E. O. Wilson's First Novel Tells Tale of Conservation Through Boy and Ants

E.O. Wilson won Pulitzers for the books The Ants, and The Naturalist. He's a Harvard scientist, and has just written his first novel, a semi-autobiographical tale called The Anthill. The book's hero is a Southern boy who grows up with a love for the natural world, which pushes him on to a career as an environmental lawyer. In this interview with The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan, Wilson reads a passage from his new book.

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J: I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan with The Allegheny Front, and I'm speaking with E.O. Wilson. He's a Pulitzer Prize winner for the books the Ants and the Naturalist. He's a Harvard professor and now the author of a new book, your first novel.

E: That's right.

J: Welcome to The Allegheny Front. Welcome back to Pittsburgh.

E: I'm glad to be back.

J: You're here for one of the Rachel Carson Homestead events. We're really pleased that they made you available to speak with us. You've written this new book, The Anthill, would you like to start with a passage from that?

E: The book is mostly a story of a Southern family over three generations adapting to the change of the old South to the new South. Adapting to clashes that continue to occur between classes and between developers and conservationists. But in the middle of this, I present a kind of under story the life and the struggles over four generations of ant colonies, symbolizing the complexity of the natural world, which the hero of the book the hero in the book is trying to save. Here then is the beginning of the "Ant Hill Chronicles."

E reading: The queen was dead. In the first days, there was no overt sign that her long life was ending. There was no fever, no spasms, no farewells. She simply sat on the floor of the royal chamber and quietly died. As in life, her body was prone and immobile, her legs and antennae relaxed. Her stillness by itself failed to give warning to her daughters that a catastrophe had occurred for all of them. She lay there, in fact, as though nothing had happened. She had become a perfect statue of herself. The deception was a result of the way the bodies of insects decay after death. Where humans and other vertebrate animals have an internal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, insects are encased in an external skeleton. Their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons around them remains a knight's armor fully intact long after the knight is gone. Hence the workers were at first unaware of their mother's death. Her quietude said nothing, and the odors of her life, still rising from her, signaled, "I remain among you."

J: As The Allegheny Front, as we look at children and their environment, how do they get inspired at a young age to relate to the world?

E: How did the protagonist ó a Southern boy through and through ó how did he become a naturalist? He becomes acquainted very early with a track of old growth forest within short enough distance to get there any time he wants. And he does go back and forth between this beautiful piece of land and becomes familiar with the creatures he sees there that fascinate him.

But he has one other thing going for him. He has a mentor. This mentor is a professor who comes up with his wife from Florida State University and spends every summer there doing extended research over the period of many years of the long leaf pine forest. And this gentleman and his wife have no children. So they take to young Raphael as almost a sort of a surrogate son. As Raphael explores, as a very small child actually, starting when he's about three, four, or five, he learns how to, becomes fascinated with the process of hunting for new things, new organisms. Spiders. Salamanders. Frogs. Odd looking plants. He brings them too his mentor. He tells the boy about what they are and talks to him about them. And the boy then goes out and hunts for more.

Just as Rachel Carson, who we are celebrating today, wrote about a similar experience. She said, take a child to a seashore. Find a tidepool. Give the child a bucket. Send them to that pool and tell them to explore it and find out what they can. And bring back what they can being careful of what they pick up, and she will talk to them about it. There's nothing more powerful. One should never, in my opinion, plan on limiting a child's excursions into nature on a nature walk with adults and other children, especially in places where there are labels on the trees telling what the trees are. That can kill an interest in nature. A child has to be an explorer.

J: How was your childhood influential to where you are today? How did you become the naturalist that you are?

E: The first part of Anthill is autobiographical. Not precisely, but I did, I should say I had the great advantage and privilege of being able to explore on my own and beautiful forest and spring sides.

J: What do you think about the future of conservationists? Do you feel at all positive of children becoming defenders of nature and explorers of nature throughout their lives?

E: Hard to call. Since how much we commit to saving the living environment, not just the physical environment depends strongly on how economic and political history unfolds in the next decade or so. I've been calling myself a cautious optimist. Now, I'm calling myself, particularly after incidents like the great oil spill, a scared optimist. And I'm going to stay optimistic because there really isn't any other way to be.

J: Well, thanks so much.

E: I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.