Lessons in Extreme Science

After years spent risking his life to learn the secrets of polar bears and priests, poison toads and voodoo zombies, Wade Davis has a new goal: to protect them from harm.

Cover Story

June 27, 1999|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,SUN STAFF

In the high Andes of Colombia, there is an Indian tribe that selects its priests through divination. A chosen boy is taken from his family soon after he is born. For 18 years, he lives in total darkness, never allowed to see the sun. All this time, he is educated by a mama, or priest, in the mysteries of the world and the secrets of creation.

Finally, after 18 years, the young man is led into the dazzling light of early morning. Until that moment, he has known the world only as an abstract formation in his mind.

But now, for the first time, the beauty of the world unfolds before him. And the Chosen One realizes this: Everything the mama has taught him, about the creation, about the majesty of the planet, about the new priest's role in this life, is true.

The mystical ordination of Kogi and Ika priests is but one of the secrets that a man named Wade Davis has studied during the past three decades. Even a short list of his past adventures is more than enough to make the average armchair adventurer feel inadequate. Just for starters, Davis has:

Stalked the fabled clouded leopard in the high Himalayas; gotten hopelessly lost and nearly starved to death in the swamps of Panama; chased polar bears with Inuit hunters 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle; observed a voodoo ritual in Haiti where a tiny woman, in the fevered throes of spirit possession, lifted large men off the ground and swung them like dolls before swallowing a red-hot coal the size of an apple; swapped jokes with the nomadic Penan tribesmen in the remote forests of Borneo; smoked the dried venom of a poisonous toad in the Sonoran Desert and seen diamond patterns float with orb-like brilliance before his eyes; ingested so many plant hallucinogens that it's a wonder he's not curled up on a sidewalk steam grate, babbling to himself.

The story of Wade Davis is one you don't hear much anymore, the story of a man who seeks knowledge through adventure, of a scientist genetically hard-wired with an overpowering wanderlust that seems somehow quaint in a world of Internet chat rooms and 500-channel TV, a world rushing so self-consciously toward the New Millennium.

At 45, Davis' most prolific days may be behind him; now he spends most of his time as a book and magazine writer and highly sought-after lecturer. The jacket of his latest book, a collection of travel essays called "Shadows in the Sun" (Island Press, $22.95), says simply that Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethno-botany from Harvard. But in the exclusive pantheon of modern-day global adventurers, he is one of the biggest names.

He's perhaps best known for "The Serpent and the Rainbow," a book he wrote in the mid-1980s about Haiti's voo-doo culture that sold 400,000 copies before being made into a movie that Davis calls "dreadful."

Nevertheless, it provided Davis with a small measure of celebrity and considerable wealth, which in turn allowed him to do what he loves most: wander the planet studying indigenous cultures.

"Wade gets the respect of indigenous peoples not because he's there to protect them, or help them, but because he's capable of doing just about anything they are," says his friend, screenwriter David Franzone. "He can be thrust in any situation, and survive."

It is a theory that has been tested on many, many occasions.

Winds of possibility

To find this modern-day Indiana Jones, you travel not to the emerald forests of Amazonia, but down Connecticut Avenue to the tony Cleveland Park neighborhood in Washington. Here Davis lives in an elegant, three-story brick house with his wife, Gail Percy, and their two young daughters.

A workman lets you in; major renovations are under way. At first you wonder if you're in the right place. But then your eyes take in a macabre-looking dance mask from New Guinea in the hallway, then a huge set of caribou antlers from some poor creature who once trod the wilds of British Columbia, and you know Wade Davis lives here.

The airy, high-ceilinged kitchen has a similarly exotic feel. Its focus is not a refrigerator covered with Post-It notes that say: "Call plumber" or "Scouts meeting, 7:30." Instead, it contains a primitive oil lamp from the Sarawak region of Borneo, a voodoo drum from Haiti and a mask from a warlike tribe along the Amazon.

Finally, Davis bounds down the stairway. Mel Gibson handsome, with only a few flecks of gray running through his hair, he's wearing a denim shirt, black jeans, no shoes. He's so energetic you suspect he'd ask you to take a stroll in the jungle with him right then and there, if only there was a jungle nearby.

"I was 34 before I owned a TV," he says when he sees you examining his artifacts. "But I have a great blowgun collection, and a [collection of] dance masks, featherworks, ceramic pots and 150 pieces of Peruvian and Bolivian textiles."

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