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Lessons in Extreme Science; After years spent risking his life to learn the secrets of polar bears and priests, poison toads and voodoo zombies, Wade Davis has a new goal: to protect them from harm.; COVER STORY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the high Andes of Colombia, there is an Indian tribe that selects its priests through divination. A chosen boy is taken from his family soon after he is born. For 18 years, he lives in total darkness, never allowed to see the sun. All this time, he is educated by a mama, or priest, in the mysteries of the world and the secrets of creation.

Finally, after 18 years, the young man is led into the dazzling light of early morning. Until that moment, he has known the world only as an abstract formation in his mind.

But now, for the first time, the beauty of the world unfolds before him. And the Chosen One realizes this: Everything the mama has taught him, about the creation, about the majesty of the planet, about the new priest's role in this life, is true.

The mystical ordination of Kogi and Ika priests is but one of the secrets that a man named Wade Davis has studied during the past three decades. Even a short list of his past adventures is more than enough to make the average armchair adventurer feel inadequate. Just for starters, Davis has:

Stalked the fabled clouded leopard in the high Himalayas; gotten hopelessly lost and nearly starved to death in the swamps of Panama; chased polar bears with Inuit hunters 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle; observed a voodoo ritual in Haiti where a tiny woman, in the fevered throes of spirit possession, lifted large men off the ground and swung them like dolls before swallowing a red-hot coal the size of an apple; swapped jokes with the nomadic Penan tribesmen in the remote forests of Borneo; smoked the dried venom of a poisonous toad in the Sonoran Desert and seen diamond patterns float with orb-like brilliance before his eyes; ingested so many plant hallucinogens that it's a wonder he's not curled up on a sidewalk steam grate, babbling to himself.

The story of Wade Davis is one you don't hear much anymore, the story of a man who seeks knowledge through adventure, of a scientist genetically hard-wired with an overpowering wanderlust that seems somehow quaint in a world of Internet chat rooms and 500-channel TV, a world rushing so self-consciously toward the New Millennium.

At 45, Davis' most prolific days may be behind him; now he spends most of his time as a book and magazine writer and highly sought-after lecturer. The jacket of his latest book, a collection of travel essays called "Shadows in the Sun" (Island Press, $22.95), says simply that Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethno-botany from Harvard. But in the exclusive pantheon of modern-day global adventurers, he is one of the biggest names.

He's perhaps best known for "The Serpent and the Rainbow," a book he wrote in the mid-1980s about Haiti's voo-doo culture that sold 400,000 copies before being made into a movie that Davis calls "dreadful."

Nevertheless, it provided Davis with a small measure of celebrity and considerable wealth, which in turn allowed him to do what he loves most: wander the planet studying indigenous cultures.

"Wade gets the respect of indigenous peoples not because he's there to protect them, or help them, but because he's capable of doing just about anything they are," says his friend, screenwriter David Franzone. "He can be thrust in any situation, and survive."

It is a theory that has been tested on many, many occasions.

Winds of possibility

To find this modern-day Indiana Jones, you travel not to the emerald forests of Amazonia, but down Connecticut Avenue to the tony Cleveland Park neighborhood in Washington. Here Davis lives in an elegant, three-story brick house with his wife, Gail Percy, and their two young daughters.

A workman lets you in; major renovations are under way. At first you wonder if you're in the right place. But then your eyes take in a macabre-looking dance mask from New Guinea in the hallway, then a huge set of caribou antlers from some poor creature who once trod the wilds of British Columbia, and you know Wade Davis lives here.

The airy, high-ceilinged kitchen has a similarly exotic feel. Its focus is not a refrigerator covered with Post-It notes that say: "Call plumber" or "Scouts meeting, 7:30." Instead, it contains a primitive oil lamp from the Sarawak region of Borneo, a voodoo drum from Haiti and a mask from a warlike tribe along the Amazon.

Finally, Davis bounds down the stairway. Mel Gibson handsome, with only a few flecks of gray running through his hair, he's wearing a denim shirt, black jeans, no shoes. He's so energetic you suspect he'd ask you to take a stroll in the jungle with him right then and there, if only there was a jungle nearby.

"I was 34 before I owned a TV," he says when he sees you examining his artifacts. "But I have a great blowgun collection, and a [collection of] dance masks, featherworks, ceramic pots and 150 pieces of Peruvian and Bolivian textiles."

As he leads you to his dining room table and offers you tea, the question is posed: How does a man who grew up "solidly middle-class" in British Columbia and Montreal, the son of a banker and a secretary at an elementary school, come to lead such a rollicking life of adventure?

Davis shrugs and furrows his brow.

"I really believe in serendipity," he begins. "[But] I do believe that serendipity can only happen to you if you put yourself out there where the winds of possibility can affect you.

"If you're fearful, or if you reflexively respond to opportunities by shying away from them, you'll never be swung by the winds of destiny."

In fact, says Davis, something that was an "enormous influence" on his lifelong pursuit of adventure was the staid occupation of his beloved father.

"He described his work as going to 'the grind,' " Davis recalls. "As a little boy, I used to literally think he went out in his gray flannel suit every day to the train station and got somewhere where they put him on some instrument that ground him down."

By age 14, Wade Davis was already burning to see the world. He went to Colombia as an exchange student that year. Back home in British Columbia, he spent his next few summers working in the bush as a park ranger, firefighter and trail-cutter.

At the height of the Vietnam War, many of the firefighters Davis encountered in the wilds of British Columbia were American draft dodgers, attracted to the dangerous work because their employers asked few question about their pasts.

"These guys had this kind of wild irreverence that I now recognize as a deep part of the American character that is antithetical to anything we have in Canada," Davis says. "One of them had the cover of Life magazine [featuring] the '68 Harvard Strike. And I had this kind of raw, atavistic association that if you went to that university, you could become like these guys."

So he promptly applied to Harvard, and to Princeton, Brown and Williams. He was accepted at all four, but the headmaster at his private school insisted he go to Princeton.

That settled it for Davis. He arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1971.

"The place blew my mind," he says, laughing at the memory. "I was so naive when I arrived that I had never seen an artichoke. And when someone first fed me [one] at a dinner, I ate the whole thing.

"And then I was too proud to say that I didn't know what it was, so I said: 'That's how we [eat] it in Canada.' "

The intellectual intensity and campus fervor at Harvard fascinated him. He studied anthropology, but immersed himself in theater one semester, radical politics the next, including leading demonstrations against the war.

He was also an enthusiastic experimenter with drugs, particularly hallucinogens.

"Oh, yes," he says, sipping his tea. "Many times I lay prostrate before the gates of awe."

Then one day, he made his way to the office of Richard Evans Schultes. A professor of ethno-botany, Schultes was larger-than-life and slightly eccentric, a man who often introduced himself as a royalist who didn't believe in the American Revolution. He also had helped usher in the psychedelic era with his discovery in the 1930s of the sacred mushrooms ingested by the ancient Aztecs.

Living among the indigenous tribes of the Amazon rain forest, Schultes had studied how they interacted with plants, how they used them for food and medicine, and how their shamans used them for mind-expanding experiences with ancestors and animal spirits.

"I want to go to South America and collect plants," Davis blurted to Schultes that day.

The professor reacted as if Davis had suggested merely going across the street for a bagel.

"When do you want to go?" he asked.

'The sky opened'

Two weeks later, Davis found himself on the steamy tarmac at the airport in Bogota, Colombia.

"It's one thing to say to your friends in Cambridge: 'I'm going off to South America,' " Davis recalls. And in the spirit of the times and Jack Kerouac, it sounded pretty cool. "But then I was actually there. And I had no bloody idea what I was going to do with myself."

This proved to be a problem for, oh, about five minutes.

First, Davis managed to tag along on a botanical study into the Choco, a stretch of rain forest near Panama that is the wettest region in South America.

Then he hooked up with another student of Schultes', Tim Plowman, to study the coca plant in the mountains of Colombia, where they learned the ways of the Ika and Kogi Indians.

And just as Schultes had, Davis tried ayahuasca, a plant hallucinogen the Indians of the Northwest Amazon called "the vine of the soul." Of that experience, Davis later would write: "Leaves fell from the branches, with great howling sounds. The sky opened. There was a livid scar across the heavens, stars throbbing, a great wind scattering everything in its path."

Then, lest things get too dull, Davis agreed to guide a British journalist through the Darien Gap, a harsh chunk of swamp and rain forest that separates Colombia and Panama -- an undertaking for which he had virtually no expertise.

The Brit's name was Sebastian Snow and he worked for the London Observer. He had just arrived after walking from Tierra del Fuego, at the very tip of South America, and intended to continue by foot all the way to Alaska.

"He was 45 or 50 at the time and ... a complete nut case," Davis recalls of Snow. "He was one of those Britishers who says: 'Just speak the Queen's English loud enough and everybody understands.' "

For 10 days, the two men were hopelessly lost in the Darien's chest-high swamps, then were stripped of most of their gear during an encounter with the corrupt Colombian Guardia Civil and nearly starved to death.

Finally, with the help of three local guides, they happened upon a crew clearing land in the jungle and were saved. Abandoning Snow to the rest of his walk, Davis hopped a small plane for a short flight to Panama City.

Big mistake.

The pilot promptly flew into a massive tropical storm. Visibility dropped to zero, and the plane was rocked by fierce winds. The woman seated next to Davis threw up in his lap. Her mother turned to comfort her, and she threw up, too.

I beat the Darien, Davis thought, only to die in this ratty little plane with people heaving their guts up all around me.

"When finally we landed in Panama City," he wrote in his book, "One River," "I walked off the plane drenched in vomit, with two dollars to my name."

Still, there seemed little doubt that he was cut out precisely for the type of adventures he had just undertaken. A new life beckoned. There was no looking back now.

Investigating voodoo

In the early 1980s, word reached Schultes about a mystifying case from Haiti involving zombies, people who had been diagnosed as dead only to turn up later among the living.

Apparently, these zombies were being administered some sort of powder -- a local folk preparation that caused their bodies to mimic death, at least in the short term -- during secret voodoo ceremonies.

Schultes suggested Davis get to the bottom of it all.

"I thought I'd go down there for a week," Davis says, laughing. "It consumed four years of my life. I could have said no to Schultes. But I didn't know how to."

In fact, Davis decided to up the ante: He would study the voodoo secret societies and find out exactly who controlled the powder.

He wrote a proposal for the project in hopes of getting it funded. The anthropologist who reviewed it wrote back: "Funded. Great idea. [But] please inform Wade Davis that if he elects to do this project, he will be killed."

Thus began a harrowing examination of the secret world of voodoo sorcerers. Arriving in sultry Port au Prince, Davis was part private eye, part scientist as he tracked one lead after another while trying to ingratiate himself with the members of the secret societies. As the months went by, he was allowed to observe voodoo rituals that he says no white man had ever witnessed before.

"It was wild what I was doing down there!" he says.

As "The Serpent and the Rainbow" can attest, that is an understatement.

Davis says he watched a baby's body exhumed from a grave and its bones ground into "zombie powder." He watched a woman in a trance tear the neck of a dove apart with her teeth, screech like a raven and lick burning coals.

He participated -- enthusiastically, he says -- in many of these rituals. But he would never, he emphasizes, pretend to be "possessed" himself.

"True spirit possession can come to a believer, and I was never a believer," he explains. "I respected it. And I believe it to exist, to the extent that I believe Catholicism exists."

Eventually, Davis discovered that the "zombie powder" was actually an extremely potent nerve toxin extracted not from human remains, but from a blowfish.

From these adventures came his best-selling book, which attempted to rationally (and sympathetically) explain the African-based religion of voodoo. Then Hollywood came calling.

"They offered Mel Gibson more money than he's ever received" to star in the movie, Davis says. "I thought it would be an A picture."

But instead of Gibson, Bill Pullman starred. And instead of Peter Weir directing, as had been promised, Wes "Nightmare on Elm Street" Craven was brought in. He made a film -- complete with the requisite head-spinning and fire-spewing of any bad horror flick -- that had the critics howling.

Still, the book and movie helped make Davis a wealthy man. And for a man whose business card lists him as "Explorer," the financial freedom was truly liberating.

Time to move on

These days, Davis, his wife and children divide their time between their Washington home and a fishing lodge they own in a remote region of northern British Columbia.

Gail Percy, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, is slender and attractive with a dazzling smile, and comes with her own impressive resume.

On a travel brochure for the fishing lodge, she's described thusly: "Gail Percy, a former Parisian fashion model, is an anthropologist who studied Bedouin tribeswomen in the Saharan desert of Tunisia. She is active in dance and polarity massage."

As befits a pair of seasoned world travelers, Davis proposed marriage to Percy while the two were on the Amazon River aboard a converted Russian trawler outfitted for eco-tourism.

Life with Wade Davis, Percy says with a laugh, is "intense."

"There's just so much going on all the time. He promises me he's going to sit down one day and meditate, but ..."

Still, with two young daughters (Tara, 10, and Raina, 7), the days when Davis would cram a few things into a travel bag and head off to a strange land for a year or more are over.

Which seems fine with the big-time adventurer.

"I firmly believe," he says, "that there are stages of life, and you should embrace [each] stage ... with a great intensity, but realize when it's time to move on.

"If you're not crazy when you're in your 20s, there's something wrong. But if you're still crazy in your 40s, there's something really wrong.

"Once I became a father and a husband," he continues in a soft voice, "it changed my whole focus. I don't need to take risks. I've taken so many risks, seen so many friends die. I feel blessed to be alive.

"Also, to me, the adventure of fatherhood is an equally great adventure. My kids are as exciting to me as the Amazon."

Not that the banker's son is ready for any kind of normal "grind." He still does a lot of traveling, as well as travel writing and lecturing.

These days, he seems most concerned with the disappearance from the planet of so many indigenous peoples, their habitats and cultures. The sound of the bulldozer, belching blue smoke and scraping its blade into the edge of the rain forest -- or the high desert, or the tundra -- is an obscenity that must be silenced, he says.

"What I care most about is the erosion of cultural diversity," he says, his voice rising. "I believe there's a process under way whereby the diversity of the human imagination as manifested by myth and language and culture is also being corroded at a tremendous rate."

He was in Kenya most of last December, writing about that very topic for National Geographic, and in Borneo a few months before researching the same subject. One gets the sense that the topic will consume him for many years to come, although not to the exclusion of some other grand adventure that may come his way.

As his best friend, architect Travis L. Price III, puts it: "Wade reminds me of Picasso's quote: 'If it works, it's obsolete.'

"He's always on to the next adventure. You don't look back, you keep looking forward. What's around the next corner of the trail?"

Pub Date: 06/27/99

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