By Leslie Scrivener
The land around Ealue Lake in northwestern British Columbia is Canada’s own Eden, where humans are scarce and jaw-dropping scenery is plentiful. Famed anthropologist Wade Davis — long a defender of indigenous peoples and their remote lands — makes his summer home here. But a nearby open pit gold mine is forcing him to confront real-life issues that have been subjects of academic research for him. And all of a sudden, the anthropologist is under study.
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On Ealue Lake: Wade Davis and the battle for Todagin Mountain
“Whatever role you play on the wheel of life, you have to be
pushing the wheel in a positive direction. You have a choice.
You may not save the world, but you have an obligation to do
your bit and bear witness.”
— Wade Davis
The gravel road to Wade Davis’s lodge in the Stikine Valley in the wilds of northwest British Columbia is carved from a wooded slope that tumbles down to Wolf Creek. The internationally renowned Canadian anthropologist and his family draw water right from the stream and from Ealue Lake, which glints silvery blue further down the road. As our truck passes — it is a bone-rattling ride — a black bear crashes into feathery pink fireweed and the deadly baneberry.
A keep-out sign at kilometre five marks a new road that forks up to Todagin Mountain where the Vancouver-based company Imperial Metals Corp. is building an open-pit mine. The top of the mountain is a plateau and though the Red Chris mine isn’t set to open until 2014, Todagin is already sliced by roads and dotted with rows of white industrial trailers.
The company plans to process 30,000 tonnes of rock and ore every day to extract 279 million tonnes of gold and copper over the life of the mine, about 28 years. When the wind is low one can hear the blasts from road building, the whine of feller bunchers — the logging harvesters — and ceaseless rumble of trucks.
When the mine is in production it will operate 24 hours a day; its lights will flood the northern sky. It will provide 200 jobs.
Last summer Davis invited journalists, filmmakers and activists to his lodge to document the effects of industrialization in northwestern B.C. “Canadians love the idea of the North, but unfortunately few actually go there,” he wrote. Fly to Smithers, he suggested, rent a car and drive north.
Davis’s themes as a writer and lecturer have been the connection of indigenous people to the natural world. He has spent his working life interpreting these vanishing cultures — living in the deepest rainforests amidst smoky fires, pitiless insects and astonishing wildlife, toucans, squirrel monkeys, vipers and sloths — and defending their little-known lands. He’s witnessed the industrialization of these landscapes, but he always came and went. They were his subject but not his battle and he’s never had to live with the consequences of the forces of change he has often written about.
Davis’s first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, subtitled A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic, sold some half-million copies.It led to a lurid Hollywood film directed by Wes Craven (The Nightmare on Elm Street) and starred Bill Pullman. It also led to hisreputation as a real-life Indiana Jones.
At that time Davis was the precocious wild man of ethnobotany, living among indigenous people from Borneo to the Amazon, collecting botanical specimens and enthusiastically sampling plants with hallucinogenic properties. Some of those left him “prostrate before the gates of awe.” It sounds like a joke, but he truly did find himself face down in the mud in these pursuits.
Davis is now 58 and his journeys don’t send him out to Pluto any more. He’s the author of 17 books, a filmmaker, photographer, storyteller, professional speaker — he gives as many as 50 speeches a year — and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.
He is a sought-after presenter at TED conferences. In a July 2012 issue of The New Yorker, June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media, was asked about her favourite speakers. She names Davis. “Placing one hand across her chest and swaying gently back and forth, she quoted a line from Davis’s 2003 talk, about the disappearance of the world’s rare languages, the way someone might recall a favourite line of Byron. ‘Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind,’ she recited. Then, quietly, she added, ‘It sets my heart on fire.’ ”
In November 2012, Davis won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the U.K.’s richest and most prestigious award for non-fiction, for his book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, a painstaking study of George Mallory’s doomed attempt to climb Mount Everest. It’s really a history of how the Great War shaped those gentlemen explorers who sacrificed themselves on the world’s highest peak. The Times called the book, which Davis researched for 12 years, an “epic masterpiece.”