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TED2012

Wade Davis: Gorgeous photos of a backyard wilderness worth saving

February 21, 2012

Ethnographer Wade Davis explores hidden places in the wider world -- but in this powerful short talk he urges us to save a paradise in his backyard, Northern Canada. The Sacred Headwaters, remote and pristine, are under threat because they hide rich tar sands. With stunning photos, Davis asks a tough question: How can we balance society's need for fuels with the urge to protect such glorious wilderness?

Wade Davis - Anthropologist, ethnobotanist
A National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
This is not a story of Tibet
00:12
and it's not a story of the Amazon.
00:14
I won't be taking you to the high Arctic,
00:17
the life of the Inuit, or to the searing sands of the Sahara.
00:19
This is actually a story of my own backyard.
00:23
It's a land known to the Tahltan people
00:28
and all the First Nations of British Columbia
00:31
as the Sacred Headwaters,
00:34
the source of the three great salmon rivers of home,
00:36
the Skeena, the Stikine and the Nass.
00:40
It's a valley where, in a long day, perhaps, too,
00:45
you can follow the tracks of grizzly and wolf
00:48
and drink from the very sources of water
00:50
that gave rise and cradled the great civilizations
00:52
of the Northwest Coast.
00:55
It's such a beautiful place. It's the most stunningly wild place I've ever been.
00:57
It's the sort of place that we, as Canadians,
01:01
could throw England, and they'd never find it.
01:04
John Muir, in 1879, went up just the lower third of the Stikine,
01:07
and he was so enraptured he called it
01:10
a Yosemite 150 miles long.
01:12
He came back to California
01:15
and named his dog after that river of enchantment.
01:17
In the Lower 48, the farthest you can get away
01:20
from a maintained road is 20 miles.
01:22
In the Northwest Quadrant of British Columbia,
01:24
an area of land the size of Oregon, there's one road,
01:27
a narrow ribbon of asphalt that slips up the side
01:30
of the Coast Mountains to the Yukon.
01:33
I followed that road in the early 1970s,
01:36
soon after it was built, to take a job as the first park ranger
01:39
in Spatsizi wilderness.
01:42
My job description was deliciously vague:
01:44
wilderness assessment and public relations.
01:47
In two four-month seasons I saw not a dozen people.
01:51
There was no one to relate publicly to.
01:55
But in the course of these wanderings,
01:57
I came upon an old shaman's grave
01:59
that led to an encounter with a remarkable man:
02:02
Alex Jack, an Gitxsan elder and chief who had lived
02:04
as a trapper and a hunter in that country for all of his life.
02:09
And over the course of 30 years, I recorded traditional tales
02:12
from Alex, mostly mythological accounts of Wy-ghet,
02:16
the trickster transformer of Gitxsan lore
02:20
who, in his folly, taught the people how to live on the land.
02:23
And just before Alex died at the age of 96,
02:27
he gave me a gift.
02:31
It was a tool carved from caribou bone
02:33
by his grandfather in 1910,
02:36
and it turned out to be a specialized implement
02:39
used by a trapper to skin out the eyelids of wolves.
02:42
It was only when Alex passed away that I realized that
02:47
the eyelids, in some sense, were my own,
02:51
and having done so much to allow me to learn to see,
02:54
Alex in his own way was saying goodbye.
02:57
Well, isolation has been the great saving grace
03:01
of this remarkable place, but today isolation could be its doom.
03:03
You've heard so much about the developments of the tar sands,
03:08
the controversy about the Keystone and the Enbridge pipelines,
03:11
but these are just elements of a tsunami
03:14
of industrial development that is sweeping across
03:17
all of the wild country of northern Canada.
03:19
In Tahltan territory alone, there are 41 major industrial proposals,
03:23
some with great promise, some of great concern.
03:29
On Todagin Mountain,
03:32
revered by the Tahltan people as a wildlife sanctuary in the sky,
03:35
home to the largest population of stone sheep on the planet,
03:39
Imperial Metals --
03:44
but the 75th-biggest mining company in all of Canada --
03:46
has secured permits to establish an open-pit
03:49
copper and gold mine which will process
03:51
30,000 tons of rock a day for 30 years,
03:53
generating hundreds of millions of tons of toxic waste
03:57
that, by the project's design, will simply be dumped
04:01
into the lakes of the Sacred Headwaters.
04:04
At the Headwaters itself,
04:07
Shell Canada has plans to extract methane gas
04:10
from coal seams that underly a million acres,
04:14
fracking the coal with hundreds of millions of gallons
04:18
of toxic chemicals,
04:21
establishing perhaps as many as 6,000 wellheads,
04:23
and eventually a network of roads and pipelines
04:26
and flaring wellheads, all to generate methane gas
04:29
that most likely will go east
04:33
to fuel the expansion of the tar sands.
04:35
For over a decade, the Tahltan people,
04:40
both clans, Wolf and Crow,
04:42
have resisted this assault on their homeland.
04:45
Men, women and children of all ages,
04:48
elders in wheelchairs, have blockaded
04:51
the only road access to the interior.
04:54
For them, the Headwaters is a kitchen.
04:57
It's a sanctuary. It's a burial ground of their ancestors.
05:00
And those who really own it
05:03
are the generations as yet unborn.
05:05
The Tahltan have been able,
05:09
with the support of all Canadians who live downstream,
05:12
all local politicians, to resist this assault on their homeland,
05:15
but now everything hangs in the balance.
05:20
Decisions that will be made this year will literally determine
05:23
the fate of this country.
05:26
The Tahltan have called for the creation
05:29
of a tribal heritage reserve which will set aside
05:31
the largest protected area in British Columbia.
05:34
Our goal is not only to help them do that
05:39
but to encourage our friends, the good people at Shell,
05:43
not only to withdraw from the Sacred Headwaters,
05:47
but to move forward with us and join us
05:50
as we do the remarkable, the extraordinary:
05:53
set aside a protected area that will be for all time
05:57
not simply the Sacred Headwaters of the Tahltan people
06:02
but the sacred headwaters of all people in the world.
06:05
The Tahltan need your help. We need your help.
06:10
And if any of you would like to join us on this great adventure,
06:14
please come and see me later today.
06:17
Thank you very much.
06:20
(Applause)
06:22
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Wade Davis - Anthropologist, ethnobotanist
A National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.”

Why you should listen

Wade Davis is perhaps the most articulate and influential western advocate for the world's indigenous cultures. A National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” Trained in anthropology and botany at Harvard, he travels the globe to live alongside indigenous people, and document their cultural practices in books, photographs, and film. His stunning photographs and evocative stories capture the viewer's imagination. As a speaker, he parlays that sense of wonder into passionate concern over the rate at which cultures and languages are disappearing -- 50 percent of the world's 7,000 languages, he says, are no longer taught to children. He argues, in the most beautiful terms, that language is much more than vocabulary and grammatical rules. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind.  

Indigenous cultures are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked this question, the peoples of the world respond in 7,000 different voices, and these collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species over the coming centuries.

Davis is the author of 15 books including The Serpent and the RainbowOne River, and The Wayfinders. His many film credits include Light at the Edge of the World, an eight-hour documentary series produced for the National Geographic. In 2009 he received the Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for his contributions to anthropology and conservation, and he is the 2011 recipient of the Explorers Medal, the highest award of the Explorers’ Club, and the 2012 recipient of the Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration. His latest books are Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest and The Sacred Headwaters: the Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena and the Nass.

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