Wade Davis is an anthropologist and ethno-botanist whose passion for unsung and underserved cultures has made him a TED talk repeater. His compelling book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, is transcripts of radio lectures he delivered two years ago. Each chapter highlights his experiences with indigenous people all over the globe, from the aborigines in Australia to remnants of the Incas in Peru.
My favorite chapter is about the Polynesians and their extraordinary seafaring navigational skills. When Europeans first encountered the South Seas in the 16th century, they were utterly baffled by how to find their way through this 25 million square kilometer expanse, nearly one fifth of the earth’s surface, and its thousands of small islands scattered everywhere. They ended up traveling routes that kept them close to the shore. The wind patterns made travel heading east from the Asian continent appear impossible, so subsequent Europeans (like Thor Hyerdahl and his infamous Kon Tiki adventure) held to the belief that Polynesians came from the Americas. And of course the Europeans refused to listen to the “tall tales” of how people from all these island groups were in regular contact with each other and refused to observe the evidence all around them of cultural contact (the famous Kula ring of reciprocity and exchange), sea going canoes, actual individuals who clearly knew a lot more about seafaring than any of the Spanish or French.
The grandeur of that navigational gift, handed down from generation to generation, was dramatically demonstrated in 1976 with the re-creation of a traditional Polynesian sea vessel, the Hokule’a. It sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti and then from Hawaii to the Easter Islands without any electronic navigation, not even a compass. Davis’ chapter describes these extraordinary individuals, called wayfinders, who were making these seagoing trips as long ago as 1500 BC. They can sense their position by the stars, by the way the sea, wind, clouds and light appear at any point in time. They know when they are near a group of islands that are beyond the horizon of sight just by the quality of the waves that are hitting the boat. “One of the tragedies of history,” Davis writes, “was the failure of early Europeans … to make any effort to study and record this extraordinary repository of seafaring knowledge.”
In Davis’ view ancient wisdom matters because these indigenous people have lived on the earth for thousands of years and have not left the path of destruction that follow Europeans like a deadly wake. In just 500 years, our New World civilization has brought the whole planet to an ecological cliff’s edge. For indigneous people, “The entire purpose of humanity is not to improve anything. It is to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation.”
The myth of progress, the shibboleth of improvement—there is much here that speaks to the ecological damage of that point of view. But there’s something else that has been resonating for me throughout the reading of this book. It speaks to the tension that I outlined in the post just below about the push and pull between the intuitive and the conceptual approach to art making.
Our culture has a strong “songline” that promulgates the Cartesian division between the mind and everything else—be it the body, the soul, and/or the spirit. Like the 16th century Europeans who refused to believe that the small and “unsophisticated” Polynesian canoes could possibly travel thousands of miles between South Sea islands, we continue today to eliminate anything from our world view that does not fit with the prevailing map of reality. The nonlinear, the non-measurable, the mystical—all of these entities are fringed into the marginal, rendered invisible and then dismissed. The mass collusion of being unable (or refusing) to acknowledge another point of view happens instantaneously and unconsciously.
There are qualities of art making for many of us that do not fit in the linear map of shared reality. There are experiences that we are having that exist in a domain that is not cartographed or languaged. I am not advocating for the invasive linearity of either of those approaches—that would be inviting earth movers to clear cut the verdant rain forest of creative imagination. Rather I am advocating for a world view that has room in its purview for what will always function as Outside—be it indigenous Polynesian wayfinders or a New World 21st century variant.