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Shadows in the Sun
Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire

Wade Davis

Published by Island Press/DC in 1998
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2004


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I suspected this book was going south in the very first sentence of the Introduction when I read, "American look west for heroes, but Canadians look north." Actually the first chapter, "Hunters in the Northern Ice" was one of the best chapters followed by equally fine "Dreams of a Jade Forest", "The White Darkness", "The Clouded Leopard" and "Passion in the Desert". Further on in the Introduction, Wade Davis, who travels all over the world trying his best to help resolve what he perceives to be an environmental crisis, quotes Gary Snyder, who when asked how one might solve that problem, said tersely, "Stay put." Ignoring Snyder's advice, Davis wandered all over, never developing his own sense of place — so far as we can tell from his ramblings about other places — but he still believes he is qualified to tell us and these other people who have stayed in one place how to solve their problem, the environmental crisis that Davis perceives and writes about in this book. If my words show disappointment in this book it is because I anticipated a book full of the like of the first five chapters, a travelogue of descriptions of the way the world is rather than a catalogue of prescriptions of how the world ought to be instead of the way it is. That said, let's join Davis in his wanderings in search of "Stay Put."

In the first chapter about the ways of the Inuit, he shows insight into the value of human hunting — how it benefits the animals as well as the humans when it is done properly.

[page 9] If the animals are not properly treated, they will not allow themselves to be taken. But if they are not hunted, the Inuit believe, they will suffer, and their numbers will decrease. Thus the hunt is a reflection of balance, a measure of the interdependence of all like in the Arctic, a polar desert cloaked darkness nine months of the year and bathed in intense luminosity for the short weeks of upinngaaq, the summer season of renewal and rebirth.

During a seal hunt with the Inuit, he reports on a guide, Johnny Mikes, who stumbled upon a bay where hundreds of narwhals were feeding. One of the Inuit had just killed a bearded seal and there was blood on the snow.

[page 12] Mikes had never seen the raw edge of nature so exposed. As he spent time with the Inuit, he came to understand that for them blood on snow is not a sign of death, but an affirmation of life. It was something he thought others should experience.

One doesn't have to go to exotic places like the Arctic Circle to find local hunters with a sense of place, who have stayed put in one area and for whom blood while hunting is an affirmation of life. I grew up among Cajun hunters who were never happier than after a deer hunt when, all bloody, they hung up the deer to butcher and save as much of the venison as possible to feed their families.

My brother was a great fisherman and he never once tried to flaunt his skills in a bass-fishing tournament or such. David was content to catch fish, and year after year he caught more than anyone else we knew. Unfortunately David died at age 56 and never lived to tell his stories in his old age.

[page 16] Later Abraham, university educated and remarkable in his ability to move freely between worlds, explains Olayuk's reticence. "In your culture, the goal is to excel and stand out, flaunting your excellence in public. Here, the greater your skills, the more you want to fade into the background. You must never reveal what you know, for knowledge is power. If you step forwards, you show yourself to your enemies. In the old days it might be a shaman who waited outside a camp and watched before casting spells on the strongest man. This is something whites have never understood. The only time you can reveal your stories is when you no longer have the power. In old age."

Do you remember the public outrage about the harvesting of harp seals? This led to boycotts of all seal skins and to devastation for Inuits who lived off ringed seals.

[page 23] When in 1983 the Europeans banned the import of sealskins, they did not distinguish one species from the other, and Inuit families from Baffin Island saw their per capita annual income drop from $16,000 to nothing. Simon asks, "How can they love a seal more than a human being?"

Such folly continues to this day closer to home. Human lives are being endangered every day by shrimp who live in a pond off a runway for LAX, Los Angeles International Airport. These shrimp attract birds which get sucked up in jet engines during takeoffs. The environmentalists are stopping the airport from buying the land and filling in the pond to protect the human passengers on aircraft whose lives depend on safe takeoffs and landings over that pond.

In the first paragraph of "The White Darkness" Davis reveals himself to be troubled by what he hears so much that he needs to get away, but when he arrives in places like Haiti, he then needs a quiet place to "stay put" in order to directly experience the unique quality of the land separate from what people say about it.

[page 48] Haiti is saturated with cliché — the poverty, the tortured landscape, the spate of abominable political leaders, consistent it seems only in their personal greed and disregard for their people. But find a quiet place somewhere — perhaps beneath the spreading branches of a sacred mapou tree, or on a hotel verandah at dawn, when, from sheer exhaustion or moved by the splendor of the city basking in such soft light, you can forget all that you have heard about this turbulent country. Breathe deeply and listen to the rhythm of the land, and you will hear voices speaking of another Haiti, one whose beauty and magic make it unique in all the Americas.

In this next passage, Davis, for some reason wishes to give the impression that it was the slaves who "annihilated" an invading French army around 1803. Closer to the truth it was yellow fever which decimated the French army and led to Napoleon deciding to sell Louisiana to the United States of America.

[page 51, 52] In time, the slaves that rose up to throw off the shackles of bondage were called upon to defeat the greatest powers of Europe. First the French, then the Spanish, then the English, and once again the French invaded the island. In 1801 Napoleon, at the height of his power, dispatched, under command of his brother-in-law Leclerc, the largest expeditionary force ever to sail from Europe. Its mission was twofold: it was to sail up the Mississippi, hem in the expanding United States, and reestablish French hegemony in North America. En route and rather incidentally, Leclerc was expected to crush the slave revolt in the former colony of Saint Domingue. Leclerc and his 30,000 troops never saw the Mississippi; they were annihilated in Haiti.

After suffering the ravages from yellow fever, the expeditionary force was reduced to about 3,000 and they returned to France. One-tenth of the force is the definition of decimated, not annihilated. And, while attempting to squelch the slave revolt led the soldiers to die, their deaths were at the hands of yellow fever, not the slaves. The natives were immune to yellow fever by virtue of being born on the island and exposed to the fever before they were five years old, which the French soldiers were not.

In talking about the caves and sunken wells where believers in Haiti go to worship their spirits, Davis says, "Believers are drawn to these places as we are drawn to cathedrals. We do not worship the buildings; we go there to be in the presence of God." And yet he notes later in "The Clouded Leopard" that Mallory went to Everest to worship the place.

[page 89] To placate the monks, Mallory and Howard-Bury described their expedition as a group of mountain worshippers embarked on pilgrimage. Cryptic as they intended the message to be, it, in fact, perfectly encapsulated who they were, climbers willing to sacrifice all to reach the summit of the unknown. The word, sacrifice, of course, means to make sacred, and when Mallory in his famous retort explained that the reason for climbing Everest was nothing more than the fact that it was there, he distilled the perfect notion of emptiness and pure purpose.

In this next passage Daniel, the son of an American missionary who grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas, talks about his search for the abominable snowman or yeti, a search which finally led him to a rare form of bear indigenous to the region. Here's what he learned from the process of his search and why he feels such searches are useful.

[page 91] "Well, I think that's why we all come here, why the landscape and the religion hold such an attraction for people from the West. I started with the yeti. I was desperate to find it, to prove that it existed. But then gradually the creature ceased to be a physical mystery and became instead a symbol of the unknown, an image that allowed me to tie together things that were known and things I merely sensed. That's why I turned to conservation. We all need a place on Earth to hide the wild parts of ourselves. With land preserved, each generation can search again for the yeti and discover the science of life, which is ecology, and participate in the art of science violated, which is magic. In the end what we discover is a greater sense of who we are, and a knowledge that what we are is just what is."

In "Passion in the Desert" we learn of Honoré de Balzac's controversial love story of a French officer in 1789 who loses his way in the desert and finds a wild part of himself.

[page 94] Chased into the hills, he finds shelter in a damp cave and awakens the following morning in the arms of a beautiful creature. Her name is Simoon, and for months she protects him, revealing the ways of the desert. Passionate, sensual, explosive, their tryst has all the drama of a great dramatic love affair, with one exception. Simoon is an African leopard.

The chapter details the difficulty of filming the story on location in the desert with actual leopards. It cannot be filmed without the actor going through the very hazards and dangers that the man in Balzac's story did.

At this point, the descriptive portion ended and the sententious lecturing by Davis begins. Take the example he cites about removing rivets from an airplane's wings being comparable to the loss of species. Rivets are inanimate objects and species are alive. Wing metal cannot re-grow to fill the niches left by removed rivets, but species can do so and even improve the world in the process. To think otherwise is to shortchange the robust planet of which we are a living part. What seems to pass as justification for ecological studies is mere scientific mumbo-jumbo designed to scare people into funding more ecological studies.

[page 114] Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich explains the ecological significance of species diversity with a metaphor. Imagine, he writes, that as you are entering an airplane you notice a workman popping out rivets. The workman explains that the rivets can be sold for two dollars and thus can subsidize cheaper airplanes. When questioned about the procedure, he responds that it has to be safe, as no wings have fallen off despite many round of deriveting. This, in effect, is what we are doing to the biosphere through the erosion of biodiversity.

From this point on, instead of useful descriptions, Davis throw statistical darts at us, each dart designed to get us to wince appropriately and open up our pocket books to assuage our conscience. All of which would be nice if it were true and useful and good. Alfred Korzybski showed how we proceed from reality — from the territory — up successive levels of abstraction to concepts — to the map — which can represent the territory, but not all of the territory. If we manipulate abstract concepts as if they were real, we are dealing with all map, no territory — and those abstract concepts will fall through the cracks of life. But statistics are abstract concepts — maps of the territory they represent — and like maps they cannot look at all of the territory and what they leave out in unknown and that unknown can make all the difference in the world. To paraphrase my favorite quatrain of Samuel Hoffenstein:

Statistics icily subtract
Faith and Fallacy from Fact
The Illusory from the True
And scare us with the Residue.

Statistics can be made to appear like the rotting carcass of a dog lying on the side of the road as we walk past — it requires a strong will to be able to see its shiny bright teeth.

Here is the dilemma we face. Specialists in ecological fields are building statistical castles of airy abstract concepts such as holes in the ozone layer, greenhouse effect, acid rain, erosion of biodiversity, etc, and shoring them up against all invaders who attack them in the name of common sense and reality. These specialists are like viruses who have invaded the body politic by pretending to be productive members of its constituent cells, but in reality they are feeding off that body and rendering it progressive less healthy and more in need of healing.

Think ofthe Inuit Olayuk's reticence to tell his stories, to share his skills with others, how can such skills become part of statistics? The skills and abilities of such people do not appear on the radar screen of statistics by Davis's own admission. On the way to pick up my newspaper this morning I noticed an automatic sprinkler system clicking away down the street on a common area. That sprinkler was turned on by statistics and it had no way of knowing that the ground was soaked by a rain just yesterday. The sprinkler was wasting resources doing a job that didn't need doing. It was doing more harm than good.

I think of things cybernetically — if a system is out of balance in one direction, let us take action to restore the balance, and not spend our time decrying its previous out of balance condition of being. Nor would I gainsay the system its resources for necessary correction or talk about how bad it was that it required correction in the first place.

Davis tells us that Story Musgrave said on returning from seeing the Earth from space:

[page 271] To have experienced that vision, he said, a sight made possible only by the brilliance of human technology, and to remember the blindness with which we as a species abuse our only home, was to know the purest sensation of horror.

Those who look at the Earth and see only abuses deserve the horror they experience. They are missing the wholesome corrections that are going on all around in small and large ways that are bringing our excesses in any direction in to balance again. One of our excesses has been reliance on the abstract concepts of statistics and a correction for that excess is long overdue.

I can think of no better way to close this review than by sharing with you the words of Samuel Hoffenstein about the "Root of things" — the essence of humanity that lives in the world and not in statistics. From page 212 of The Complete Poetry of Samuel Hoffenstein which begins with the quatrain that I paraphrased above:

Little by little we subtract
Faith and Fallacy from Fact,
The Illusory from the True,
And starve upon the Residue.

What is the sense in tears or laughter?
The Root of things is what we're after:
But fallen trees will spill their fruit
And worms and darkness keep the root.

Fallen days will spill their sun,
But paper heavens must be won,
And so, while we geometrize,
A bird out-twits us, twice as wise.

Mere matter is not all of marrow;
The harvest leaps not from the harrow,
And a push-button will not light
Joy by day, or stars by night.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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