Watershed conference featured wide-ranging topics

The third-annual ManOMin Watershed Conference in International Falls last week not only attracted plenty of local attention, it brought in some of the most knowledgeable and well-known people in the environmental field.
Case in point, the keynote speaker who kicked the whole thing off last Thursday morning at Rainy River Community College was none other than Wade Davis, explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society.
A native of British Columbia, Davis has worked as a guide, forestry engineer, and park ranger, as well as conducted ethnographic fieldwork among several indigenous societies in northern Canada.
He holds degrees in anthropology and biology, as well as a Ph.D. in ethnobiology from Harvard University. He also is the author of nine books, including the international best-seller, “The Serpent and the Rainbow.”
His lecture—entitled “Light at the edge of the world: A journey through the realm of vanishing cultures”—kept those on hand spell-bound for 90 non-stop minutes as he took them on a journey through the jungles of South America and Haiti, as well as the remote mountain regions of Nepal and Tibet.
The lecture was based on his latest book by the same title and although it covers issues well beyond the scope of the conference, the message was not. Davis said the future of the Rainy River watershed is in the hands of the past—the language and culture of the First Nations people on both sides of the border who were the original caretakers of the region.
But because that aboriginal language and culture is endangered, so is the watershed, he says.
“Language is the old-growth forest of the mind,” Davis explained. “Once it is lost, so is an irreplaceable part of human existence.”
Davis said half the world’s languages have disappeared in the last 50 years—and that trend continues.
“I fear the 20th century will be remembered not for its technological accomplishments, but rather for the destruction of aboriginal cultures,” he remarked.
To say Davis thinks on a global scale is to state the obvious. He even has invented a word to encapsulate his perspective on the world—ethnosphere—which he defines as “the web of humanity’s cultural diversity.”
“The whole idea was to create a word that would be an organizing principle so people would begin to think in new ways about things,” he explained.
“What people don’t understand is that culture is not trivial, it’s not decoration,” he stressed. “Culture is the cloak of civilization that allows human beings to make sense of sensations.”
Davis has seen a great deal of so-called “primitive” cultures. He has travelled the full length of the Amazon with the bush people, studied the VooDoo practices of the people of Haiti, and walked with Buddhist monks in the high Himalayas.
Everywhere, it seems, he sees different aspects of the human condition and each—to him—is a vital part of the global community.
“The key message for people [in North America] to understand is that the culture in which they live is just one option, one model of reality,” he argued.
“These other cultures in the world are not failed attempts at being you. These are unique and remarkable expressions of human imagination.
“To suggest that our particular way of life—with its very shallow history—has all the answers is a misreading of history,” he said.
Davis, his wife, and two daughters currently divide their time between Washington, D.C. and their fishing lodge in northern British Columbia.
The three-day watershed conference wrapped up Saturday.
(Fort Frances Times)