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Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire

Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire

by Wade Davis

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Wade Davis has been called "a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life's diversity." In Shadows in the Sun, he brings all of those gifts to bear on a fascinating examination of indigenous cultures and the interactions between human societies and the natural world.
Ranging from the British Columbian wilderness


Wade Davis has been called "a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life's diversity." In Shadows in the Sun, he brings all of those gifts to bear on a fascinating examination of indigenous cultures and the interactions between human societies and the natural world.
Ranging from the British Columbian wilderness to the jungles of the Amazon and the polar ice of the Arctic Circle, Shadows in the Sun is a testament to a world where spirits still stalk the land and seize the human heart. Its essays and stories, though distilled from travels in widely separated parts of the world, are fundamentally about landscape and character, the wisdom of lives drawn directly from the land, the hunger of those who seek to rediscover such understanding, and the consequences of failure.
As Davis explains, "To know that other, vastly different cultures exist is to remember that our world does not exist in some absolute sense but rather is just one model of reality. The Penan in the forests of Borneo, the Vodoun acolytes in Haiti, the jaguar Shaman of Venezuela, teach us that there are other options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interacting with the earth." Shadows in the Sun considers those possibilities, and explores their implications for our world.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
The wonders of the diversity of various cultures and their relationship to their landscapeþfrom the high Arctic and the northern forests to the swamps of the Orinocoþare hunted, gathered, and honestly appreciated here by the peripatetic Davis (One River, 1996). Davis is a sojourner in remote places. He tarries, hoping to get a taste of the intimate, deep reverence for the home place that indigenous people experience by staying put, to sample some of the mythopoetic associations and enigmatic happenings that spring like gifts from the land for those who sit still long enough to witness. Here he recounts a dozen journeys, some in search of ethnobotanicals, some to expose himself to the poetics of a particular patch of ground, others to get a psychic education, as when he accompanies the Haitian Vodouns in their pilgrimage to sacred places, both terrestrial and ethereal. There is a good profile of Bruno Manser, a Swiss who went to live among Sarawak's Penan and joined them in their fight against the pillagers (many of them governmental) of their forest, thus becoming "a fugitive straddling the cusp of cultures." That same place, the shear zone, is inhabited by hamans, and Davis has been disturbed and fascinated in many of his travels by these men and women operating outside our familiar calculus of explanation. And as an ethnobotanist, he is drawn to the human potential unleashed by profoundly altered statesþfirewalking, slowing heartbeats to near imperceptible levelsþand the psychotropics that serve as launch pads. One such hallucinogen comes from a monstrous toad that secretes a drug from glands on its head; it seems very handy for a quick slurp, but it turns outthat you have to toke the toad to get the best buzz. Davis's lovely, cubist, rich landscape portraits are also topographies of the spirit, conveying a sense of place, but perhaps even more, the music of place.

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Shadows in the Sun

Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire

By Wade Davis


Copyright © 1998 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-794-6


Hunters of the Northern Ice

Olayuk Narqitarvik is a hunter. As a boy of twelve, he killed a polar bear at close quarters, thrusting a harpoon into its soft underbelly as it lunged toward him. That same year he took his first whale. In winter darkness, when temperatures fall so low that breath cracks in the wind, he leaves his family each day to follow the leads in the new ice and kneel motionless, for hours at a time, over the breathing holes of ringed seals. The slightest shift in weight will reveal his presence; in perfect stillness he squats, knowing full well that as he hunts he is hunted. Polar bear tracks run away from every hole. If a seal does not appear, Olayuk may roll over, mimicking the creature to try to attract a bear so that predator may be reduced to prey.

Ipeelie Koonoo is Olayuk's stepfather, second husband to his mother. Revered as an elder, he too is a hunter. When he killed his first bear at nine, with a harpoon made for him the night before by a favorite uncle, he could not stop smiling. His first seal was taken when he was still too small to lift it from the ice. But he knew that the animal had chosen to die, betrayed by its thirst for fresh water. So he followed his uncle's teachings and dripped fresh water into its mouth to placate its spirit. If 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 life in the Arctic, a polar desert cloaked in darkness nine months of the year and bathed in intense luminosity for the short weeks of upinngaaq, the summer season of renewal and rebirth.

Simon Qamanirq is both artist and hunter, the youngest of the three men, nephew of Oyaluk's wife, Martha, the matriarch of the extended family. On his accordion, he plays Scottish reels adapted from those of ancient mariners and whalers, and with his firm hands turns soapstone into exquisite figurines of animals, all depicted so powerfully that they seem to move within the stone. "You can't be a carver," he explains, "if you are not a hunter." For some time, Simon lived down south, attended vocational school and played drums in an Inuit rock-and-roll band named "The Harpoons." But he grew tired of the confused ways of people whose "heads were full of a thousand words." So he returned north. "I got nothing more interesting than hunting," he says. "Down in Canada I'm always cold. My body needs blood. Even their meat has no blood."

Three men, three generations of Inuit hunters. Seeking caribou on the open tundra during the cold months of fall, taking narwhal from the ice in July, they replicate through movement a seasonal round that recalls a distant time when all our ancestors were nomads. In living by the hunt they remain apart, utterly different. Every idea and thought, every notion of culture and society, every impulse, belief, and gesture reflects the consciousness of a people who have not succumbed to the cult of the seed. Ideas that we take for granted—private ownership of objects and land, laws and institutions that place one person above another in a hierarchy of power—are not just exotic to the Inuit, they are anathema. If implemented, they would doom a way of life. This is something the Inuit know. "We hunt," Olayuk explains, "because we are hunters."

For most of the year these men and their families live in the small community of Arctic Bay, a fiercely self-sufficient and independent clan, survivors of a century that has seen untold hardships unleashed upon their people. But for a brief time in June, in the fortnight leading up to the solstice, they make camp on a gravel beach at Cape Crauford, on the western shore of Admiralty Inlet, the largest fjord on Earth, a vast inland sea that cleaves the northern shore of Baffin Island 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle. There, beneath the dark cliffs of the Brodeur Peninsula, on a promontory overlooking Lancaster Sound, the richest body of water in the Arctic, they invite outsiders into their world.

THE JOURNEY NORTH begins before dawn in Ottawa and ends nine hours later on the seasonal ice off the shore of Olayuk's camp. It is a five-hour flight just to the weather station and settlement of Resolute Bay, the highest point in the Arctic serviced by commercial jets, where we switch from a 727 to a deHavilland Twin Otter. North of Resolute lie another 1,000 miles of Canada. It is a place, the pilot remarks, where Canada could hide Britain and the English would never find it.

We fly across Barrow Strait, then over Lancaster Sound. From the air the ice fuses with the snow-covered land. Ringed seals appear as dark specks on the ice. There are no polar bears to be seen, only their silent tracks wandering from seal hole to seal hole. At the mouth of Prince Regent Inlet, east of Somerset Island, the ice gives way abruptly to the black sea. Beyond the floe edge, scores of white beluga whales move gracefully through the water. A small mesalike island rises out of the sea. The plane banks steeply past the soaring cliffs, and in its wake tens of thousands of birds lift into the air. The Prince Leopold sanctuary is just thirty miles square, but on it nest nearly 200,000 pairs of migratory birds: thick-billed murres, northern fulmars, and black-legged kittiwakes. Baffin Island lies ahead, and within minutes the plane roars over the beach at Cape Crauford, turns into the wind, and lands on skis on a smooth stretch of ice half a mile offshore.

In the brilliant sunlight we stand about, nineteen strangers drawn together by the promise of the journey. As an anthropologist, I want to take a firsthand look at ecotourism in action. The leader of the expedition is Johnny Mikes, outfitter and legendary river guide from British Columbia. It was Mikes who first encouraged Olayuk's family to establish a guiding operation. On a warm day in September 1989, while on a kayaking expedition in Admiralty Inlet, Mikes stumbled upon a bay where hundreds of narwhals were feeding in the shallows. On the shore was an Inuit encampment, with narwhals hauled up on the beach. Olayuk's brother Moses had just killed a bearded seal, and in the bloodstained waters Greenland sharks lingered. 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. And then Moses introduced him to Olayuk, and Olayuk told him about the floe edge and the ice in June.

There are places and moments on Earth where natural phenomena occur of such stunning magnitude and beauty that they shatter all notions of a world of human scale. It is such an event that draws Olayuk and his family to their June camp at Cape Crauford.

Every winter in the Arctic, virtually all of the sea between the islands of the Canadian archipelago lies frozen, a single horizon of ice that joins the polar ice cap and eventually c overs six million square miles, twice the area of the United States. As temperatures drop to as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, of marine mammals only the ringed seals remain, dependent on breathing holes scratched through the ice. Polar bears survive by stalking the seals throughout the long Arctic night. Other marine mammals—belugas, bowhead whales, walrus, and narwhals—head out through Lancaster Sound to the open waters of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, between Canada and Greenland. Only small populations overwinter, surviving in rare pockets of open water kept ice-free by the action of winds and currents.

In spring the animals return, wave upon wave, hovering against the retreating ice edge. The winter population of 100,000 mammals soars in the summer to 17 million. Foraging in the rich waters, they await a chance to disperse to feeding grounds scattered throughout the Arctic. In the long hours of the midnight sun, brown algae bloom beneath the ice, billions of shrimp and amphipods flourish, and millions of arctic cod thrive upon the zooplankton. A quarter of a million harp, bearded, and ring seals feed on the fish, as do thousands of belugas and narwhals. They, in turn, fall prey to roving pods of killer whales. A third of the belugas in North America gather here, and three of every four narwhals on Earth.

By June, the waters of Lancaster Sound are free of ice. But those of Admiralty Inlet, thirty miles wide at the mouth, remain frozen. From the camp at Cape Crauford, using snowmobiles and sleds, it is possible to travel along the floe edge, where the ice meets the sea, and listen as the breath of whales mingles with the wind.

Snowmobiles and a dozen Inuit kids descend on the plane. An old Inuk man motions us to split up and pile our gear and ourselves onto one of the sleds, which he calls qamatiks. He speaks no English, and the soft sounds of Inuktitut, the Inuit language, delight and astonish.

The camp is a line of canvas outfitter tents, arrayed in military precision along the high shore. At one end is the cook tent, at the other the guides' tents. The foreshore is a clutter of sleds and snowmobiles. Tethered on the ice are three dog teams. They yelp and howl, and the air is pungent with the scent of seal meat and excrement. One of the young Inuit, Olayuk's son Eric, explains his preference for snowmobiles: "They are fast, they don't eat meat, and they don't stink."

We divide ourselves up two to a tent and stretch our bedrolls on caribou hides on the ground. Johnny Mikes then distributes insulated boots and bright orange survival suits. They are awkward and stiff, but essential. Chances of survival in Arctic waters plummet after a minute of exposure. In the cook tent we are introduced to the Inuit—Olayuk, Ipeelie, Simon, Olayuk's brother-in-law Abraham, and, most important of all, Olayuk's wife Martha and her older sister, Koonoo Muckpaloo, who run the kitchen. Both are beautiful women, especially Martha, whose face is radiant and kind, quick to laugh. Someone asks Olayuk how many children they have. He looks pensive and begins to count on his fingers. "Ten," he concludes. Martha elbows him and spits out a quick phrase. Olayuk looks sheepish. "Eleven," he adds.

Over a dinner of narwhal soup, bannock, arctic char, and caribou, I learn that Olayuk and Martha were the first of their generation to marry for love. They planned to elope and were willing to court death by setting off over the ice, when finally the families agreed to the match. They are still in love. One sees it in their every gesture, Martha carefully drawing a comb through his thin beard, Olayuk gently nestling her hand in his. Martha is asked whether it bothers her to be cooking dinner at such a late hour. "I am used to it," she responds; "my husband is a hunter." Olayuk is asked how many seals a polar bear kills in a week. "That depends," he explains, "on how good a hunter he is."

There is no night and no morning, only the ceaseless sun. At some point we sleep, with blinders and earplugs. The camp never rests. Winter is for sleep, and the summers are ephemeral. We wake and head off in five sleds, traveling south up Admiralty Inlet to get around a body of water before returning north to reach the edge of the floe. The ice by the shore is a tangle of pressure ridges, but farther on it becomes smooth, glasslike. The spartan landscape rolls on, empty and desolate, and all one can think of is survival. On the horizon, islands, ice, and sky meld one into the other, and the black sea is a dim mirage.

A dense fog descends, muffling the roar of the engines as the snowmobiles drag us, three or four to a sled, over the ice. The drivers push on, watching for patterns in the ice, small ridges of hard snow that run parallel to the prevailing winds and reveal where you are. When clouds obscure the sun, Simon explains, the Inuit study the reflection of the ice on the underside of low clouds. Open water appears black, the sea ice white, and ground covered in snow and traces of open tundra appears darker than the sea, but lighter than snowless land. Upon the clouds lies a map of the land. Not one of our guides can remember ever having been lost.

A pair of ringed seals are killed to feed the dogs back at camp, and moments later we reach the edge of the floe. Olayuk peers out over the water, sensing the wind in his face. It's from the north, which is good. Should a fissure appear in the ice behind us, a southerly wind could push our entire party out to sea, without our knowing it. Just two weeks before, a party of schoolchildren and teachers had misread a lead in the ice and were set adrift on an ice floe. It was a new moon, with high tides and gale force winds that prevented rescue. For eight days they drifted, reaching all the way to Baffin Bay before finally being saved by military helicopters. There was no panic. The elders prepared food and kept the children calm with stories.

The only sign of life at the edge of the ice is a cackle of glaucous and Thayer gulls, fighting over the carcass of a narwhal killed by a hunter. One of the guides slits open the narwhal's stomach and examines the contents—chitonous beaks of squids and octopus, the carapaces of crustaceans, the ear bones and eye lenses of fish. The ligaments running the length of the back are salvaged for rope. The deep red meat is too rich to be eaten. The skin and blubber, a delicacy eaten raw, has already been harvested.

Suddenly, a shout from the floe edge. I look up to see the marbled backs of four female narwhals barely crest the surface before slipping once again into the dark sea. As we wait, hoping the animals will return, Mikes asks Olayuk to say a few words about his life. A thin, somewhat reluctant account follows. Clearly, Olayuk finds the moment awkward. 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 forward, 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 the whites have never understood. The only time you can reveal your stories is when you no longer have the power. In old age."

The next evening we encounter a polar bear and give chase on the ice. After long hours of searching in vain for wildlife, the drivers are eager to get as close as possible to the animal. The bear is run ragged. No one objects. For a brief moment, each client succumbs to the thrill of the hunt. "If you think that was fun," Abraham later told the one vegetarian on the trip, "you ought to try it with a tag," that is, a hunting permit.

When asked who had first seen the bear, Abraham replied, "Simon did. Well, actually, it was Olayuk, and Simon saw it in his eyes. Oyaluk said nothing."

There are ancient graves above the camp, stone mounds erected centuries ago. The bones from those that have been breached lie covered in lichen and moss. Around the grave site is a circle of life—purple gentians and dwarf willows, small plant communities established long ago on the rich nutrients of the dead. A ring of flowers around an eider's nest, a seedling growing out of the droppings of a gull, lichen slowly eating away at rock, an inch of soil taking a century to accumulate. One marvels at the art of survival. Bears hunting seals, foxes following the bears and feeding on excrement. Inuit cutting open animal stomachs, feeding on clam siphons found in walrus, lichens and plants concentrated in the gut of caribou, mother's milk in the belly of a baby seal, a delicacy much loved by the elders. Meat taken in August is stored in skins and bladders, cached in rock cairns where it ferments to the consistency and taste of blue cheese to be eaten in winter.

Beyond the graves, half a mile from the shore, the land rises to a high escarpment 1,500 feet or more above the sea. An hour of scrambling on steep scree takes me to the ridge and a promontory overlooking all of Lancaster Sound. The sense of isolation and wonder is overwhelming. Gravel terraces on the shore reveal the beach lines of ancient seas.

Icebergs calved from the glaciers of Devon Island, and the sea ice covering the mouth of the inlet, are awash in soft pastels—pinks, turquoise, and opal. On the underside of distant clouds are streaks of dazzling brightness. Every horizon shimmers with mirages. Low islands seem towering cliffs, ice floes appear as crystal spires. The land seduces with its strange beauty. In the entire annals of European exploration, few places were sought with more passion, few destinations were the cause of more tragedy and pain.


Excerpted from Shadows in the Sun by Wade Davis. Copyright © 1998 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Wade Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology, and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, from Harvard University. He spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, and later went to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies. The Haiti assignment led to his writing The Serpent and the Rainbow (Simon and Schuster, 1986), an international bestseller that was later released as a feature motion picture. He has published more than 90 scientific and popular articles on subjects ranging from Haitian vodoun and Amazonian myth and religion to the global biodiversity crisis, the traditional use of psychotropic drugs, and the ethnobotany of South American Indians. Among his other books are Nomads of the Dawn (Pomegranate Press, 1995), Passage of Darkness (University of North Carolina Press, 1988) and One River (Simon and Schuster, 1996).

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