Anthill: A Novel by E.O. Wilson

May 10, 2010

Several Alabamians have won the Pulitzer Prize, but only one, E.O. Wilson, has won it twice, so when the state's most honored writer decides to publish a novel, at age 80, attention must be paid.

Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio

Several Alabamians have won the Pulitzer Prize, but only one, E.O. Wilson, has won it twice, so when the state's most honored writer decides to publish a novel, at age 80, attention must be paid.

All his life Wilson has studied insect life and reported his findings in hundreds of academic and scientific papers and in more than twenty books, books aimed at both the scientific community and the general public.

Having worked to inform and activate the public about the need to preserve the diversity of species, and not destroy our environment, in every form of nonfiction, from the most formal to his extremely readable memoir, Naturalist, Wilson now seeks to get the message out in yet another mode, the novel. There are, pragmatically speaking, more readers of fiction than of scientific books and the situation is becoming more desperate all the time.

The protagonist of Anthill, not surprisingly, is a young man in south Alabama, Rafael Semmes Cody, growing up in the 1980s and '90s. Raff, as he is known, is the son of a distinguished Mobile family, the Semmeses, descended from "Sea Wolf" Admiral Semmes, and the Codys, blue-collar, respectable, rural Southerners.

Raised in fictional Clayville, Alabama, north of Brewton, Raff is a good, smart kid, an Eagle Scout and, as time passes, a passionate student and lover of the natural world. As Walden Pond was to Thoreau, Lake Nokobee, and the surrounding swamp and long leaf pine forest, one of the last, is to Raff. This piece of ground and water is Raff's spiritual home, and he will use every possible means to save it from pollution or from destruction by "development."

After a childhood studying the territory "informally," Raff receives an opportunity to study biology formally at Florida State, financed by his uncle Cyrus. There he is mentored by Frederick Norville, a professor of ecology and the sometime narrator of this tale.

Right in the center of this novel, Wilson does something rather unusual. Printed in its entire 112 pages is Raff's senior honors thesis "The Anthill Chronicles." This document is a detailed description of the life of the Trailhead colony anthill, with its queen, workers, scouts, drones, and warriors, and its unsuccessful war with the Streamside colony.

There are some useful lessons here for humans, but one must choose carefully. Cooperation and maintaining proper-size population are crucial for both ants and humans. On the other hand, where we send our young and fit to fight our wars, "ants send their old ladies," and very few ants mate.

Back to the narrative: Raff, in many ways a typical young man, dates girls, falls in love, and generally, in this coming-of-age novel, a portrait of the ecologist-attorney as a young man, grows up.

He is committed to a life protecting the environment, especially the Lake Nokobee area, but how best to do it? He is tempted by the activist way?protest and demonstration?but Raff is finally a law-abiding, essentially conservative fellow. After graduation from Harvard Law School, Raff returns home and commits himself to protecting what Wilson sees as our fragile creation by applying the law, and by wise use of resources and strategies that will bring profit to investors without poisoning or bulldozing natural treasures.

There is no denying that Anthill is first and foremost a novel of ideas, written to bring attention to what Wilson sees as an absolutely crucial issue. Reviewers have shied away from evaluating this novel as novel. As literary art, it is satisfactory. The story moves along. The characters are sometimes psychologically thin and the plot occasionally veers from melodramatic to predictable and back, but of course this is not the point. The fictional medium has been employed to get out the ecological message.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on May 10, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.