By National Geographic Education
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Wade is an anthropologist and ethnobotanist. As an explorer and researcher, Wade studies indigenous cultures and their use of plants for medicinal and spiritual purposes. His work has taken him from his home in British Columbia, Canada, to Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Haiti, Benin, Togo, and Greenland.
As a young man, Wade’s twin interests in anthropology and botany led him to exploration. He became familiar with the Iskut and other First Nations native to British Columbia.
At age 14, Wade traveled to South America, alone, to pursue his passion. He collected more than 6,000 plant samples learned different properties and effects of plants by studying how indigenous cultures used them.
Wade's research later took him to Haiti, the setting of his most well-known books, Passage of Darkness and The Serpent and the Rainbow. In Haiti, Wade studied the plant-based poisons and medicines used in Haitian Vodou practices.
Wade has degrees in anthropology, biology, and ethnobotany, all from Harvard University.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Experiencing the dance of culture. . . . Seeing universal gestures of empathy and love.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Writing. I am not a good writer! Anyone who talks about getting inspired to write is either a bad writer or a liar.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“The spirit of place. All culture springs of a spirit of place—culture is what we do, not just where we are.”
In many ways, Wade is a “classic” National Geographic explorer. He travels all over the world, studying cultures and communities most Western audiences are not familiar with. However, unlike many early explorers, Wade has a fierce respect for the complexity of indigenous cultures.
Wade is particularly critical of the idea of indigenous cultures being “failed attempts at being modern.” Native societies are as complicated and sophisticated as our own, “modern” culture, he says.
“Consider the way we look at a mountain. To [Westerners], a mountain is a big pile of rock. To the Iskut, it’s a deity. It’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong—there is no right or wrong. It’s a series of cultural beliefs, and it changes the way we consider the mountain, and how we treat it.”
To dismiss certain cultural beliefs is “not just offensive, but contradictory and absolutely obscene,” Wade says. Ignoring the complexity of indigenous cultures is not only an insult to the native cultures, but also to Western audiences.
“When you dumb down a program, you get a dumb audience,” he says.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ANTHROPOLOGIST
“Hit the road! When I was 14, I traveled alone in South America, and it led me to my career. . . . A career is something that you build, choice by choice and experience by experience.”
In addition to being an anthropologist and ethnobotanist, Wade is also a licensed river guide—his latest book is about the Sacred Headwaters, the source of British Columbia’s Skeena, Nass, and Stikine rivers. He is also a former park ranger. He encourages families to visit local nature reserves and parks, and to take advantage of the interpretive guides at state and national parks.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry anthropologist Noun
person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.
observers or listeners of an event or production.
study of living things.
study of plants.
inconsistent, or holding the opposite opinion.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
very holy or spiritual being.
ability to identify and respect the emotions and attitudes of others.
to inspire or support a person or idea.
person who studies how plants are used in different cultures for food, medicine, rituals, clothing, construction, etc.
wild or savage.
First Nations Noun
Native American people of Canada.
native to or characteristic of a specific place.
indigenous culture Noun
languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods of people who are native to a specific geographic area.
cruel or offensive words or behavior.
people and culture native to northwestern British Columbia, Canada.
to give someone or a group of people formal or official permission to do something.
substance used for treating illness or disease.
landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.
national park Noun
geographic area protected by the national government of a country.
environment or ecosystem, usually without human development.
very offensive or disgusting.
irritating, unpleasant, or angering.
area of land set aside for recreational use.
park ranger Noun
person who protects and informs the public about local, state, and national parks. Also called a forest ranger.
organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.
substance that harms health.
natural substance composed of solid mineral matter.
Sacred Headwaters Plural Noun
glacial basin in British Columbia, Canada, that is the source for the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine Rivers.
having to do with religion or faith.
vodou adjective, noun
religion that developed in Haiti, combining elements of native Haitian, West African, and Roman Catholic spirituality.