Wade Davis has the best job title next to Katy Payne’s “acoustic biologist.” He is the ‘Explorer in Residence’ at National Geographic. He is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, filmmaker, and photographer (and he can fly – kidding).
In his book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, he recounts the profound lessons he learned among indigenous communities around the world, from the Amazon to the Canadian Rockies to the Australian outback to the Himalayas. He exquisitely explains how contemporary people (and particularly westerners) can and need to learn from each of these cultures – to learn about ways of being human that are being rapidly lost to change and particularly to environmental destruction. He tells many fascinating stories, but keeping with the theme of deep listening and being present, I will share one that sticks with me almost 2 years after my best friend gave me this book for my 40th birthday.
For millennia, Pacific Islander peoples have been sailing thousands of miles of open ocean without external navigation tools. And for centuries, European explorers and navigators could not understand how these multiple islands from Fiji all the way to Hawaii became inhabited by these people. The Europeans invented all sorts of truly ridiculous theories as to how these many cultures and peoples ‘accidentally’ populated these dispersed islands. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that Western disbelief was finally discredited and these native peoples were recognized as expert sailors and navigators. They could not imagine that these so called ‘primitives’ could navigate these vast open waters – because they themselves could not do it for centuries and only with the use of gadgets.
What’s incredible is that indigenous sailing is a completely embodied process. From the time he is a baby (it was traditionally a man’s role), a navigator is trained to tune into his body and the world. As an infant, he is placed in tide pools for hours and days on end so that he can feel the rhythm of the water. As a young adult, (get ready…) his testicles are tied to the boat so that he can feel the pull of the waves. He studies the sky, the birds, the sea animals for signs of change and for patterns of movement. He is taught a system for measuring the rising and setting of stars to map the way at night. And after years of training, on his own voyage as navigator, he sits still at the front of sometimes what is a very, very large boat. Food and water is brought to him as he observes all these elements simultaneously – sun and stars, waves and tides, fish and water mammals, wind and birds… and most importantly stays completely grounded in his body to guide the way across mile after mile of open water. He feels his way across thousands of miles.
Can you imagine the way we would teach a young person about those waters today, and how different it would be? First a google search, maybe a visit to the library, lots of research, tons of data, a term paper with proper footnotes, more research, then maybe in her junior year of university she could win a research grant to finally actually visit that ocean she’s been studying…
We are not given many opportunities to embody our learning. And none of us are probably going to get to that level of embodiment. I’m not even remotely close. But can I learn to be more fully embodied? Wade Davis gives me many examples of ways of being that help me explore that inquiry.