Wade Davis on the Magdalena, Colombia’s “river of dreams”

Episode 20

The author and anthropologist discusses the five years of travels he undertook along Colombia’s Magdalena River

  • Published Sep 25, 2020
  • Updated Apr 13, 2022
David McGuffin interviews author Wade Davis about his book Magdalena: River of Dreams.
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“Colombia is a place where magic seems to happen every moment and I would argue that only a people like the Colombians, with their enduring spirit of place, their indescribable capacity for joy, could have endured the agonies of the last 50 years.”

Wade Davis says his latest book Magdalena: River of Dreams is a love letter of sorts. Colombia, he says, is “a nation that allowed me to dream, that gave me my wings to fly.” His love affair with Colombia began as a 14-year-old in the late 60s, when he went on an exchange from suburban Montreal. He has been returning ever since, as a writer, botanist, traveller, and scholar of Indigenous religions, captivated by the unbelievable range of history, cultures, environments, climates, and people that exist in this diverse South American nation. 

In this interview, Davis discusses the five years of travels he undertook along the Magdalena River, “a corridor of commerce and a fountain of culture, the wellspring of Colombian music, literature, poetry and prayer,” as the nation emerged from decades of civil war and drug cartel violence. He reveals a resilient, vibrant Colombia, a country where almost every ecological zone found on the planet can be reached within a day’s travel, from Caribbean beaches to snow-capped mountains, rainforests to deserts; a country of literally a thousand musical rhythms, where Indigenous cultures continue to thrive, and where the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez is “just journalism” — a cataloguing of the magic that unfolds on a daily basis.

“Colombia is a nation that allowed me to dream, that gave me my wings to fly.”

Wade Davis was 20 — a student at Harvard University working toward degrees in anthropology and biology and a PhD in ethnobotany — when he set out on his first research expedition into the Amazon. He would go on to spend three years there, gathering more than 6,000 botanical collections in the South American rainforest and reaches of the Andes, living with 15 different Indigenous groups in eight countries to study their traditional uses of medicinal and psychoactive plants.

In the decades since, the Vancouver-born, Pointe-Claire, Que.-raised “plant explorer” and ethnographer has carried out fieldwork among several Indigenous societies of northern Canada, and has documented folk rituals, the world’s biodiversity crisis and more from Australia and East Africa to Haiti, Mongolia and South Pacific island nations. He has published 17 books and his photographs have appeared in numerous collections and publications.

Davis is Honorary Vice-President of the RCGS (and was awarded its Gold Medal in 2009), an Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic Society and a Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His mission, he says, has always been to tell the stories of the world’s Indigenous societies, in such a way that he might “change the way the world views and values culture.” 

This interview was done in partnership with the Ottawa International Writers Festival


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