‘Our realm of ideas’

Beneath the Surface of Things: New and Selected Essays
by Wade Davis

Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2024
$36.95  /  9781778400445

Reviewed by Trevor Marc Hughes


I crashed one of Wade Davis’s undergraduate lectures at the University of British Columbia. Okay, maybe ‘crash’ is a strong word. I snuck in the back of a lecture theatre so I could listen to the West Vancouver-born archaeology professor speak on the subject of Polynesia while a slideshow played on a giant screen behind him. I looked around the room, aware I was a middle-aged man in a room filled with folks in their late teens, each with a laptop open in front of them. I had a strong urge to bring out pencil and paper and start writing notes: old habits die hard. Directly in front of me was a young lady who was browsing Facebook Marketplace and various outlets in a search for leggings. I was disappointed, nay, mildly incensed. At that moment, I felt like standing up and speaking out loud: ‘That’s Wade Davis, one of Canada’s greatest anthropologists! How dare you do your online shopping here! Did you know he presented the Massey Lectures in 2009?’  Then I quietly did the math in my head: she was probably in preschool at the time.

Wade Davis. Photo Adam Dillon

Needless to say, of the twenty-four books Wade Davis has published in his varied career, while lecturing at UBC, while National Geographic Society’s Explorer-in-Residence, while an ethnobotanist, you can probably mention one of the titles off the top of your head. For me, his book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest is the icing on the cake: a historical epic 12 years in the making. That’s the thing about Davis: you don’t know what he’s going to write about next. The Amazon? Saving the Stikine River valley from outrageous resource extraction? Navigating by the stars?

In his new collection of essays, we are introduced to a variety of topics that gave Davis pause during the pandemic, and some that date further back than that. He starts with ruminating on how nature didn’t really mind the lack of human activity when the world essentially shut down due to COVID-19. It actually thrived, showing us humans what could be.

Much of his reflecting turns to the United States of America, where he spent much of his career. Describing wandering past the monuments of Washington D.C., he notes the apparent intent behind the grandiosity of the structures, the “childlike faith in the great experiment.” It nearly has the tone of an elegy for what could have been. Slavery is a top bee in his bonnet: “How can a nation born in liberty tolerate human bondage?”  He mentions the relatively new debate that results from terra nullius (“land belonging to nobody”), the justification made for settling North America. I find it interesting that this term is used so often during a time of rampant and unchecked land speculation here in Canada.

The writing early in the book is impactful, yet keen to extract a populist response. I know that Wade Davis is not Wilson Duff (1925-1976) — a member of the same department at UBC — and that they are anthropologists living in different contexts, historically, politically, socially, but the very structure of Beneath the Surface of Things speaks general accessibility, with no notes, no index. How is someone to follow his sources? This is a book clearly marketed beyond a scholarly readership.

Davis is clear about his reverence for Franz Boas, someone he considers to be “the father of American cultural anthropology,” and it is apparent that the direction Davis has taken in his own life and work mirrors the searching that Boas did in his career:

…Franz Boas was the first scholar to explore in a truly open and neutral manner how human social perceptions are formed, and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world.

Franz Boas pictured on the cover of Douglas Cole’s 1999 title Franz Boas: The Early Years 1858-1906. Davis considers Boas to be ‘the father of American cultural anthropology.’

In “Why Anthropology Matters,” Davis takes this statement further with a thought-provoking statement that is quite pertinent to our current debate on racism. “Race is a cultural construct,” he writes, “derived not from biology but born in the realm of ideas.”

The idea that the USA could ever deteriorate, in power or international influence, is abhorrent to many who have lived, perhaps gained solace, with its overwhelming presence on the world stage. The piece in this collection that many will be waiting for is “The Unraveling of America.” For those who didn’t read it in the pages of Rolling Stone, the scathing rebuke originally published in the summer of 2020 put paid to the poor example set by US leaders in the White House. “In a dark season of pestilence,” Davis delivers, “COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism.”

Davis is just warming up. Although much of what appears in “Of War and Remembrance” has been presented before (most notably in his presentation at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in 2016) it still has power, building up to a crescendo of how our realm of ideas was created.

The impact of the writing of Wade Davis published in Rolling Stone in August of 2020 cannot be denied. He explored ‘the illusion of American exceptionalismin The Unravelling of America

In “The Art of Exploring,” Davis offers sage advice for those who pen their own stories of exploration and put themselves at the centre of the action. “Building a narrative around self is to travel writing what false heroics are to exploration.”  Next up is “Mother India,” where Davis presents a revelatory description of a country that is not only a disruptive mix of achievement and social paradox but a sumptuous realm of spiritualism, even during the country’s rise in many spheres.

Although brief, “A New Word for Indigenous” presents a strong argument for replacing an all-encompassing term with a variety of terms which truly represent the diversity of identities around the world. Has the term ‘Indigenous’ been relegated to the ubiquitous and demeaned, not unlike ‘amazing’ or ‘awesome?’

The cover of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and The Conquest of Everest

Quite possibly the greatest argument Davis presents, just when I thought the collection was winding down, is in “The Divine Leaf of Mortality,” where he re-introduces his oft-stated notion of the variety of ways different human beings interpret the world, with specific reference here to the American ‘War on Drugs.’ The original purposes for the coca leaf by the people of the Andes has for many years been at loggerheads with the machinations of the United States to vilify a substance which has become a political weapon, but really is beneficial in its original use derived in Peru.

I can’t sign off without mentioning “A Message to a Daughter.” “And you have so much time.” Davis writes with feeling: “At twenty, your life is just beginning.”

As you make your way, please give as much thought to the person you will become as to the vocation you will pursue. Money in the end means very little. Acts of compassion and loving kindness resonate through eternity.

At the end of the UBC lecture I’d attended, I prepared to make my way down to the podium, keen to ask Wade Davis about his research for Into the Silence which paralleled my own research for a book of my own.

The young lady seated in the row ahead of me closed down Facebook Marketplace and stowed her laptop in her bag.

I thought: not to worry, she’s got plenty of time.


Trevor Marc Hughes

Trevor Marc Hughes is the author of Capturing the Summit: Hamilton Mack Laing and the Mount Logan Expedition of 1925. He is currently the interim non-fiction editor for The British Columbia Review and recently reviewed books by David Bird (ed.), Ian Kennedy, John Vaillant, Peter Rowlands, and Daniel Arnold, Darrell Dennis, & Medina Hahn.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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