case, of people nailed into their coffins by mistake. So this changed everything. This suggested without doubt that the sorcerers in Haiti had found, in their environment, a natural product that not only could make someone appear to be dead, but had done so many times in the past. So then you had to ask, what really is a zombie? Who’s controlling the process? And the end, I was able to become the first person from outside of Haiti ever to be initiated into the Bizango, Sanpwèl, the secret societies that produced the Tonton Macoutes, and I was able to at least suggest that zombification was a form of ultimate social sanction in which the individual lost their personal autonomy and their physical freedom and became cast into a state of purgatory that was, in a sense, worse than death.
So just before we leave zombies, the whole purpose of this was, let’s define the drugs used to make zombies because no drug can make a social phenomena, but rather to take a phenomena that had been used in an explicitly racist way, to denigrate an entire culture and its religion, and to try to make sense out of sensation. And so if the scientists sent me to Haiti to find the chemicals used to make zombies, I found myself instead studying the psychological, social, historical, political dimensions of a chemical possibility. And that’s what made the research so exciting. The pursuit of that little preparation opened up these historic and ethnographic vistas that no one had seen before.
Tim Ferriss: I have two questions related to this, and I’m sure we could have dozens more, but there are so many other things I’d love to chat about. But two follow-up questions. The first is, what role, if any, does the Datura play in this entire process? And there are documented deaths every year, in the United States at least, related to people who attempt to DIY some type of trip from Datura. So the role of Datura, if any. And then secondly, and this is based on a somewhat fragmented recollection of watching some type of news program that was purportedly covering this social phenomenon of zombification. And my impression from that was that some people remain in servitude for other people as zombies for an extended period of time. And I’m wondering if there is — what are the primary contributing factors to a situation like that?
Wade Davis: Well, one of the things you always have to do in this kind of research is separate what we might call the emic from the etic, which are unnecessarily technical terms in anthropology, the view from within, the view from without. Why don’t the people in India eat cows? Well, it’s prohibited by the scriptures, but also they need the oxen to work the fields. Those would be the two points of view.
First, let me answer your question about Datura. Datura is in the solanaceae, the potato family, the family of choice of black magicians around the world. The tree Daturas, the brugmansias in South America, are known as the jaguar’s intoxicant, the tree of the evil eagle. And these plants have in them powerful tropane alkaloids, scopolamine and atropine in particular, that induce a state of psychotic delirium, visions of hellfire, a burning thirst, amnesia, a sensation of flight. These are incredibly dangerous and horrific plants that the shaman in the Andes take only if everything else fails, almost with the idea that just in touching the realm of madness, they might achieve illumination.
And what’s interesting, and going back to the victims of tetrodotoxication in Japan, if you eat fugu fish and you get poisoned and you’re put into your coffin and you’re lucky enough to be rescued, you come out of the coffin and you say, “Oh, that’s terrible. What a mistake. I’ll never eat fugu again.” But that’s the end of it, right? But remember, the Haitian doesn’t sit around questioning whether zombies exist. He or she knows in the fiber of their being that they do and or she knows why a zombie is made, a form of punishment within the traditional culture. And so we don’t know exactly what might or might not occur.
We know that tetrodotoxin reaches a crisis in about six hours. And if you survive that crisis, you have no physiological damage whatsoever. But of course, in the case of the Haitian zombie, whether the individual is symbolically put into the ground, placed behind a shade or hidden from view, whatever, when they come out of the tetrodotoxication, they know what’s happened to them and they’re in a state of incredible suggestibility and fear. And what the Datura may serve, it’s known as the konkonm zonbi, the zombie’s cucumber. And I was at least told by many informants that at that point of disorientation, the victim is given Datura, which must be an extraordinary, horrific experience, and one that would sort of seal the psychological conviction that he or she had, in fact, been punished in this way.
Now, when you mentioned the idea of slavery, well, there’s no incentive to create, in Haiti, a force of indentured labor. But again, critically given the colonial history, slavery implies a destiny almost worse than life itself. And by the same token, I mentioned earlier that they don’t believe the poison creates a zombie. To make a zombie, I have to capture, Tim, your little good angel, your soul, the soul that makes you Tim Ferriss as opposed to the soul that makes me Wade Davis, not the soul that we both share, that all sentient beings share, but the soul that creates your personality. That’s why a zombie appears comatose. The fear in Haiti is not of zombies, it’s of becoming a zombie. And so I once asked a Vodou priest, for example, if it was just a matter of returning the soul to the victim, could that be done and the person made whole? And the man who I asked that question was the great emperor of the secret societies.
He had been head of the Tonton Macoutes for a fifth of the country. I once asked Herard if during the revolution he had ever killed anybody. He said, “I never killed any people, just enemies.” And so I asked him, “Couldn’t you just give the soul back to the person?” And he said, “Yeah, you could do that. But on the other hand, blan, if you were a woman, would you want an ex-zombie to ask you to dance?” And of course, what he was getting at is that a zombie becomes a total pariah.
Now, remember what I said about Narcisse when he first went back to his village. Nobody doubted that it was the long-lost, presumed-to-be-dead brother. But did they welcome him with open arms?
Tim Ferriss: No.
Wade Davis: No. They told him, “Get the hell out of here.” Because he had died socially. He had died spiritually. They wanted nothing to do with him. And that, really, is what a zombie is all about.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, thank you for that. And part of the reason I was asking about the Datura, as I do have some familiarity with brugmansia and have had some exposure to the Awajún or the Aguarunas who use it pretty extensively for not just dark purposes or power purposes, but for many different conditions. But my understanding is that also organized crime, I want to say in Colombia, for a period of time, was using brugmansia seeds, which I think they’re called burundanga. They would pulverize and someone with a map would walk up to a mark and say, “Could you tell me where this place is?” blow the powder into their face, at which point that person would become highly suggestible and also have developed amnesia. So you could, say, take someone back to their own apartment, ask them to help load their things into a truck. They would have no recollection of this even though they would be coherent interacting with security guards. And for that reason, I was wondering if, perhaps, the Datura was used in a similar fashion to increase suggestibility?
Wade Davis: You’re absolutely right on, Tim. The word Datura, the name of the genus, comes from ancient India. Bands of criminals known as the Daturas who used it as a knockout drug.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. I did not know that. Wow.
Wade Davis: I was once in San Agustín with a Colombian and this Australian kind of hippie guy, this is back in the early ’70s, and he spoke about how he ate a bunch of tree Datura in his hotel on the coast and ended up walking around naked, the Barranquilla, a public market for five days before he was finally arrested. And at our table, Tim, there was a wonderful Colombian hippie girl who looked up at me and said, “I know that market. I wouldn’t even buy a mango there.”
But I’ll tell you in my book, Magdalena, about the Great River of Colombia, there’s a story of my good friend William Vargas, who was on his way to university. And these stories, like you recounted, are part of travelers’ lore in Colombia. But I had never met anyone who had actually endured this. And someone on a bus offered him a cake or a cookie, which he ate. And that was the last thing he remembered. And he came to four days later in a kind of psychic horror, having lost everything that he owned and had his entire psychological state shattered. So these are very powerful drugs indeed.
Tim Ferriss: So I guess there are a few lessons. Number one, don’t take or accept candy from strangers, everybody listening. And do not play around with these plants and molecules. They are no joke and can do a tremendous amount of damage.
So I would like to rewind the clock a bit. And you mentioned Richard Evans Schultes. I’ve had a number of discussions about him on the podcast before, so he may come up, but I would actually like to invoke a different name, which is David Maybury-Lewis, if I’m pronouncing that correctly. Could you please describe who he was and what you learned from him or what lessons he imparted to you?
Wade Davis: I was so incredibly fortunate, looking back. I was an undergraduate at Harvard. I got my PhD at Harvard, but I began as an anthropologist. And David Maybury-Lewis was my undergraduate tutor. He was one of the great Americanists. He had traveled into the heart of Brazil in the 1950s to live amongst the Xavante and, before that, the Xerente, who at the time were said to be the most feared indigenous groups in Brazil. And he was a great humanist. And while I was with him, he created Cultural Survival with his wife, Pia. And he absolutely lived in a way, although he wasn’t really a Boasian because he was from the British tradition of social anthropology. But he absolutely believed that activism was an integral part of the anthropological endeavor. When you have languages disappearing, when you have indigenous people suffering the predations of the rubber era, there’s a moral obligation to both tell their stories and to work with them, I think, as liaison, a conduit to the world, facilitating or amplifying their voices, bringing their concerns to the world.
And that was something that I had in the fiber of my DNA because of my association with David. I was also very fortunate, as you mentioned, to fall into the orbit of Professor Schultes. But Professor Schultes was a man of action and deed. In 18 years of studying with him, I don’t think I ever had an intellectual conversation. He would say things to you like, “There’s one river I’d like you to know,” knowing full well that the process of getting to that river would involve experiences guaranteed to assure you that if you emerge out of the forest of that confluence alive, you’d be a wiser and a more complete human being. But Schultes was not a man of ideas. He was a botanist. That’s what he was, a plant explorer. And I loved botanical exploration largely because it provided the conduit to culture. If you want to live with the Inuit in the high Arctic, you better become a hunter, because that is a measure of a man.
If you want to engage the priests in Haiti, you have to serve the Loa. You’ve got to become part of the circle of Vodou. Otherwise, what are you doing? And of course, in the Amazon, the plants become the perfect conduit to culture. You’re not turning up at some maloca and saying, “I’m here to study your sex life.” If someone turned up at our doorstep like that, we’d call the police. But studying the plants makes so much sense to those for whom the plants are so important. At the same time, most ethnobotanists of my generation were notoriously uneducated when it came to the nuances of anthropology and ethnography. And I was very, very fortunate in having David, a mentor who carried all the way through graduate school. I taught more courses for David than I did for Schultes. And in fact, my ideas that in the wake of all my botanical research, I actually kind of discovered in the wake of the Haiti work, that what I was really interested in was culture as opposed to plants.
I always still use plants to inform much of my writing, but it was the ethno part of ethnobotany that intrigued me. And in that sense, all of my ideas that I have been exploring through the 13 years at the Geographic, the decade as a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia, everything traces back to David.
And on the subject of mentors, I think this is so important for young people listening to this broadcast. I grew up in the simplest of middle class homes. My father’s spirit, in many ways, had been broken in the war, as had my mother in a different set of circumstances. There was a lot of love, but not a lot of activity, creativity. And it was very clear to me that I had to get out. And I began, a very young age, jumping off cliffs.
And as Terence McKenna always said, “The great lesson of life is that when you do that, you don’t land on rock, you land on a feather bed. The world exists to lift you up, not beat you down.” Jim Whittaker, the great climber, good friend of mine, said that “If you’re not living on the edge when young, you’re taking up too much space.” But what I found myself having to do, Tim, was fling myself into the arms of mentors. And those mentors could be an old Gitxsan elder who I recorded mythology with and hunted with for 40 years. It could be an engineer who taught me how to understand the complexities of industrial logging when I spent a year in the bush. I’ve always believed that nothing is beneath you. Nothing is a waste of time unless you make it so. A cab driver can have as much to teach you as a professor at university if you’re open to the possibility.
And I always found that if I just gave myself fully to these mentors like Schultes, like David Maybury-Lewis, like Dr. Kline, and many that I’ve had the privilege to engage since then, I was able to become the most important thing, which is the architect of my own life. And this is what I say to young people, “Be patient, never compromise, give your destiny time to find you. Bitterness always comes to those who look back on a life of choices imposed upon them from the outside. And you may not make all the right decisions, but if you own those decisions, they all become the right ones because together they become the path of your own creation and you become the architect of your own life.”
And that is something so very important. And in that spirit, Tim, I try to do everything I can to help young people. I answer every email and I get, as you do, thousands of emails from young people. And very often what they’re saying, they may have a specific question, but what they’re really saying is not just, “How can I be you?” They know they can’t be me. But what they really want to know is, “How can I live a life of authenticity? How can I live a life where I’m not strapped to a laptop at a desk and a cubicle? How can I find a way to monetize the creativity of my own life? How can I make myself, and the act of being alive, my vocation, recognizing that any job one has is just a passing thing, a kind of filter through which to see the world and only for a time?”
And the real challenge is to make the art of life itself your vocation. And I always answer those because if you don’t answer, it’s not a neutral gesture. It’s a slap in the wrist. They’re reaching out to you and all you have to say is, “Wonderful idea, Charlie. Go for it. Your friend.” And that takes about as much time as deleting the message. And I learned that from Schultes.
I’ll tell you one wonderful story. The most famous botanical collections of Schultes, and Mark would certainly confirm this, were between 1950 and 1953 when free of the rubber emergency, he was free to collect medicinal plants. He described the use of 2,000 medicinal plants previously unknown to science. And with him on all those collections was a man called Isidoro Cabrera. Now, when you do botany and you collect plants, the senior botanist’s name goes first. So Tim Plowman and Wade Davis, Plowman and Davis, and that’s how you do it on the specimens; it’s kind of a formal thing. But you never are said to put an Indigenous helper on the label as if he’s an equal to you, but Schultes did.
He met Isidoro when Isidoro’s farm had been burned in the war. His parents had been murdered, he had no food, he was absolutely nothing. And he ended his life a full professor of botany with multiple honorary degrees. And before he died, when I was writing the book One River, I went to see Isidoro in Cali. And I said, “Professor, I want you to think really carefully. I want you to remember the first moment you met Professor Schultes in the forest, in Macarena. What was it like? What did he say?” And he looked at me very pensively, and then suddenly, there was a twinkle in his eye, and he said, “He looked at me like I was somebody.” Isn’t that beautiful, Tim?
Tim Ferriss: That is beautiful.
Wade Davis: And in class-riddled Colombia at that time, for a Harvard professor to do that, and it made that young man’s life. Pulled him out of misery, gave him a career and a great gift to Colombia.
Tim Ferriss: What a story. And I want to come back to, I suppose, frames and lenses for a moment, and also Jim Whittaker. So for those who don’t know, the first American to summit Everest, if my research is not lying to me. And I’m looking at an excerpt from alumni stories on the brentwood.bc.ca website, and he comes up. And there’s a line that I would like to explore because I think it’s Maya Angelou, if I’m pronouncing her name correctly, said that courage is the mother virtue that unlocks all other virtues. Because effectively, I’m paraphrasing here, but at the breaking point, you need courage to enact or to enable those other virtues.
And there’s a line here, and I don’t know if it is Jim’s or yours, but either way, I would love for you to expand on it.
“Pessimism is an indulgence, orthodoxy is the enemy of invention, despair an insult to the imagination.”
And I want to bring this up because it strikes me that a lot of people, not just very young people, but many people overall feel a certain psycho-emotional malaise right now, a sense of overwhelm that has led to pessimism or nihilism. And so it seems to me that optimism is the unlock here. So could you elaborate on the “pessimism is an indulgence” and so on in that line?
Wade Davis: Yeah, that was actually my line, not Jim’s. People are always asking, we’re always asking each other, “Are you optimistic?” And I kind of feel like, how can you not be optimistic? I mean, that’s the purpose of life itself. And if you’re a father, you absolutely have an obligation to remain hopeful. And given how many gifts we have, surely pessimism does become something of an indulgence. We’re all so caught in the present these days, so little sense of history, and we forget how much we’ve achieved.
But when you think about it, Tim, in my lifetime, women have gone from the kitchen to the boardroom. People of color, from the woodshed to the White House. Gay people, men and women, from the closet to the altar. When we think of the environment, when I was a young kid, just getting people to stop throwing garbage out of a car window was a great environmental victory. Nobody spoke about the biosphere or biodiversity. Now these are terms familiar to schoolchildren. So what’s not to love about a world capable of such social transformation, such scientific genius?
Just think about that moment on Christmas Eve, 1968 when Apollo went around the dark side of the moon and emerged to see, for the first time in human history, not a sunrise or a moonrise, but an Earthrise. And in that incredible moment, we suddenly saw the Earth as it is, not this infinite horizon, but a fragile blue planet, as the astronauts famously reported, floating in the velvet void of space. And I think everything has changed with that. Like a flash of illumination, it swept over the world. We never will think again about the natural world in the same way we did before that vision. And even today, as I mentioned earlier, I think, the revelations of genetics, showing us indisputably that race is a total fiction.
Well, that hasn’t really gotten into the zeitgeist yet as the moonshot has, but it will. And I think that we’re living through extraordinarily exciting times and extraordinarily challenging times. But as I say to all young people, “What generation has ever come of age in a world at peace, a world without troubles?” It’s very interesting. One of the ways I, Tim, keep my optimism, my dad wasn’t a religious man. His spirit was broken in the war. I never saw the inside of a church in his presence. But he did believe in good and evil. And he used to say to me, “There’s good and evil in the world. Take your pick and get on with it.”
And it was incredibly wise, because we have this sort of thing in the Christian tradition, particularly, that if we just wait long enough, good’s going to triumph over evil and we’ll all somehow be dissolved in the Rapture. Well, ain’t going to happen. And famously, in Medieval times, if you asked the obvious question, “If God’s all powerful, why does he allow evil to exist?” you were burned at the stake for heresy. But in the Indian tradition, the Vedic tradition, by contrast, when Lord Krishna was asked that very question, “If God’s all powerful, why does he allow evil to exist in the universe?” Lord Krishna said to the disciple, “To thicken the plot.” In other words, good and evil walk hand in hand. You’re never going to lose one.
You’ve got to take your side. And the purpose of life is not to triumph over evil, but keep pushing the wheel of justice forward. And when you realize that that is the end point, you then never expect to win. And if you never expect to win, you’re not disappointed when you lose. And because of that, you can keep fighting with the same idealism, the same energy when you’re 69 years old, as I am today, that I had when I was 20 years old and marching against the war in Vietnam.
Tim Ferriss: I’d like to discuss rites of passage. And specifically, we don’t have to necessarily focus on this, but this is something that often ends up on my radar of consciousness because I have many males in my audience. And there seems to be a distinct lack of rites of passage for men in most westernized societies, or many westernized societies. And I would love for you to describe a chapter in your life, and I’m most certainly going to butcher this pronunciation, but Spatsizi. Did I get that right?
Wade Davis: Yeah, Spatsizi. Red Goat.
Tim Ferriss: So could you explain what that is?
Wade Davis: Before I jump into my, perhaps, story, rites of passage exist all around the world for a very specific reason. It’s not a coincidence or an accident that they involve pain, whether it’s scarification, whether it’s the severing of the foreskin, whether it’s the pain of ordeal, the ingestion — I mean, for example, the Algonquins, speaking of Datura, their initiation rite was to put the young lads in the long house, seal it shut, and make them eat Datura for two weeks, so that they would forget what it was to become boys, to learn what it was to be men.
But the reason all these ordeals that you know so much about, vision quests, et cetera, have pain is because a message has to be clear: this is the end. It’s not about the twiddling of thumbs. We are passing on to you the obligation of adulthood. You now hold the destiny of our people in your hands. This is not trivial. You best be prepared. And I think whether it’s with women who go through their own rituals, which are always sort of timed to the first menses or the first period, fertility, transforming a girl into a woman, a potential mother, or it’s a boy proving his manhood. Now this has become rather frowned upon in our politically correct woke world.
But the truth is, young men, I’ve never known a young lad who didn’t want that challenge. It’s that idea of proving oneselves, not in a gratuitously macho way, but literally in a kind of organic way of grit and courage and strength. And I think that’s why. I mean, for example, I’ve got very close friends in the Navy SEALs, and they all have a kind of calm confidence because they’ve been on what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey. And I think those of us, like myself, brought up in a society that we did not have obvious outlets, we created our own hero’s journeys.
And for me, it was always either through work or travel. You mentioned Spatsizi. Well, I was living on Haida Gwaii in Northwest British Columbia in the mid-’70s. And I was very much critical of industrial clear-cut logging, but I felt that I best learn something about it. So I lied about my credentials and managed to hire on as a logging forestry engineer in one of the toughest logging camps in the west coast of British Columbia, where I stayed a year. And I learned everything about the business, including the corruption. And it was a fantastic experience because I also learned that the men and women fighting off hunger with a chainsaw were not my enemy.
And I learned that in all of these conflicts, particularly around resources, there are never any enemies, only solutions. But I kind of escaped that camp, taking a job as the first park ranger in what had just been created, Canada’s biggest roadless wilderness park. And my job description was deliciously vague: wilderness assessment and public relations. In two four-month seasons, I saw 12 people. There was no one to relate publicly to. And these travels to South America. And even in Haiti, you have to understand that during the course of that research, it turns out I never knew who was paying for it all.
And I’ll tell you, if you’d like, a story of the night I had to light myself on fire.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I can’t say no to that. So yes, please.
Wade Davis: Well, remember I said I became very close friends with Marcel Pierre, and we were like brothers by the end of the many years I was there. And his wife was dying of uterine cancer, and he was so sad. He came to me and I bought all this blood for her and she still was dying. And I took him back to get a tap-tap. And for once I was dressed like an American tourist, and I didn’t have —
Tim Ferriss: What is a tap-tap?
Wade Davis: Oh, a tap-tap’s a local bus in Haiti. And I went in my little Jeep and I didn’t have my wallet or any money. And I got a flat tire after I dropped him off. And I said to this guy at the side of the road who fixed tires manually, I said, “Can you fix my tire?” He starts fixing my tire. Then I say in Creole, “Nez me pa gen kòb” — “I’ve got no money.” And then he said, “Ki kalite Blan say ou?” and he started hassling me. And I just wasn’t in the mood. I should have not done this, but I took his hand and I gave him the secret society handshake. And then he blanched back and then he said again, “What kind of white are you?” And then we had a big laugh and he said, “Nou gen gwo lig aswè a” — “We’ve got a big thing happening tonight.”
And I’d broken down, by chance, right by a Bizango chanpwel — secret society temple. So I went back that night, for the first time unescorted by a powerful Vodou priest. And the ceremony begins like any ceremony with the invocation of Legba, the spirit of communication. And the dances are just Vodou dances. But then at midnight you hear the fouet kash, the whip crack, and the conch trumpet, the symbol of the revolution, blow. And then the order goes out, “Soldiers of the night, change skins!” — “Sòlda nan lannuit ! Chanje la po!” And everybody goes, hundreds of people, go into this temple and emerge in these anonymous black and red robes.
And at that moment, six men came and grabbed me and flung me into a chamber. And I rolled around in the dust and I looked up and I was looking at a table of emperors of the secret societies, who wanted to know how I knew what I knew. And I shared with them the iconography, passwords, handshakes, but it was all too much and too little at the same time. And it was a very awkward moment and I had to do something. I was there by myself. And there’s always a human skull with a candle burning with a bottle of raw sugar cane alcohol, the base of the poteau mitan, which is used as a libation, not to drink.
So I just thought, I better do something. So I very deliberately went over, took the bottle and poured the alcohol all over my body, my back, my hair, everything. And then very deliberately went to the candle and lit myself on fire. And as I flamed like a torch — remember, this isn’t kerosene or diesel, it’s just like doing the same thing with lighter fluid. There wasn’t any danger except I’d lose my eyebrows. But while I was still a living torch, I went over and offered the secret society handshake again to each of the men. They loved it. Cracked up laughing. And after that I couldn’t go by that crossroads without getting flagged down. [Haitian Creole]. And I became very friendly with that temple, actually.
Tim Ferriss: Well, okay, so hold on. I mean, that’s a hell of a party trick. So how did this occur to you? And I guess you just had knowledge that that wouldn’t pose any grave danger. I certainly wouldn’t. I mean, having your body on fire seems dangerous.
Wade Davis: But no, you must have lit your fingers on fire with lighter fluid when you were a boy.
Tim Ferriss: I haven’t. I mean, maybe I should. Never say never.
Wade Davis: Tim, maybe it’s a Canadian thing. I don’t know. There are these moments, and I don’t mean in any way, because I keep saying, “It’s empathy and love, it’s not bravado.” But I remember when I was 14, my mother was a modest but determined Canadian woman, and she worked all year as a secretary to raise enough money to let me join a group of kids a language teacher was taking to Colombia. And I was really lucky because I was billeted in the mountains and I never saw the other Canadian lads. And many of them got what the Colombians called mamitas, or homesickness. And I felt like I just finally found home. I got drunk for the first time and kissed a girl. I was in Heaven. But there was this real bully in the valley. I was 14 and he was 17 or 18, and he kind of terrorized — he wasn’t a bad guy, [but] he terrorized all the kids.
And one day he challenged me to what they would do is they put a cigarette — you put your forearms together, put a lit cigarette in the middle, and the first one to drop their arm is the loser. He put the cigarette on, and I said, “This is stupid, it hurts.” He didn’t understand that that cigarette could have burned through my arm before I would drop my arm. And of course I didn’t drop my arm. And eventually he had to drop his arm. And that was kind of a gift from me to him because he was never the same again. After that he was a different character. He didn’t have to do that anymore.
And to this day, I still have that huge scar on my forearm, but I don’t ever regret having done that. And what is wonderful about doing this kind of field work is the dance of culture. How do you find the rhythm? It’s like dancing with a woman for the first time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I always say to young students setting off to the field, “What you need to do is just act like you would if invited to someone’s home at Thanksgiving. Be polite, have good manners, self-deprecating humor, a willingness to eat what’s put in front of you, and sleep where you’re asked to sleep.”
I mean, Tim, food is power. It’s amazing how many people will so crudely refuse a gift of food. If you’re being given food almost anywhere in the world, it means some child is probably not eating that day. And even if you know, and there’s been many times when I’ve known because of the circumstances, that if I eat a plate offered to me, without doubt, I’ll contract giardia or amoebic dysentery, I always eat the food. Because you can always treat the illness, you can never rekindle the trust that you’ve shattered, not just between you and the person, but between that person and the next outsider who will come along.
Tim Ferriss: I’d like to jump back to rites of passage for a second. Because I do feel like young males pay the price for the void of the no rites of passage. And women too, but they do have that inbuilt, as you pointed out, rite of passage, whether it’s formalized in some type of societal context or not. I’m curious how you have, if at all, thought about rites of passage for your own kids or how you might suggest parents think about rites of passage. Primarily for males, but it could also apply to females.
Wade Davis: Well, I had two girls, and when they each got their periods, they came to me, not to their mother.
Tim Ferriss: Why is that, do you think?
Wade Davis: You’d have to ask them, but I mean, I had that kind of relationship with them. I mean, what we’ve done, obviously, with our daughters, we’ve been able to take them all around the world. And also, while they grew up, we own a fishing lodge, a very modest fishing lodge, but very remote, seven hours from the nearest town, three days drive north of Vancouver in Tahltan country. And so while they grew up and I was traveling a great deal for the National Geographic, the two or three months we would spend there every summer became the well the family drank from for the rest of the year. And for those months they hung out with Tahltan kids all the time. And so they have this unbelievable sense of the world. My daughter speaks Arabic, one of them. I remember our house in Washington in particular was kind of a Grand Central Station.
Everybody was free to crash there, and you never knew who was going to turn up. I just had a friend call me who reminded me of the day he woke up there and found four Mongolians drinking vodka at 6:00 a.m. in the kitchen. And one time we had Nilda Callañaupa, this great friend of mine, a weaver, really a national treasure, from Cusco staying in one guest room. And I’d forgotten to tell my daughters that a friend of mine from Mali, Isa Mohammed, a Tuareg, massive guy, was there for the Folklife Festival.
So they didn’t know he was staying there, and he comes up from the basement guest room in full ritual regalia, looking like Lawrence of Arabia. This guy, this massive guy, much bigger than me, he comes into the kitchen, spreads his arms across the kitchen. My girls were eating Rice Krispies at the table, and he just says, “Mes enfants, je suis là!” And they just look up at this incredible African guy.
Tim Ferriss: Could you translate that, please?
Wade Davis: Yeah. “My children, I’m here.” And they just looked up at him and they said, “Hello, sir, how are you? You must be a friend of my father’s. Can we get you some breakfast, please?” I mean, utterly nonplussed. So those are the kind of initiation rites — I think for boys in the American context and culture it really is great to find ways for them to go away and do physical labor. This is why I think there should be Youth Conservation Corps in every state and national park. There’s nothing better than for a 15-year old boy with all those hormonal spasms and all that pimply face to just be forced to cut firewood all day.
And these kind of opportunities aren’t trivial. They create the character very young. There’s no reason whatsoever that our government in the United States shouldn’t be able to mobilize resources that would make available to every young American boy and girl the opportunity to travel within America, to know another face of America, another section of the country. Californians to Iowa, Kansans to Miami, and so on. And give them work to help make us a better country, whether it’s picking up plastic or caring for the elderly, whatever it is.
Again, giving young people a sense that they’re not the center of the universe. That they live to help others. That we do exist as a community. That you have to be humble. And just because you believe it doesn’t mean it’s true. And that the democratization of opinion doesn’t mean that your opinion counts as much as an elder who has lived through life that you can’t even imagine. There are ways to make this possible, but physical activity is the key, I think, particularly for men. Which is why, say what you will about the military, it has done more good for more young men in its history. Not that obviously we would not criticize some of the engagements, but you know what I’m saying.
Tim Ferriss: I do.
Wade Davis: As an institution of the nation that stands for the nation. Young people have to learn that there’s something bigger than themselves that they need to be loyal to. And that’s not necessarily a country, it’s a concept. It’s the idea of community. It’s something we really notice, Tim, in Canada, which is no perfect place. But one of the things that is so different in Canada is that there is really a sense of community. We really are a social democracy. And it creates for a different way of life. I mean, one thing, I don’t want to belabor this, but in America, universal healthcare is seen as socialist medicine, and healthcare in general is seen as a uniquely medical issue. And that is to miss the point completely. Universal healthcare, which we have in Canada, has nothing to do with medicine.
It has everything to do with social solidarity. It has everything to do with every Canadian knowing that they belong, and knowing that if their kid gets sick, they will get exactly, and I tell you, it is exactly, the same care as any other Canadian, including the Prime Minister. Yes, I sometimes have to wait for medical service in Canada, but everyone does, but no one is left behind. And that is one of the reasons that we have a less highly charged society, why we seem to get along better.
Tim Ferriss: I certainly agree with that. And I also agree with the physical labor component and the importance of it for boys and young men and men overall. But I think especially in that hormonal tidal wave period, let’s just call it, from whatever it might be, 13 to 18. And in addition to the transcendence of the self to a larger cause, say in a military context, it strikes me that both the military and the physical exertion of, say, having to chop wood all day, serve a similar purpose in that of shared privation, which is a term you hear in a military context. And that is a group of boys going through some form of suffering together. And it does seem to activate something in the male psyche that is hard to access otherwise.
Wade Davis: One of my most memorable experiences, when I was 20, I was just come back from the Sierra Nevada with the mamos. And Tim was going back to Harvard to get his degree and I had a month off until he was going to return. And I ran into this crazy Englishman who had walked from the tip of South America, and he was walking to Alaska. And he was sending these dispatches to his newspaper, The London Sunday Observer. And I’m not sure what he wrote because in 18 months of walking, he hadn’t learned a word of Spanish. But anyway, he hired me to guide him through the Darien Gap, the only stretch of this trip —
Tim Ferriss: That’s very dangerous.
Wade Davis: — that had no road. And he didn’t care that I knew nothing about the area. That was great because he cultivated misadventures as fodder for his books. And in the course of that journey — it was incredible. During the rainy season, walking in swamps up to the neck for days at a time. At one point we got lost in the jungle with three Kuna Indians for 12 days with no food. I was down to 146 pounds. At one point, Sebastian was down to 120. We had to carry the other Indian lad. And at one point when we were at the wit’s end, I just said, “We’ve got to go.” And I took the gun and I walked up this trail and I ran right into a black jaguar. And if you ever run into a jaguar, they’ve got these yellow eyes. They don’t look at you, they look through you. You feel like you’ve been x-rayed.
And I just looked at that incredibly beautiful creature, and then it leapt off the road. And I thought we had two weeks to walk to get to rescue, but we found a way to the end of the road that day. And it was just like a miracle. And at the end of this extraordinary misadventure, I got off the plane in Panama City. I had flown out in this cramped Cessna. The girl beside me had puked on me. Her mother turned around to console the daughter, she puked on me. I only had the rotten clothes on my back, $3 to my name, and one bottle of beer this engineer had given me. I arrived in Panama City with nothing more than that, and no plans whatsoever, but I had never felt more alive. I had been on my own hero’s journey and I had survived. And that would be etched into my character. If I could do that, I could do anything.
Tim Ferriss: This may seem — well, it’s not random because you prompted it in a way. So black jaguars are not common as far as I know. What did the Kuna Indians make of that black jaguar?
Wade Davis: They didn’t see it. I was way ahead of them.
Tim Ferriss: I’m just wondering, even if you told them, if that carried any special significance.
Wade Davis: Oh, for sure. I mean, nothing is accidental when it comes to that. When you’re with peoples like the Barasana and the Macuna, their most profound cultural insight, one might say, is their conviction that plants and animals are just people in another dimension of reality. So their hunting myths become kind of a land management plan dictating how people can live in the forest. So the shaman, he’s not just a priest or a physician, he’s kind of like a nuclear engineer who goes to the heart of the reactor to reprogram the world. So there’s a constant dialogue between human beings and the natural world, so no event has a life of its own.
Tim Ferriss: I do want to, at some point, and I’m saying this to remind myself and maybe remind you to remind me, about getting better at writing and teaching yourself to write on multiple levels. We’ll get to that. But since you brought up the people in other dimensions, effectively, manifesting as plants and animals, I’d like to discuss, it doesn’t have to be brief, we have as much time as we want, but the different origin stories of this brew called ayahuasca, which exists in many different iterations used by many, many different tribal groups and cultures at this point, and churches also, syncretic religions at this point.
But I’m wondering how you would explain the development of this particular combination of plants. And the reason I ask is that I’ve heard many different explanations for this. So one is just trial and error over a very long period of time. Another, on the opposite end of the spectrum, would be, “The plants told us.” And I’m wondering how you would explain the arrival at this combination of, say, vine and — DMT-containing plant.
Wade Davis: Well, first of all, one thing I’ve mentioned about ayahuasca or yagé is that the idea we often have of it as we go down to Iquitos, or Pucallpa, the healers of the Shipibo, as if it’s sort of a quest for personal liberation, personal well-being. That’s always been there in the traditional use of hallucinogens in South America, the traditional syncretic cult of the cactus of the four winds and the curanderos who use San Pedro cactus on the coast. And certainly the popularization of ayahuasca began with The Yagé Letters between William Burroughs —
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Wade Davis: And Allen Ginsberg. And it was Burroughs who turned up in Bogota, goes to the Herbarium, meets who he calls Doc Schindler, who is Schultes. And Schultes sends him off and eventually gets him ayahuasca in Mocoa. And on that road between Sibundoy and Mocoa in the upper Putumayo, when I was there in the 1970s, there were already individual healers sort of working with the gringo trade, but also working with individual campesinos.
And of course all of these healing practices, the ideas that the imbalance of the individual is treated through the medicine and whether the imbalance is caused by bad health, bad, poor finances, personal problems, whatever. It’s a balance the source that one gets to. But I mentioned that only to stress that it is completely a different situation when you get into the heart of the Northwest Amazon, where presumably these plants were originated, these preparations. So for example, one of the powerful themes that is somewhat like what the Kogi do, this idea that human beings aren’t the problem, we’re the solution because only through the human imagination can the wonder of the natural world become manifest, that we are the ones who have to maintain the energetic flows of the universe. We have this proactive role to play well in the Northwest Amazon, it’s very much that way.
I mean, the main origin myth that in one way or another is shared by multiple cultures, speaks of a great journey from the east up the Milk River in sacred canoes dragged by Anaconda. And in the canoes are all the hierarchy, the chiefs, the wisdom keeper, the dancers, the warriors, the slaves, and also the three vital plants, coca, yagé, and tobacco. And these are brought up the Milk River. And originally they were brought up by the Ayawa, the four thunders, these mythological culture heroes. And they encountered a world of total devastation and they turned that world upside down and brought order to it by destroying the negative forces. So this idea that humans are responsible for the equilibrium, and then the Ayawas went up and became the stars. And then the great mother Romi Kumu brought the people up and the people settled each river.
And because each river was settled by a unique canoe, each language group are related to each other. You can’t marry within your language. So one of the extraordinary things in the northwest, Amazon is I is linguistic exotomy when you marry, you must marry someone who speaks a different language, but the use of ayahuasca is not individualistic. It’s collective at these great ceremonies that go on for two and three days where the individuals, the men, all the people are there, but only men take yagé. They go through two different kinds of ritual paraphernalia, feather work by day by night. And they literally, by taking ayahuasca, don’t become symbols of the ancestors. They become the ancestors and they fly away to all the sacred sites to pay homage to the natural world, to maintain the harmonic balance. So the critical thing here is that the use of the plant preparation has nothing to do with any individual’s well-being, but rather becomes a prayer ceremony for the collective well-being and survival of the culture.
And it becomes the mediator to the divine. And so the kinds of things you see in the kind of gringo ayahuasca business around Iquitos is not traditional in that sense. Now as to how this knowledge was discovered, I mean there are a couple possibilities. First of all, there is a species of Malpighiaceous vine, Diplopterys cabrerana, which, it looks very much like yagé and does have DMT in it. So maybe they saw that, then they saw the opposite leaves, they saw the Psychotria coffee plant opposite leaves. Clearly there’s experimentation going on, but it’s not just with ayahuasca, take something like curare. The remarkable thing about curare: it’s a muscle relaxant. But to affect the muscles, it has to get into the blood. You can drink as much curare as you want, and if you don’t have some kind of wound in your stomach, you’ll be fine.
How do you rationally explain that process of elaboration? And you mentioned trial and error. Well, I think statistically that is just click exposed as a meaningless euphemism. Now, I mentioned that story about Schultes saying the Siona-Secoya and the 17 varieties sing to you in a different key. Well, whatever that really means when the people say “The plants teach us,” I’m quite prepared at this point in my life to take them at their word. And the reason I say that is that these men, largely men also women, but in terms of ayahuasca, these aren’t sort of random characters. These are true natural philosophers who understand that flora in ways that few scientists could ever aspire to do. They have spent their lives in wisdom, traditions, lineages that have been taking all of this common genius that I keep talking about, we all share as human beings and applying it to that challenge.
I mean, for example, I mean, just jumping away for a second. When you go to Australia, you realize that the entire purpose of life is not to change the world, but to do the rituals to keep the world just as it was. Well, imagine how much would be learned if the people of New York City had spent all of their existence putting all of their energy and capacity into understanding the biological relationships of Central Park. I mean, it’d be incredible, right? So when we say “The plants teach us,” I’m not sure what that means. I don’t quite know how it’d become operative, but I do know, and I’ve had this experience myself taking any number of psychoactive substances that you have insights that become almost challenging to believe in the wake of your experience. I never understood the glory of photosynthesis. I never appreciated the miracle of this verse of life, this idea that water can come together with carbon dioxide and create the air that we breathe and the food that we eat.
I mean, that’s a poetic verse every child should have to memorize. And no politician should ever be able to run for office if they can’t recite the formula of photosynthesis. But the point is, I remember I took — Tim and I discovered a new species of San Pedro cactus in 1974 in Bolivia, and we took a big wack of it on the eastern side of the Andes and knowing that it was safe. And Tim and Schultes used to say Tim and I ate our way through South America. If anything back then had a chance to get us high, we would take it.
I know we were crazy, we were kids. As Tim and I made ready to say goodbye to each other after over a year and a half traveling together, we took this extraordinary, Terence would call heroic dose of this new species we had found. And we were up for 48 hours. And one point we just left the ground and we were flying over the surface of the Earth. And I looked down and I saw the Nazca Lines. And I became convinced that that’s how that explained how these guys conceived those monumental structures. But at that same experience, I saw Tim fly up like Icarus to the sun and disappear. And I knew right then he was going to die and he would be dead in short order. In fact, from AIDS.
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible. And for people who don’t have the context, the Nazca Lines, which I’ve seen from the air, are something to behold. So you see these huge depictions on the ground.
Wade Davis: There was anthropomorphic figures that from the ground you can never make out. But from 10,000 feet you see these perfectly etched forms of spiders and monkeys.
Tim Ferriss: Monkeys and also someone they refer to as E.T. because it looks bizarrely like our modern day depictions of aliens. So go figure that one out. Question for you about the historic use of ayahuasca. Is it accurate to say, or let me rephrase the question. To what extent was ayahuasca or yagé predominantly used for, say, hunting or divination purposes versus healing purposes?
Wade Davis: Oh, I think obviously it depends on the setting the culture, the moment in time. Certainly all of these entheogens are used in the course of healing. I mean, the essence of the shamanic art of healing is the idea that disease is not caused by pathogens, but by imbalance it has to be addressed. And to do so, the shaman must invoke some technique of ecstasy to soar away on the wings of trance to get into these distant metaphysical realms where he or she can do their work of medical magical, mystical rescues. So ayahuasca in that sense has always, I think, been associated with healing arts. But again, in the context of periodic rituals and ceremonies, as I mentioned with the Barasana that we filmed actually the celebration of cassava women, the kind of fertility ritual there, it’s a journey of the community, the journey, the community comes together in ritual.
I mean, this idea of communities coming together in ritual doesn’t have to involve these sacred plants. I mean, in the Andes, for example, in the community of Chinchero, once each year outside of Cusco, the fastest young boy is given the honor of becoming a woman. And he puts on the clothing of a sister and he leads all able-bodied men on a run. But it’s not your ordinary run. You start off at 11,500 feet, run 2,000 feet down to the base of the sacred mountain, and then you run to 16,000 feet. And then you drop down to the sacred valley and cross two more soaring Indian ridges.
And you’re running the boundaries of the community land. But the wonderful metaphor is that you go into the mountain as an individual, but through sacrifice, which means in Latin to make sacred from pure exhaustion, you merge into a single community that once again has expressed both its ownership but also its obligations to land. I did that race when I was 48 years old, the only outsider ever to do it. I trained six months with an African American boxer in DC in a gym. And I only got through the day by chewing more coca leaves than anyone in the 5,000 year history of the plant.
Tim Ferriss: But yeah, it does help. I will say that of every remedy that was offered to me that I certainly tested when I was suffering from altitude sickness in South America, the only thing that fixed it and fixed it very quickly was coca leaf tea. It was remarkable.
Wade Davis: It’s a miracle. Well, I mean coca mean just without diverting ourselves from ayahuasca prayer. But I mean, the thing about coca Tim, it’s not just that coca is not cocaine, it’s not just that it’s been misunderstood or whatever. The real tragedy is that humanity as a whole has been robbed of the benefits of this incredible plant. If you go back to the 19th century when physicians were studying coca, heralding its virtues in a non-judgmental context with open access to the leaves, time and again, they would be befuddled by its activity. They called it the stimulant that wasn’t a stimulant. In other words, you would chew the leaves and you felt nothing except the consequences of having done so. You suddenly felt a slight elevation of mood and the ability to concentrate and focus, perhaps a drop in appetite, but you had no sense of the kind of charge you get when even you drink a strong cup of coffee.
And this, of course, is what makes the plant so perfect for our modern age. I mean, who wouldn’t like to have access to a substance that gently elevated their mood that was utterly benign. It had 5,000 years of safe use that was a sacred plant that allowed you to focus on your damn laptop without getting distracted to email. That allowed you to overcome that slight inertia that keeps you from writing that first sentence of your report. And then you suddenly discover at the end of the day, you’ve been doing this so productively for eight hours and you just go home and you go to sleep, or you have your meal or whatever with no side effects whatsoever. And you can do it again the next day and the next day and next day. And before you know it, you see that your productivity, your well-being, your health has soared. People always say to me, “How on Earth have you written 23 books?” And I just wink.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, well, I’d love to open a bottle of wine and talk about that wink sometime. Certainly. Because I would like to do some more writing myself. Let me come back to ayahuasca just for a moment. Because you mentioned the trinity in many of these cultures of coca, yagé, and tobacco, and I’m fascinated by tobacco. That’s a longer story for maybe another time, but they have read, I think his name is, I’m probably mispronouncing this, but Johannes Wilbert in his book.
Wade Davis: Oh, he was? Oh, he was wonderful. Oh, good for you.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing book.
Wade Davis: He’s a beautiful man. He just died.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Wade Davis: He was one of my great mentors.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no kidding. All right.
Wade Davis: Oh, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So tobacco. Yeah. So tobacco is a whole separate chapter that I’d love to talk about for hours. But another trinity I’ve I’ve seen mentioned is cassava, ayahuasca, and then palm for different reasons. I have read a number of papers, or at least one paper, I should say that in the hunting context, also mentioned use of ayahuasca or dosing of hunting dogs with ayahuasca. And I’m wondering if that can be explained simply by hyper dilatation of the pupils, maybe better hunting at night, something along those lines, or if there’s another explanation that people doing it would offer.
Wade Davis: Yeah, I mean, these things don’t necessarily have a practical utility because someone feeds their dog either Datura or ayahuasca. Doesn’t imply that the dog therefore must get some attribute from that. That dose, I mean. It could easily be a kind of magical idea or a metaphysical idea, a transcendent idea. But there is, there isn’t that separation from human beings and animals in that sense. So there’s a lot of that goes on in the Amazon. I mean, you mentioned yucca. I mean, one of the fascinating things is that there are many female anthropologists today, but in the early years it was obviously dominated by men. And in the northwest Amazon in particular, there’s a very clear division of labor. I would never say that women are subordinate, on the contrary, but there’s a very clear division of labor. And for example, the gardens, the chakras, are very much of the domain of the women.
I once made a mistake in the long house saying in front of all the men to all the women. “Boy, I’d love you to take me to the garden and show me your cultivated plants.” And everybody laughed their heads off because the gardens are also where you go to make love. So I’d essentially propositioned every woman in the maloca. But it does suggest that the realm of the woman is not readily accessible to men. I mean, I’ve often had people say to me, “All your books, it seems to be a man’s world.” Well, it’s a man’s world in the sense that I’m a man, but that doesn’t mean I’m not respectful of the woman’s sphere. And one of the exciting studies that was done with a Barasana by two great ethnographers, Stephen Hugh-Jones and his wife Christine Hugh-Jones.
While Stephen was looking at the Yurupary cult in ayahuasca, and his book was published as The Palm and the Pleiades, Christine was hanging for all those years with the women. And her book, From the Milk River, shows that the preparation of bitter manioc is in wrapped in as much cosmology, as much significance as ayahuasca. I mean, if you think about it in the Northwest Amazon, the main food is cassava. And cassava’s made from bitter manioc or tapioca. And it’s an incredibly elaborate process that the women have to do every day, transforming a poisonous a root crop into the daily food of their children. And it’s not surprising that the equipment and the process is absolutely celebrated in mythological terms. And that was Christine’s great contribution of that book.
Tim Ferriss: So I will segue to the question on writing because I selfishly also want to know the answer, but I would like to spend a little bit more time on the sphere of psychedelics with your experience of traveling over experientially after taking this new species of the San Pedro cactus, and then seeing your friend flying into the sun and having this realization. How do you explain these phenomena, those types of experiences, which seem to happen with some degree of regularity and shared visions, at least purportedly shared visions with ayahuasca and things at this time?
Wade Davis: Well, I think this is why human beings in all places for all time have been fascinated by these entheogens because they really do reveal realms of ethereal wonder. And as you well know in such a way that you almost are left feeling that the world, lovely as it is that we dwell in, our ordinary consciousness is almost like a crude facsimile of a realm that is beyond our imaginings at the other side of consciousness, if you want. And I think that, as I’ve always said, I mentioned earlier, these sort of great social transformations that can leave us, I think, hopeful. But when we look at the ingredients and the recipe that allowed for those social changes, there’s one ingredient that we tend to expunge from the record, which is the fact that millions of us in that era, the ’60s and ’70s, took psychedelics.
And I don’t think I would think the way I think, I don’t think I would write the way I write. I don’t think I would understand cultural relativism as I do. I don’t think I would be drawn to nature as I am. I don’t think I treat women the way I do, understand gay men and women be as tolerant and open as I’ve obviously am and have always been. If I hadn’t taken psychedelics. I mean, I always make this joke that her parents said, “Don’t take these things, you’ll never come back the same.” And the poor parents didn’t understand that was the entire point of the exercise. We didn’t want to come back the same.
We wanted to come back transformed. I mean, I think this was the key to my generation. We all suffered from Baudelaire’s malady, a horror of home. We grew up in a world that we found to be problematic, or at least I did in terms of our treatment of the environment, the way we treated women or the way we treated people of color, the way that gay men and women were treated. And I went out looking for a more authentic life in a different world. And so there was almost no separation between my desire to know other cultures and other places, and knowing other realms of consciousness just went hand in hand with that. And I think in a way, looking back, this sort of became the multiple elements of what was in effect my hero’s journey.
I set off with no plans except to be away for at least a year. I had enough money to stay with a budget of $3 a day. My only promise was that I was not going to come back to the United States until Richard Nixon was no longer president. And I waited them out and I was gone 15 months. But looking back on those months, it was an absolute initiation. And I came back a different person, which is of course what one wants to do when one travels.
Tim Ferriss: You have said that psychedelics were useful to you when you were young, but later on more, perhaps, disorienting and less helpful. Do you still feel that way? That’s an accurate statement?
Wade Davis: Yeah, I think everybody, ever since Leary and Alpert and Andy Weil began sharing this concept of set and setting, we’ve known that these substances kind of invoke, they create a, they’re completely neutral. They create a kind of template upon which beliefs, expectations, one’s one set and the setting of the experience can play roles. And I personally found, and I really believe in the Vedic notion of the stages of life. You’re a child, you’re a young man, you become a householder, and then you are free to wander as a sadhu, as you approach the end of your life. And I think one wants to try to be in sync with those stages, if you will. And when I was a young kid trying in high school to deconstruct the world around me, I loved to smoke pot because we were just you know how it was you were 15, 16, just laughing at the world and all the idiocies around you.
And similarly psychedelics just opened my mind. I mean, these are powerful forces. Let’s just remember that because of psychedelics, The Beatles went from “She Loves You” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” in two years. Think about that. And then what I found, Tim, is to be honest with you, I lived such a crazy life. I mean, I didn’t have a home. I owned nothing but artifacts and books. I was on the go constantly. What I owned was in storage. I was the amount of travel, it was all exciting, but at the time it was also very kind of confusing. I was very ambitious to know what my destiny would be. I knew I didn’t really want to be an academic. I love botany, but I wasn’t going to be a botanist and so on. And jumping ahead, it was when I wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow that things clicked.
I said, “Oh, that’s what I am. I can write.” But there was a very powerful year for me where I was living in France after I’d finished The Serpent and the Rainbow, but before it had come out, and I was writing my PhD and living with the French girlfriend in a small village of 26 people in Provence in the Alps, the Low Alps. And I got a phone call in the night that my father had died. And I immediately came home to Canada. And that year, I can’t remember the order that this happened, but I had a letter waiting for me from Gail. And in coming home from France, I walked out of a relationship of five years with this older French woman, got home. There was a letter waiting from Gail, who is now my wife of 35 years.
Within a year, my father had died, I graduated from Harvard after 18 years of it being my home, I had met Gail, she was pregnant with the first child, my book had come out and I had made a fortune, I bought a house with cash, and I was suddenly a father and a husband and living in British Columbia in a home and writing a book about Schultes, having lost my father earlier in the year. I mean all of that, also, that year, the Hollywood movie came out based on the book.
It was like the I-Ching. My world turned over and I found myself, once I became a father, a whole different set of priorities. Now I had successfully built a world. I revered that world. I lived by that world, and I didn’t really at that critical time when I was a new husband, a new father, getting my career underway, establishing a reputation as a speaker, living in this little house on a hill, writing this biography of Schultes, that I had no idea whether it would be successful and become almost a cult book that it is.
The point is that at that time, it was not the time to be blowing open my mind, right. On the contrary, right. It was a time to consolidate, to take all I had learned, all my vagabond dreams and pull them together as I kind of wove the fabric of my own individual life. And since then, I’ve taken ayahuasca largely to sort of remember what it was like when I was writing One River. And I’ve taken a few other things. I could easily find myself experimenting once again as particularly as I get older and perhaps [am] approaching death. It’s one of the things that I think that these psychedelics are incredibly useful. Not to eliminate fear of death, but to help make it seem natural and normal — which it is. So it’s not, again, and I’m not here judging. I mean, I think if you look back, Leary, for example, or John Lennon for that matter, I would argue took way too much LSD, whereas George Harrison and Ram Dass famously, as they wrote, got the message and hung up.
In other words, I’m not sure how many times you need to take these substances to learn what you’re going to learn from them. Now that that’s me. I mean, other people find these to be part of an ongoing journey and engagement. One of the things I do find interesting is how the gestalt on ayahuasca has changed. If you had asked me, Tim, I first took ayahuasca in 1974, and if you had asked me then, which of all the plants that I was becoming familiar with would be the one that 45 years later would be in every hallway of America? I would never have said ayahuasca. I mean, as Tim used to say, ayahuasca is about many things. Pleasant isn’t one of them. And when you talk to the indigenous people, it’s fascinating. They use language like “You’re the warrior confronting the horror. You’re nursing at the breast of Jaguar mother when she rips you from her kit and flings you into a pit of poisonous vipers.”
I mean, once was with Randy Borman, and we took ayahuasca with the Cofán and we had a very interesting kind of spontaneous session after the experience. And I was asking, I said to these men I’d been through the journey with. I said, “I got to tell you, this stuff scares the hell out of me.” And they all looked at me, said, “Of course it does. That’s what it’s supposed to do.” And so what I find interesting is that people of your generation and younger are all sort of reporting how kind of transcendent and blissful and wonderful ayahuasca was. I mean, the last time I took it, just to try to remember what it was like to write about it, I remember sort of clinging to my wife for about 24 hours. But anyway, I mean, this is all in the realm of set and setting. I do find that I prefer something like San Pedro cactus for the visceral connection to the natural world.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I feel not that dissimilar from your description, or the impetus behind The Wayfinders, that not polemics, not politics, but storytelling is what you could use to drive a change in culture. I think that ayahuasca, maybe counterintuitively because of the just awful experiences that many people will have are challenging, let’s just say, has all the ingredients for great storytelling. You have a group setting. You have, in most cases, at least in the United States, an imported exotic shaman who is running the show. You have shared privation in the form of vomiting and God knows what else. And you have just the perfect cocktail for word of mouth in so many ways. And I think for that reason it has traveled and become so sexy in a sense, unlike, say, mushrooms that in the United States, these Psilocybe mushrooms, are taken in a very recreational setting which would be very dissimilar from, say, the Mazatec traditional use. But that never made the hop, it never crossed the border.
Wade Davis: I always wonder if — in the morning after taking ayahuasca, I always just feel happy to be alive. And I’m sometimes with these young people, where they’re so happy just to have gotten through it. But anyway, it’s a phenomenon.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I think there’s also a selection bias for the highlight reels. It’s much like if you’re part of a religion, meaning I’m using “religion” in quotation marks, that is dietary focused. And if your hair starts falling out because you’re following some weird diet, you don’t want to confess that to the group because you’ll be ostracized. So you just don’t talk about how, “Oh, I felt destabilized for two weeks.” But you do tell them like, “Oh, I had this insight about my dad and things are so much better now.” Anyway, I’ll put that aside. Let’s talk about writing.
I really enjoy your writing. It is poetic. It has a very nuanced play of words and wordsmithing and, in the course of doing research for this conversation, came across you mentioning on several occasions that you were forced to teach yourself to write well. And I’m most curious, not necessarily why that was the case, but what the process looked like. How did you teach yourself to write well?
Wade Davis: It’s good. I mean, a lot of aspiring writers out there. I mean, I wasn’t aware of myself having been anything like a writer in, say, high school. I mean, I later looked back and was surprised to learn that I won the English prize and the history prize. And I did have a tremendous foundation in English grammar. I went to a private school in Montreal in Grade 7 where we had to memorize the 120 sentence errors in English grammar. And literally we got whacked if we didn’t know them. That may sound silly, but grammar is the architecture of writing. I mean, if you don’t understand basic grammar, you can never be a writer and I have just an incredible, intuitive understanding of the grammar of the English language because of that experience when I was young and what happened.
And I always kept journals when I was on the road and I certainly was deeply impressed and I had mentors like the poet Gary Snyder. I never went anywhere without one of Gary’s volumes of poems in my backpack. Peter Matthiessen. A number of writers that I really admired. And I was always drawn to the genre of travel books because that’s sort of what I was doing, who I was.
But what actually happened with the case of The Serpent and the Rainbow is, as I said earlier in the podcast, the zombie research was funded by Dr. Kline. They set up a dummy foundation called the International Psychiatric Research Foundation. And literally, at the beginning, if I needed $5,000, $10,000 by Wednesday I just had to call New York by Monday night. And I never knew who was the benefactor, but it turned out to be a wonderful man, David Merrick, the Broadway producer who at that time had just had a huge success on Broadway with 42nd Street.
And David had also done, obviously, a number of feature films and he must have been hearing from Dr. Kline about my misadventures and he saw a film from the very start in this. And then, again, as I mentioned earlier, in an unbelievable 24 hours, Dr. Kline died during routine heart surgery and Mr. Merrick had a debilitating stroke so I literally went overnight from being flushed with support to having none. And I did apply to all the standard research sources, various grants, foundations, but they all take months and months to let you know whether you’re going to get the money or not.
And I had guided that British journalist through the Darién Gap. His name was Sebastian Snow, and he had written a really dreadful book about his journey called The Rucksack Man, and he actually lifted whole passages out of my diaries into this book, which actually was a fair exchange because it was the first time I saw my writing in print, albeit lifted from my journals. Actually, I was able to give him something worth saying because I spoke Spanish whilst hanging with the Indians all the time. He knew nothing about where he was. He said if he spoke the Queen’s English loud enough they’d understand. He was just a completely eccentric guy. He went mad, actually, in Costa Rica, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
But I thought, “Well, my God, if he could write a book, I can write a book.” So that was an idea. And then he generously gave me the address of his literary agent in London. I walked off the street and said, “I’ve got a couple of ideas.” And this Englishman looked down his nose, as they often do to Canadians, “Well, there might be something in that zombie thing.” And before I knew it, I’d dictated the story into a typewriter what happened to me, had it transcribed, typed by Ed Wilson’s, Professor Wilson’s wonderful, the late E.O. Wilson’s secretary. And I had this big 150-page thing and I gave it in as a book proposal, got a contract for what then was an enormous amount of money for me, $35,000, spent it on some fun in Paris with a girlfriend, and then used the rest of it to finish the research.
And then I had to actually write a book. And I wrote two chapters in Haiti. I had malaria and hepatitis at the same time, and I was really sick. And I wrote two chapters that I thought was the best thing since the Bible and I sent it to the editor and he sent it back to me and said, “Try again.” And so then I left the university and a very dear friend of mine plucked me out of Haiti and brought me to her beautiful farm in Virginia to both get well but also to write the book. And I stayed there working in a slave cabin for seven months. And I had a great story to tell. I had lived this story, I just had to find the way to tell it.
So what I did — and no one gave me this idea and I certainly had never taken a creative writing course. I mean, most creative writing courses are taught by people who are teaching creative writing courses because they can’t write creatively otherwise they’d be not doing that, they’d be writing books. But that may be a little harsh. But all of us, lots of times, have to get academic jobs, don’t get me wrong. But what I did is I just took all my favorite books, Hemingway, for example, for dialogue. No one’s better. Isak Dinesen for landscape. Lawrence Durrell in The Alexandria Quartet. How do you evoke the exoticism of a place as surreal as Haiti? Well, how about Alexandria in the 1940s? Carpentier for mystical thing.
And this pile by my typewriter kept changing and so on but it was always there and I never obviously copied or plagiarized, but as I was trying to tell my story and I was stuck on how to do it, what language to use, I would just pick up any book randomly and read for a while. And it was just weird. Almost like by osmosis I would — and I was often writing at night. I had lots of coca and I was in this creative space. And, again, one thing that I think a lesson of all that is in the end, I wrote that book in seven months and it was edited in a single day, and it came out and it sold 500,000 copies.
Tim Ferriss: Hold on, hold on, hold on. You say, “Edited in a single day?”
Wade Davis: Oh, yeah. Almost no editing whatsoever.
Tim Ferriss: All right, I got it. Got it.
Wade Davis: No, what I mean by that is, I mean, look, there’s lots of different ways of writing. Some people like to spit out a first draft, as they say, or just puke it onto the page. Well, I’ve just never understood how you could make something beautiful of puke. So I, to my detriment perhaps, am a much more laborious writer and I’ve never done a second draft of a book. I do that in a way as I’m going through, as I write a paragraph, I’m paying attention. I think writing’s analogous to sculpture, you’ve got to pay attention. Barbara Tuchman, the great historian, had a little note above her typewriter, “Will they turn the page?” And you have to create rhythms in every line. You have to end every paragraph with something that’s going to make the reader want — and it becomes unconscious, right?
But at the same time you’re paying attention to the cadence of every word, at least I am. And that’s when you talk about lyricism and that was a skill I had to learn. In the early days — it’s very funny, my wife wouldn’t bother to edit or look at anything I write anymore, we’ve been married too long, but in the early days she was wonderful at not editing per se. She never added any words or deleted anything, but she had a little stamp that we called the puke meter. And if I had a passage where I went beyond lyricism to purple prose, she’d just stamp it, a little face like someone throwing up. And that was really wonderful because she was a great reader and you learned you can always go out on the lyrical edge, if you will, because you can always pull it back, but you can’t bring spirit to dry prose.
It’s interesting. I mean, like everything else, you get better and better the more you do it. Now I write bizarrely effortlessly. I mean, no one writes effortlessly. Hemingway said, “Anybody who says they write easily is either a bad writer or a liar.” But I certainly don’t — also, I’ve never mistook activity for results because I’ve been self-employed most of my life and I’ve never indulged writer’s block. Can you imagine if a plumber came to your home, looked at you, and suddenly patted their brow and said, “Just can’t do it today. I’ve got plumber’s block.” You’d call the bloody police, right? No, writing’s a craft. You get up in the morning and you do it.
But one of the things that really was amazing to me, a real turning point in my life, having been raised in that kind of simple middle-class world where creativity happens to someone else, The Beatles are creative, Leonard Bernstein is creative, whatever. When I finally understood that creativity is not the motivation of action, it’s a consequence of action. If you don’t do, you can’t create. So that insight and acting on the insight changed my life. I never sat around to wait for permission to write about any subject. People will say, “Oh, I can’t write about World War I because I’m a botanist.” No, you apply the same research skills that you used to write about the Haitian zombie to understanding the essence of British culture in Edwardian England. And in the same token, you can’t be a photographer if you don’t take pictures. The way you become a better photographer is to take more and more images and to study the work of the masters.
That’s what I always would say to a young person. If you want to write non-fiction, find the non-fiction that you think is the best going and pay attention. Don’t just read it, study it. It’s the same thing with music. When you listen to any of these great characters from Jimmy Page to the beloved and late Jeff Beck, just terrible he passed away, they always talk about how they mimed the work of every other blues player before them. Practice, practice, practice. I mean, Jerry Garcia never had a guitar out of his hands, nor did Hendrix. So you just have to do it and then ask. It’s that classic idea. Do what needs to be done and only then ask whether it was permissible or possible.
One of the things that I’ve found, Tim, about life is that at every single stage of life there’s someone telling you you shouldn’t do something and nobody wants you to change. In my case it was like, “You’re from Canada. What’s wrong with the University of — why do you have to go to Harvard?” “Wait a minute, you’re supposed to be a lawyer. What’s this anthropology thing?” “Wait a minute, you’re an…? What’s this botany thing?” “We just came back from the Amazon. What’s this Vodou thing?” “Wait a minute. How can you go work on a logging camp? Your father just spent a half his money sending you to this fancy school.” “Wait, you’ve been in a logging camp. Why should you be a park ranger?” “Wait a minute, you…” It’s always like that and you just cannot look behind you. I remember our mutual friend, Mark Plotkin, once told me in the early days, “The problem with climbing up the flagpole is that there’s always somebody looking up your butt.” By the way, that’s a classic Mark line.
Tim Ferriss: That is a classic Mark line. That is a very classic Mark line. Well, I must say, Wade, this is an extremely enjoyable conversation for me. I’m taking a lot of notes. There are many other questions that I would love to ask, but I think I’ll make it not so much dealer’s choice, but guest’s choice. So let me offer three options for wrapping up and then I would love to have you pick.
Wade Davis: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: So the first option, which is actually a question that Mark suggested although I would also love to know the answer, and that is, why has Harvard not maintained their role as a leader in ethnobotany? So that’s option one.
Option two is you attended and spoke at Dennis McKenna’s ESPD55 conference, and I’ve had Dennis on the podcast as well. What can you tell us about the current and future use of infusions by western societies?
And then the last option, which just came to mind because Kurt Vonnegut, I think, separates the brain vomit first draft and then refine folks as swoopers and then I think folks who operate more like yourself as plotters, I want to say. And I tend to write more similar to how you write, not to compare my writing to yours, but I tend to rework and rework and rework. But that only works for me if I have a very reliable outline. So I was going to ask you about your outlining process when writing.
Wade Davis: Well, if you don’t mind, I’d much rather talk about writing actually, if you do the third one.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, let’s do it. Yeah, yeah, let’s do it.
Wade Davis: I think all writers discover their own kind of methods by definition. And what I do, and the strength of my books and the way that some people might even call them too dense, is that they’re incredibly deeply researched. The book we haven’t really talked about, Into the Silence, which actually won the prize for the top book in the English language, which was then called the Samuel Johnson Prize, that took 12 years. And in that process I bought 600 books. With either myself or my research assistant we visited 57 archives, multiple journeys to Tibet. I had the spiritual autobiography, the namthar of Dzatrul Rinpoche from Rongbuk translated by monks in Kathmandu. I spent weeks myself in the monastery, established by his spiritual heir, just to know what Rongbuk would’ve looked like in 1921 and so on. So just insane amounts of research.
And then what I do is I go through all that material, and in the case, obviously, of the Everest book there’s files of original letters and reports. And then I create what I call work points. I don’t read the books, I don’t scan the books or skim the books. I think I’d say I mind the books. I know, for example, that I want to deal at some point with how Edwardian women or women during the Great War dealt with the experience of death, as one example. Well, I know that in my head that’s there so as I go through all the material, I start constructing these work points.
And that work point could be anything on a theme, homosexuality in the 1920s, or the Buddhist science of mind, and the work points can become a huge number. But then everything I then subsequently source, I know there’s a work point sheet, a document to put it in, right? And so then that’s how I distill all this research into a manageable set of sources. And when I write the book, I never go back unless I specifically need to for one point or something to the original sources.
And at the same time, I find, Tim, you might try this, that the act of doing that unveils the outline of the book, right? I don’t think you can simply, “I want to write a book on coca. Oh, here, it’s going to be chapter one, chapter two.” I mean, these book proposals from publishers are so idiotic because you can’t really do that. The book unveils itself. I mean, I’m sure you’ve had this experience. You think, “Oh my God, I’ve got to talk about this element of his life. It’s going to be boring. I’ll have to cover it in 10 pages.” And you discover you can actually say all that you need to say in a paragraph.
Or inversely you discover, “Oh my God, Schultes…” Perfect example is Schultes in One River. “Oh, I knew he was involved in this rubber crisis in World War II. Oh it’s going to be so boring but I’ve got to cover it.” Turns out to be the most exciting part of his career and of the book, right? So the books have a way of unfolding like that. And I find, and I know some other writers don’t — David McCullough, the great writer —
Tim Ferriss: Incredible writer.
Wade Davis: — starts to write his books before he has even finished the research, which I can’t do.
Tim Ferriss: I can’t do that either.
Wade Davis: I feel it’s like I have to have all the stuff before me before I begin to assemble it into the writing. And I don’t think it’s a slow process. I actually write very quickly.
Tim Ferriss: May I ask a follow-up question though? When you have your work points, do you organize them thematically into some type of, not chronological, but order that you intend to follow as you piece those points into prose?
Wade Davis: Well, yes and no. I mean, with the case of Into the Silence, for example, I had to have one whole work point, as I call it, on just the pure chronology of the battles because I was dealing with all these men who fought all over the place. I had to just really know what happened at each battle. But to give you an idea of this research, there were 26 men who went to Everest on those first expeditions, ’21, 1922, 1924. Six of them missed the War. Sandy Irvine, too young. Longstaff, too old. One a school teacher, another a diplomat. But 20 saw the worst of the fighting. And there were many other men. And I set out to find out where each one of those 21 men, it turned out to be, had been every single day of the four years and four months of the First World War and I did it. I did it.
Tim Ferriss: Wow, that’s an amazing test.
Wade Davis: Do you know what? It might be fun, Tim, sometime when we’re not just doing this kind of podcast, if you’re interested, we could get on call together for 10 minutes, I could literally show you some of these work points.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, please, I would love that.
Wade Davis: I do it with my graduate students. It’s a really helpful way — and then you have things pop up. For example, that question of women’s relationship to the war. Well, you could write out 10 pages about that and never achieve anything like a single line from Diana Manners who said that, “By the end of 1916, every boy I had ever danced with was dead.” Right?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Wade Davis: And you’re looking for those. And the other thing I call, Tim, is wow points. This is really important. If you’re reading along, like I was reading Max Hastings, a great historian, I really love his books, he wrote a book about the last year of the Pacific War and the overwhelming dominance of the Americans and one of the statistics that just blew my mind, and I’ll give you this as a quiz.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Wade Davis: For every four pounds of equipment, food, gas, bullets, grenades, everything, per capita, the Japanese Empire of the Sun got to a frontline soldier per capita, how many pounds did we get? And across 13,000 kilometers of ocean. As an American, you’re going to love this.
Tim Ferriss: I have no idea. I won’t even hazard a guess.
Wade Davis: No, come on, you’ve got to guess.
Tim Ferriss: So, okay, so give me the question one more time.
Wade Davis: Okay. For every four pounds of equipment —
Tim Ferriss: Four pounds.
Wade Davis: — per capita, not — and that means for all the stuff they sent to the soldiers.
Tim Ferriss: All the stuff.
Wade Davis: Everything from Tokyo or wherever it came from. For every four pounds the Japanese got to a soldier, how many pounds did America get to a soldier?
Tim Ferriss: Okay, I’m just going to throw a number out there. It might be overestimating. I’ll say 40 pounds.
Wade Davis: Two tons.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Wade Davis: You see? So, when I’m reading along like that, I go, “Wow,” as you’d go, “Wow.” And you file it away. And before you know it, you’re writing a piece in Rolling Stone about the unraveling of America and you want to speak about how extraordinarily powerful America was industrially in World War II. They come back to you, they come back to you. But the key thing I find, Tim, is if you’re reading and something blows your mind, that’s why I call it wow points, it’s going to blow the mind of the reader.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Wade Davis: And you want to make sure that you find a way to get all those wow points into your manuscript.
Tim Ferriss: How do you file your wow points or just make these available?
Wade Davis: In Word documents.
Tim Ferriss: In Word documents.
Wade Davis: But yeah, and like Nancy Manners, I get that thing about, “Everybody I danced with was dead.” Well, that would be filed away in Women in the War, something like that.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Wade Davis: I’d be happy, off record, out of office hours kind of thing, just when you got a moment and we might be able to pull them up and it’s good exercise. It’s really helpful.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I would love to do it. That’s a very generous offer.
Wade Davis: It’s your only way.
Tim Ferriss: My answer is yes.
Wade Davis: Well, it’s the only way to deal with the body of material. I mean, this whole wall of my office here is books that I bought for that one book.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Yes. So I would love to do that. That’s a very generous offer and you’ve been very generous with your time. I appreciate you being so game to go two and a half hours. I could go another two and a half hours, but maybe we’ll save that for a round two if this torture wasn’t too bad.
Wade Davis: No, it’s fine. And it’s been a lot of fun. And you asked at the very beginning. What you did is exactly what I was hoping you’d do. It was fun.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, amazing.
Wade Davis: It wasn’t work. It was a conversation, my friend. Very kind of you.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I loved it. And I hope we get to meet in person, but before then, we could certainly have a phone call. I would love to see your work points and your flow. Is there anything you would like to mention, call attention to? Any request of the audience you’d like to make before we come to the close?
Wade Davis: No, I mean, not really. I mean, it’s nice that you can plug the Magdalena book at the introduction, but other than that, that’s fine. Unless there’s something you want me to say.
Tim Ferriss: No, no, you’ve done more than enough. And I will just say thank you very much. And to everybody listening, we will link to all of the books, all of the references, many, many. If not, we will attempt to get all of the things that were mentioned in this conversation in the show notes as per usual at tim.blog/podcast. And, wow, Wade Davis, ladies and gentlemen. And thanks everybody for tuning in.
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