Contributed by Wade Davis
My father, George Edmund Davis, had two Irish connections. The father of his grandmother, Annie Wade Davis, had emigrated to Canada from Northern Ireland, ending up in Brockville, Ontario. That’s all we know.
Dad’s mother, Annie Walsh, was born 1 April 1880 to John Walsh, a farmer, and Mary (Purcell) Walsh in Moat, Ballinakill, Abbeyleix, Queens County, Ireland. Walsh did not sign the birth certificate but made his mark, suggesting a modest family with limited education. Family lore recalls the Purcells as town folk of some means, who looked down on the Walshes. John had five children with Mary, and after she died, he had another six with a second wife. The Purcell grandparents saw to it that all of Mary’s daughters, including my grandmother, were sent away to convent school in France.
Annie was a great beauty, and happily she escaped the nuns to live a gay life in Paris in the last years of the Belle Époque, supporting herself by modelling for an early French dress house. Before the war, she became engaged to a French officer, a man of some wealth judging from the jewelry still in family hands, diamond rings, sapphires, and emeralds, surely dazzling at the time to a farm girl from Ireland. Sadly, her fiancé, whose name is unknown to us, was killed at the Marne in September 1914, one of a million men to fall in just six days. In the shadow of grief, Annie met my grandfather, Daniel Wade Davis, a surgeon attached to the Royal Medical Corps. At 35, she looked ten years younger, so she lied about her date of birth, bringing it forward to 1886, making them on paper the same age.
After two years at the front, dealing each day with the carnage, the white faces of the dead, my grandfather was posted to London, where my father was born in July 1917. After the war, my grandmother’s beloved sister Kitty married the author Martin Cumberland, a son of wealth, who brought her to live in Monte Carlo. My grandfather brought my grandmother home to Canada, where eventually, after further training at Columbia in New York, he took a job as the company doctor in Kimberley, a small lead-zinc mining town in the Canadian Rockies. My father and his brother Jack grew up, separated from the other lads by way of class, dressed in fancy suits they disdained, keen only to escape.
Dad attended a posh boarding school on the coast, moved on to the University of British Columbia, and then to St. Mary’s in London to study medicine. He was behind the lines in France at the outbreak of Hitler’s war. Later, serving in the Home Guard during the Blitz, something snapped and he disappeared from view for three years. Stacks of letters chronicle my grandfather’s desperate search for his son. Unbeknownst to his father, Dad served in the Canadian army, being honourably discharged, deemed unfit for military duties in 1943. Dad only emerged from the shadows in 1944 when word somehow reached him that both his parents had been killed in a car accident, struck head-on by a drunk driver on the Malahat highway on Vancouver Island. Dad never spoke about his parents, the war, or the past. My sister Karen, an Irish beauty if ever there was one, was born in October 1951. I came along in December 1953.
In 1957, when I was four, my father was transferred to Montreal, where he joined the grey flannelled commuters on the morning trains, heading into the city to a job he called the grind. I used to think as a young boy that he returned from work every day a little smaller. And he did. We lived in an English suburb plunked like a carbuncle on the back of an old Francophone village that went back to the 17th Century. A boulevard divided French from English; it was the time of the two solitudes. On the border of the two communities was a small store, where my mother would send me to buy cigarettes or milk. I’d sit on a bench and stare across the road, knowing that just across the way was another language and religion, another vision of life itself. Even as a boy of six, I longed to cross that road, and I did, ignoring all the ghost- like voices of bigotry and hate. As an anthropologist, I’ve been crossing that road all of my life.
After four years in the Amazon and Andes, thinking only of plants and people, I was summoned one day at Harvard’s Botanical Museum to the office of my mentor, Richard Evans Schultes, the legendary botanical explorer who sparked the psychedelic era with his discovery of the so called ‘magic mushrooms’ in Oaxaca in 1938. In 1941, he had taken a leave of absence and disappeared in the Northwest Amazon of Colombia, where he remained for twelve uninterrupted years, traveling down unknown rivers, living among unknown peoples, all the time enchanted by the wonder of the equatorial rainforest. In time, mountains would bear his name. Indeed merely to walk in his shadow as a student was to aspire to greatness. So when he asked me if I was interested in travelling to the Caribbean nation of Haiti, infiltrate the notorious secret societies, and secure the formula of a folk poison used to make zombies, I naturally said yes. I had no idea that the assignment in the end would consume four years of my life. This led to my first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, the only PhD project to have been made into a Hollywood film.
I wrote the book on a farm in Virginia, and from time to time I’d drive into D.C. in my 1952 Chevrolet to visit a well-known bookstore. Parking by the waterfront, I’d walk up Wisconsin, passing at the corner of M Street a very fancy hair salon which had on the exterior wall a black and white photograph of the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. For two years, I’d pause on that corner, just to take in her beauty. Years went by. I was living in a small village in Provence, when my sister called in the middle of the night with word that Dad had died of a heart attack. I walked away from one life and into another, returning home to B.C., where a letter was waiting from Gail. We had met fleetingly at a party in the country, and I had taken her and a number of friends on a midnight drive in the Chevy through the Shenandoah Valley. The car radio was tuned permanently to 1952. Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams. At the time Gail was married to a Persian prince, but it was not going well. We had stayed in touch, and that letter in the wake of my father’s death meant a great deal to me. Gail and I, after a series of misadventures, with her travelling in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, me in the Amazon and Haiti, met in D.C. and that was it. Within a month she would be pregnant with Tara, our first daughter. By then we were living in Vancouver, but before leaving D.C. I was in her basement cleaning up and I came upon her modelling portfolio, discarded in a pile of papers. I opened it and the first image I saw was that of the woman on the wall of the hair salon. For more than two years, long before we met, I had already been slowing falling in love with the woman who has now been by my side for 33 years.