Over the past thirty years, Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis has established himself as a sort of curator of what he calls "the ethnosphere," ranging the world as a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, researching and collecting stories and practices from the world's vanishing cultures. Much of his focus has been on psychotropic substances, including the use of ayahuasca in Amazonian shamanism, a topic he has written about extensively. We reached out to Davis over the phone from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, to help us make sense of the recent rise in popularity of ayahuasca, as well as what role hallucinogenic drugs have played in his life, and the different ways boomers and millennials approach psychedelics.
I wanted to start by asking you about best practices in ayahuasca tourism …
Oh, it's such a devious thing, ayahuasca tourism. There are so many mail-order mystics involved. So much of it is about cultural appropriation and shysterism. So much of it can be about predatory relations between self-professed curanderos [or shamans] and women. So I don't know if I can really endorse it.
Has the ayahuasca scene always been like that?
Well, ever since [William S. Burroughs] wrote The Yage Letters, there's been a certain amount of ayahuasca tourism. Even back in 1974, when I first took it outside Putumayo [in the Peruvian Amazon], there were already curanderos cadging off the gringo trade. That doesn't mean that there isn't legitimate use of ayahuasca. I did an ayahuasca ritual in Colombia a few years ago, and it was mind-blowing in terms of its power and authenticity. But in and around Pucallpa and Iquitos [in the Peruvian Amazon], it's not like it took a turn for the worse: it just got very commercialized.
What do you make of its current popularity?
I really can't explain it. A lot of my friends are very surprised that it's ayahuasca, of all things, that has swept America at this time, almost out of nowhere. Why, of all plants and preparations, is it this one that makes most people violently ill or have severe diarrhea? Ayahuasca gives you no crystalline, upbeat vision of the world, as mescaline tends to. There's a certain whimsy with mescaline; ayahuasca isn't whimsical. It's many things, but pleasant isn't one of them.
What role have psychedelics played in your life?
I don't think I'd write the way I do, understand anthropology the way I do, or understand the world as I do, had I not taken psychedelics. I found my own transformation occurred after being exposed to serious psychedelics in the 1970s: mushrooms, peyote, mescaline, and LSD. My generation, the first psychedelic generation, was looking for ways out. It was not a fun place, America in the 1960s: The reason the rebellion happened was because it was such a screwed-up society. And we ran from it, and the psychedelics were a kind of jet fuel. We hit the open road, we experimented with downward mobility, we went to Nepal or Cusco. Kids all over the damn country were running to Canada. I went off to South America on a one-way ticket, vowing not to come back before Nixon was no longer president. And I didn't.
(A shaman in the Cofán region boils for ayahuasca, Ecuador, 2009. Photograph by Wade Davis / Getty Images)
What were you looking to get out of psychedelics?
In my day, [taking psychedelics] was very much about: We're developing new ways of interacting with nature, women, and gay people. I'm not saying everyone who took LSD was on some path of learning. But I think some strong minority, if not a majority, took these substances as a kind of transformation of how we saw the world. I remember that people said back then, "Don't take this, you'll never be the same." But that was the whole fucking point.
You talked about young people responding differently to ayahuasca — does that hold with other psychedelics as well?
My nephew's pals are Harvard and Stanford grads, and they all do psychedelics. But I don't think they take these substances with any expectation that that experience is going to transform their lives such that they won't come back to the office on Monday. I think for them it's just sort of a fun thing to do. Psychedelics always had a recreational component, of course, but [in the first psychedelic generation] there was a sense of seeking and transformation. Remember, I did not want to come back the same. And now there's more of tendency to want to come back the same.
Do you think this is the same if one is drinking ayahuasca instead of, say, taking LSD?
It's not about the plant: It's about the generational set. There is a [difference] in the overall gestalt of the generations. We're not living through times of social upheaval — we're living through times where the younger generations are incredibly ambitious to be part of society, rather than looking for ways out. There's no real drop-out movement now. There's no real back-to-the-land movement. I don't know if something like that even is part of the agenda today. And I'm not saying it should be, or that there's anything wrong with that — [our] dream didn't really pan out.
You talked about young people in and around the Amazon who seem to see it as a regular part of psychological hygiene. Should it be?
I think in general I agree with what Ram Dass [Harvard psychologist and psychedelics pioneer Richard Alpert] said: When you get the message, hang up the phone. How much do you have to do psychedelics to get the message? A lot of people think that if you take ayahuasca regularly, it's going to somehow transform the processing of your life: similarly to a Buddhist practice, in which the idea is that the practice is a goal in itself. But [as to the idea that] you take [ayahuasca] repeatedly and it transforms you: I don't see how taking ayahuasca repeatedly, every week, is going to achieve the illumination in the end that Buddhist practice would. What do you learn from the tenth trip you didn't learn from the first one?