Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anthill by E. O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson is one of the most accomplished biologist and conservationist working and writing today. A professor at Harvard, Wilson has discovered 337 species of ants. He coined the term "biodiversity" and was a pioneer in the field of chemical ecology (studying pheromones and the chemical signals insects and other animals use to communicate.) All this led to his most pivotal work, The Insect Societies, a study of social ants, bees, and termites. Wilson concluded that, while an ant is a simple creature, an anthill is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a complex system able to "remember" important information and adapt to new challenges.

Recently, Wilson published his first novel. Anthill is about Raff Cody, a boy from in southern Alabama (where Wilson spent most of his own childhood) trying to protect Lake Nokobee from developers. On a larger scale, though, it's about how people can accomplish big things when they work together. How, like ant colonies, human communities can become greater than the sum of their parts.

I like stories told by scientists. (See my reviews of Kon-Tiki and Rocket Boys.) Scientists are observers. Instead of leaning on vague words like "beautiful," they gather straightforward facts and images, letting them speak for themselves. Throughout Anthill, Wilson puts his incredible knowledge of the natural world to good use, like in an early scene where Raff goes to Nokobee Lake, new BB gun in hand.

As usual at this time of day, there was no one else at Dead Owl Cove. Raff walked onto the trail around the west side of the lake and off it, into the forest. He held his head up, staring this way and that. He gripped the air rifle in both hands, ready to pump and fire. He entered the hunter's trance, scanning now back and forth, up and down, his senses open for any sign of an animal that might be a suitable target. A giant sulphur butterfly--hard to catch even with a net--flashed across the trail in front of him and alighted on a flowering bush. It was big and showy, but he paid it no attention. Close by, a murder of crows began quarreling. Their loud clamor meant nothing to the searching rifleman.

When Raff shoots a bird, instead of being excited, he's unsettled by how easy it was and how vulnerable the Nokobee tract really is. It's ironic that Anthill is set in the same coastal region currently being devastated by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Watching an oil slick visible from space wash up onto shores, I read parts of Anthill with a lump in my throat: With his little gun he had taken power over Nokobee. . . It came to Raff with sickening clarity that Nokobee was not at all the edge of an infinite nature he envisioned as a younger child. It was just a tract of land that could be walked from one end to the other in an hour. The Nokobee he loved was a fragile entity, and today he had thoughtlessly disturbed its grace and beauty.

Wilson describes the human world with as much clarity as the natural one. Following Raff on his mission to protect the Nokobee tract, we meet the people that make up his community--businessmen, hunters, idealistic environmentalists, and Southern good ol' boys. Wilson tries to give every side of the ecology debate a voice. He wants to show that those working to preserve the natural world and those working toward human prosperity aren't the natural enemies they sometimes think they are. As a now-grown Raff tells one skeptic, "What is conservatism with conservation? And how are we ever going to be energy independent and save our natural resources without conservation? Here's something to consider. . . green is the new red, white, and blue."

Anthill is a sweeping novel written by a man whose love of nature and faith in humanity are palpable on every page. It's definitely worth picking up.

(Cross-posted on my blog.)


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