Wade Davis, Wandering Spirit
Credit: Photograph by Michael Edwards

Wade Davis will drink blood and eat insects or even a grizzly when he must, but he prefers polar bear, which he says tastes like "the best pork ever." He grows animated when describing mysterious potions made from exotic plants by forest dwellers, especially if they contain some powerful mind-altering alkaloid. Davis counts shamans and voodoo sorcerers among his friends and is equally at home in the foothills of Mount Everest and along the banks of the Río Pira Paraná in the northwest Amazon. Since he abandoned a promising academic career in the 1980s – after his dissertation research on Haitian zombies produced a bestseller and a major motion picture – Davis has traveled the world as an independent anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and "explorer in residence" for the National Geographic Society, campaigning on behalf of vanishing peoples, languages, and habitats.

Davis and I met in the Trophy Room of the Explorers Club in Manhattan, where he was scheduled to deliver a lecture that evening on his latest book, 'Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.' Within minutes he was describing the effects of ebena, "the semen of the sun," a hallucinogenic snuff used by the Yanomami and other peoples along Venezuela's upper Orinoco. "Jerry Garcia used to say that I was the only guy in America who was allowed to take drugs legally," Davis said proudly, adding that ebena was probably the weirdest hallucinogen he'd ever experienced. The active ingredient is a tryptamine compound, and taking the snuff results in the complete dissolution of reality. "You're not even there anymore."

Our setting was especially appropriate, surrounded as we were by relics of threatened species and dwindling cultures. We were inspecting the room's many trophies, and Davis, wearing a black turtleneck and dark jeans, was nose to nose with a stuffed cheetah, peering into its glass eyes. His longish, wavy blond hair perfectly matched the pelt of the big cat.

Along the dark-wood-paneled walls and even in the rafters of the vaulted ceiling above us were the preserved heads of caribou, bison, Cape buffalo, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope. Large lead-glass windows admitted the midday sun, which slanted brilliantly across a lion skin. Glass cases displayed Maori wood carvings, shells from Papua New Guinea, a piece of mauve goat hide labeled as a yeti scalp.

Davis threw himself down on a red leather couch below a large portrait in oil of Peter Freuchen, the great Danish explorer, who inspired a tale that began like this: "When I was narwhal hunting at the tip of Baffin Island, these guys told me this incredible story." It was during the dark days of the 1950s, when the Canadian government was asserting its sovereignty, forcing the Inuit into settlements. "The grandfather of this old man I was hunting with refused to go," Davis said, "so his family took away all his weapons and tools, thinking that would force him into the settlement." Instead, Davis continued, one night the old man "slipped outside the igloo, pulled down his caribou-hide and sealskin trousers, and defecated into his hand." As the feces began to freeze, he shaped it into the form of a tool – a shit knife. "When the implement he had forged in the cold from human waste was fully formed," Davis said, speaking in well-formed prose, "he put a spray of saliva along the edge and used it to kill a dog." The rib cage of the dog became an improvised sled, with strips of the frozen dog skin acting as runners. The old man then tucked his shit knife under his belt and disappeared into the arctic night. An amazing story, no doubt, but Davis remained somewhat skeptical about the existence of shit knives: "I thought they were pulling my leg, obviously." Then, some time later, he read Freuchen's journals, in which the Danish explorer describes being trapped in the barrens under his sled, which he had pulled over him as a shelter but now was a coffin of his own making. "And in his journals, he says totally casually and in passing: 'I thought of making a shit knife, but I really couldn't maneuver.'

It's not like there was an assembly line making shit knives," Davis continued, clearly warming to the subject, "but when you're in the arctic, everything is made from the cold. The runners on the sleds used to be made of fish. There's no wood, so it's three arctic char wrapped in the skin of a caribou hide." Had he ever made a shit knife? "I've never made a shit knife, but if you leave a towel in that cold overnight, it becomes a tool. I have helped dig igloos with shovels made of frozen towels. You know, once something freezes, it's solid. That's the key to the arctic – they didn't fear the cold, they made use of it."

Davis' observation about fear is characteristic of his stories. Similar points abound in his books, and the general theme is consistent. Native peoples tend to work with their environments rather than struggle against them. The contrast he draws is not a matter of magical thinking versus science. The peoples of the Amazon display a sophisticated knowledge about their plants and general environment that is far more precise and empirical than that of the average American or European, many of whom have no idea what's growing in their backyard.

Davis was born in Vancouver in 1953 but raised in Montreal. It was, he says, "a completely suburban Canadian environment." But in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when Davis came of age, Canadian young people had relatively easy access to the bush, and he and his friends all wanted to go north. Beginning when he was 15 years old, Davis spent eight seasons working for the Canadian parks service. "It was sort of a combination Outward Bound and Youth Conservation Corps – teams would go into the remote parks, cut trails, fight fires, build basic stuff like outhouses and cabins, but then also there was a strong component of wilderness training." It was a good apprenticeship for an explorer. "At 16, they'd say to you, there's a forest fire 20 miles up that valley. Go put it out, and if you have time to build a helipad, we might be able to give you a ride out. Otherwise, you'll have to sleep in the bush and walk out tomorrow."

When he arrived at Harvard in 1971, Davis was bewildered to hear people refer to backpacking as a form of recreation. "I had no idea what they were talking about. I had never known about the notion of just going backpacking for the fun of it. We had chainsaws on our backpacks." Those months in the remote Canadian wilderness led to an interest in indigenous peoples and a decision, after two and a half years of college, to head off to South America for 15 months. Of course, he was also inspired by his mentor, the great ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who helped launch the psychedelic revolution with his discovery of the Aztecs' magic mushrooms and his work on the ritual use of peyote in the American Southwest. In keeping with the spirit of his teacher, and the age, Davis' fieldwork was all about pushing the boundaries of experience and consciousness.

Davis is a formidable talker, and his stories flow in quick succession, ranging from his pathbreaking mid-1980s work on Haitian zombies to his investigation of the belief among a number of anthropologists that a large species of toad, Bufo marinus, was used by the Mayans and other ancient peoples of Mesoamerica as a hallucinogenic drug. Adventurous dope fiends had also heard about the toad theory, it seems, so there was a public health imperative as well. "We were trying to get kids to stop licking toads," Davis said, as he casually tossed a large globe into the air. "Because they were dying." Along with his friend Dr. Andrew Weil, Davis eventually determined that a different species of toad, Bufo alvarius, was the more likely candidate for the ancient toad cult. Through Weil, Davis met a psychedelic wayfarer named White Dog, who had smoked magic toad maybe a hundred times. Toad, according to White Dog, was an "astral propellant," the ultimate spiritual high. After careful self-experimentation, Davis concluded that White Dog spoke the truth: Smoking Bufo alvarius toad venom, which contains some of the same compounds found in the Yanomami snuff, produces a sensual, pleasant, and hallucinogenic effect. "Andy and I were the ones who discovered the first hallucinogen ever from the animal kingdom," Davis said. "We were so proud of ourselves – we thought we'd get Nature or Science magazine. Instead, we were on the cover of the Wall Street Journal. We practically got arrested."