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Editor’s note: In the February 15, 2010, issue of Booklist, our Spotlight on the Environment, Associate Editor Donna Seaman shared the Story behind the Story on eminent biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson’s first novel, Anthill. Now, to mark the book’s official release, and in honor of Earth Day, we’re sharing Seaman and Wilson’s entire conversation. Wilson spoke by phone from his office at Harvard, disarming Seaman with his humility, creativity, and ready wit. In a conversation punctuated by laughter, his tremendous commitment to awakening others’ appreciation for the living world was readily apparent.
BKL: You’re a first-time novelist at age 80.
WILSON: First, only, last. I just wanted to do it once. I had a superb editor in Bob Weil, at Norton. He helped me through the transition into that alternative world of fiction writing, dialogue, and all that goes with it.
BKL: Why did you want to write a novel?
WILSON: I had several reasons. One, I grew up in the Deep South, mainly south Alabama and the adjacent panhandle of Florida, and I have all those memories in my head up to the late 1950s, before I left for Harvard. They’re like a fly in amber, beautifully preserved. And, of course, the Old South I grew up in is a different world now. So, like a lot of southerners, and I suspect this is why there are so many southern writers, I wanted to recapture that whole culture and experience. I thought that I had a chance to make a contribution to understanding the South if I did it in fiction.
But maybe an equally important reason was that I wanted to identify land use and the disappearance of the original environment of the South and some of its richer resources as the pivotal problem in the South today, particularly the Southeast. In the early 1960s the great problem was segregation, and we remember Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird so well, in part, because she identified the problem and wrote about it compellingly at just the right time. It occurred to me that this was the right time to write about the environment, which is rapidly changing in the South, in order to call attention to it, to dramatize it, to record it in one or two decades in time. That’s the other reason I really wanted a different way to approach environmental concerns. So, in essence, I tried my hand at fiction to write about my own deep feelings concerning the South, to recapture my experiences and somehow get them on record, and to present a new kind of environmental message in a different venue.
BKL: You’ve written a memoir, Naturalist (1994), that covers your boyhood experiences, particularly your love for nature, and many aspects of your own life seem to have made their way into your novel. Did you feel freer in fiction, however, to express your feelings and ideas?
WILSON: Oh yes, I could talk frankly about people. I couldn’t exactly do that in my memoir, especially about living relatives. Some of the people in Anthill, starting with the part that is autobiographical, were inspired by members of my family in south Alabama. And a lot of Raff’s feelings, a lot of his passions and experiences, parallel mine. But I sent him off to Harvard to become a lawyer. That’s a severe departure from my own direction.
BKL: I wonder if you’ve also written fiction in the hope of reaching people who don’t ordinarily read about nature. Is this a covert approach to get people to come into the woods with you?
WILSON: Yes, definitely. I wanted to portray a piece of land, of unspoiled land, one of the last remnants of the great longleaf savannas that once covered 60 percent of the South from the Carolinas to Texas. I wonder how many people there, much less in the rest of the U.S., know that? The forests were almost wiped out. So I took one piece of land, one ecosystem, and developed it almost like a character in the novel. Something that you could identify with—or I tried to make it that way—almost like a person that you cared about. In the case of the plants and animals, I tried to bring them into authentic clarity for the reader. So it’s not just a broad description of how a person feels when he sees a forest or savanna in front of him, but also who is there, what is there, what plants and animals—and what was at stake if they were all wiped out at one stroke. And, of course, the ants helped.
BKL: The section of the novel titled “The Anthill Chronicles” reads like a tale of war right out of Homer.
WILSON: I hope I’ll be forgiven for providing an ant epic. I wanted to use them as the standard bearers that can be tracked in the ecosystem by having Raff study them in such detail that they could be brought to life. And that’s another reason for writing the book: because no one has ever written—now don’t laugh, even though you may think this is a ridiculous goal—the story of ants. Of life in the colonies, of their wars, their struggles for survival, their enemies, their friends, and so on, in an authentic way, as seen from the point of view of the ants. In that section of the novel, the ants are the main actors, and the way they communicate is accurately depicted. Their limits, what kind of memories they have, what their emotions are, are all authentic. No one has ever tried to do that before.
BKL: Your ant epic calls to mind a term you coined, “biophilia,” which is a heightened form of empathy. By telling the story of ants within a compelling story of a boy’s coming-of-age and a man’s discovery of his mission in life, you do truly make us feel empathic toward those tiny insects.
WILSON: I hope I did. You know, there is an intense interest in ants all around the world. After all, did you know that approximately two-thirds of all the insect mass—that is, if you weighed all the insects in the world—two-thirds would be ants? Ants are found everywhere. And ants are social. So people are intrigued by them, but in a distorted way. Most people can only think about them either as those little, annoying specks swarming on the ground, or in the Woody Allen manner, as little people. I wanted to show them as they actually are because they are very interesting as individuals and as colonies.
BKL: Raff is a such sympathetic character, in part because of how he must navigate between his love for nature and his society’s expectations of what it means to be a man. As his story unfolds, you seem to seek common ground between your young naturalist and the men in his world who love guns and hunting. Why?
WILSON: I deliberately presented a somewhat sympathetic, even favorable view of the gun culture, at least in reference to hunting. I have an argument going on over hunters between Raff and his best friend and close consultant, the environmental journalist. Raff puts an NRA sticker on his bumper because he says hunters are nature’s best friends. There’s a truth to that. Most people think someone who would just go out and butcher a deer or hunt a bear is an enemy of nature. But these people, even in the redneck culture of the South, are friends of nature. They understand that wild nature is necessary for what they love to do.
BKL: Raff is trying to walk the middle way. There’s a teaching element to that effort.
WILSON: You’ve got that right. It is a lesson in favor of the middle way, in trying to bring different elements and worldviews that clash together to meet a higher goal. That’s a theme that develops in my book The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion (2006), in which I approach evangelicals. That’s worked very well, incidentally. A large number of evangelicals really love that book. Because it’s a respectful book that asks that we put aside our many differences and look to something above it all that we can work together on. That’s what I wanted to do with Raff. I made Raff what you might call an agitated moderate. He does triumph, but he has to lose something. He has to give up the lakeside strip of Nokobee to save the bulk of it. That’s not exactly a blazing Hollywood finish. But it’s a real-world finish. It’s something that could happen in real life, even with, as I call them, the most rapacious developers in that part of the country.
BKL: When you portray Raff as a young boy, you write about the pleasure children experience in nature. About how being in the living world is what our brains respond to most readily because it’s the environment that shaped our brains. Do you feel that parents, educators, librarians, and other adults need to help awaken this wonder to inspire children to take an interest in nature, and to care about nature?
WILSON: I believe that deeply. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. I rather hope that at the very minimum I’m going to get some families out in nature. I also hope that Anthill will be read by young adults. I hope that they’ll think, “I’d like to be like Raphael Semmes Cody. He’s really a hero. I’d like to be like him. I’d like to be an explorer. I’d like to do something great out in the world.” The way a Boy Scout would go forth and say, I want to do something special.
BKL: Were you a Boy Scout?
WILSON: Eagle Scout. My experiences in the Boy Scouts is where I got most of my education in Alabama, to tell you the truth. That’s why I treated the Boy Scouts with such respect in the novel, even though that might seem very uncool to a lot of young people. But there it is, the Boy Scouts of America.
BKL: You write very beautifully about what the Boy Scouts did for Raff. You write that being a scout legitimized Raff’s passion, and you use the word ‘spiritual’ in describing how becoming a boy scout affirmed Raff’s sense that Nokobee is sacred.
WILSON: That’s part of the meeting ground we need to have, a concept of the spiritual. There’s a spirituality in human beings that is innate to us and that can be cultivated without accepting the core beliefs of traditional religions. It’s a human trait, hence biophilia.
BKL: You make the point that we need to see nature as an asset. Many environmentalists agree. But how do we place value on nature?
WILSON: Well, that’s the question of questions. Whenever you get a bunch of environmentalists together, that’s the corridor talk. That’s the after-dinner talk––how to bring people over to our worldview. We know the world needs it. We know it would enlarge their experience, that people would acquire a lifelong source of pleasure, learning, and joy for themselves and their children. Yet we can’t get them to listen or pay attention. It’s obviously an issue that is profoundly embedded in the whole problem of education, especially science education. As I go around to colleges and universities to give lectures, I have seen that the most effective courses in science are given by teachers who take students out on research projects in the natural environment. I believe that somehow we ought to integrate science education with experience in nature starting in kindergarten and first grade, so that children actually learn something while having an adventure. To give them the experience Raff had as explorer, treasure hunter, lover of a sacred space. There are primordial feelings and experiences a child can have, and I think if we could somehow draw on that response in children and make it part of the teaching of science at all levels we would accomplish a lot in science education and in addressing environmental concerns.
BKL: You’re talking about appealing to the imagination. What role does literature play in this? Is literature an important part of this sense of adventure?
WILSON: I would emphatically say yes. Literature can lead you, the reader, whether you’re a child or a sophisticated adult, into the unknown. And that need not just be the unknown of dramatic personal relationships, which is the main focus of the great majority of novels, but also into a physical experience of discovery about the natural world. That’s what I tried to do. I wanted Raff and that idiot cousin of his, Junior, to go down the stream, that untouched stream they follow to get down to the Chicobee River. I wanted them to steal a boat in order to explore nature that was as wild to them as Panama was to Balboa. This is what kids should have, what we should all have, a sense of excitement about seeing the pristine newness and complexity and challenge of wild nature. I’m getting a little bit, what is the word I’m looking for, evangelical here. But what do you expect from somebody who was raised Southern Baptist?
BKL: Clearly writing has been important to you all along. As a biologist, you could have written strictly academic and scientific texts. Instead, you’ve written popular books that engage and intrigue every reader, no matter what level of scientific knowledge we may or may not possess.
WILSON: I think that creative writing is one of the most satisfying experiences available to a human being. Not many will agree with that. But I’ve done it in nonfiction, primarily, and I came to enjoy it even more writing this novel. I do believe we have scarcely begun to explore the possibilities of achieving what literature is meant to achieve. The biological world that humanity is a part of has just not begun to be explored by our best writers. We need the details. We ought to encourage young creative writers, and we have hordes of them, and some of them are really very gifted, to enter this world. To learn it. To actually get the training as part of becoming creative writers. That’s something worth trying for. Young people who want to go into creative writing should be prepared to leave familiar venues. To enter new territory. And this is one of the new territories waiting for writers, if anyone has any inclination at all to learn about the interaction of people and nature, to get into it, to see what you can create with it.
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