Life in the woods

In his fiction debut, biologist and environmentalist E.O. Wilson impresses more with his science than his art

By Robert Braile
Globe Correspondent / April 11, 2010

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Why would a legendary Harvard biologist, a major voice in American and global environmentalism for decades and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner in nonfiction, choose in the dusk of his illustrious career to write his first novel?

E.O. Wilson was asked that question recently by Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, which interviewed him on Jan. 18 for its literary blog and ran a short story drawn from his novel, “Anthill,’’ in the magazine a week later. The book was published last week amid much anticipation in literary and environmental circles.

Wilson said he “wanted to go home again’’ to the natural and cultural landscapes of coastal Alabama, the pastoral world in which he was raised and where the novel is set. But his deeper reason was to “describe the natural world as it actually is,’’ something he felt no other novelist had ever done, and as a biologist, he was well positioned to do.

Wilson indeed captures in “Anthill’’ the rapture of a boyhood amid the snakes and ants, pine and palmetto, of Alabama. He explores the simmering persistence of its painful history, the tensions between whites and blacks, rich and poor, men and women, as the Old South gave way to the New South a generation ago, sometimes languidly, sometimes not.

The result is a charming and intriguing novel, elegant especially in a passage on warring ants, but a novel more impressive as advocacy than as artistry, more resonant in its views of nature and humanity than as fiction. Wilson does describe the natural world as it actually is, exquisitely ordered but primal and violent, contrary to the cuddly way it is popularly cast. Disney will likely pass. But he also suggests a relationship between nature and humanity that, while convincing in theory, is problematic in practice.

The story is about Raphael “Raff’’ Semmes Cody, the perceptive, sensitive son of Marcia Semmes and Ainesley Cody. Marcia is an old-wealth Southern belle of Episcopalian faith and genteel if occasionally rebellious manner. She rues the day she married Ainesley, a blue-collar, skirt-chasing, bourbon-swilling, gun-toting, lapsed Southern Baptist of a redneck separatist, who avers a “code’’ of honorable behavior he seems incapable of following. Their marriage reflects the cultural tensions at work in the novel, which Wilson delineates knowingly, if perhaps methodically.

Wilson is more eloquent when he draws on his biological expertise to describe the Nokobee tract, the pristine but endangered landscape at the heart of the novel. It is one of the few old-growth longleaf pine savannas left in the region, a place of great blue herons and cottonmouth moccasins along a lake near Raff’s home in Clayville. Raff finds refuge there from his parents, an affinity that is intimate and permanent, “the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life,’’ says narrator Frederick Norville, an ecology professor at Florida State University, a family friend, and a mentor to Raff.

The novel chronicles Raff’s efforts to save the tract from development, from his Boy Scout days to his years at Florida State and Harvard Law School. Nokobee “became to him another way to look at the world, different than what he heard at school and from his parents,” Norville says. “He constructed a broader context in which he drew a picture of humanity, and of himself. The image was at first vague, but it grew thereafter steadily in clarity. In time he understood that nature was not something outside the human world. The reverse is true. Nature is the real world, and humanity exists on islands within it.’’

Wilson explores that view of nature and humanity most curiously in an allegorical passage, from which The New Yorker story was drawn, titled “The Anthill Chronicles,’’ ostensibly a retelling of Raff’s undergraduate thesis. Written from an ant’s perspective, it describes the wars between four ant colonies on the tract, whose rise and fall mirror those of human communities. When one colony collapsed, a victim of its excess, “it resembled the great human anthill above and around it.’’ The passage reads like a cross of “Watership Down” and “The Lord of the Rings” and represents Wilson’s finest writing in the novel, so much better than the rest that one wonders why he did not write the entire novel as an allegory.

Wilson also explores this view of nature and humanity through Raff’s solution for saving the tract. It serves as the novel’s anticlimactic climax, for while humanity might one day see the light of such events as Hurricane Katrina and defer to nature, this solution is hardly a bold example of doing so. Describing it here would divulge the climax, and so suffice to say it is a common conservation strategy, in New England especially, that is not terribly visionary, unique, or without its problems.

Yet, Norville says, Nokobee became for Raff “his island in a meaningless sea. Because Nokobee survived, he survived. Because it preserved its meaning, he preserved his meaning.” Wilson must be applauded for offering such an island in his debut novel, a step in a theoretically persuasive if practically debatable ecological direction, daring to do so amid a luminous scientific and literary career through the unmapped forest of fiction.

Robert Braile reported on the environment for the Globe from 1987 to 2001.

ANTHILL By E.O. Wilson

W.W. Norton, 378 pp., $24.95