Arts & Life
2:31 pm
Wed September 12, 2012

Pulitzer Prize Winner Talks About New Book on Mobile

Doctor E.O. Wilson is probably best known for his expertise on insects, particularly ants. But Wilson’s new book isn’t about tiny creatures. Why We Are Here: Mobile and The Spirit of A Southern City is a profile of Wilson’s boyhood town. He collaborated with photographer Alex Harris to capture the history of the coastal city.


“Alex would portray Mobile as it actually is in this moment of time,” says Wilson. “So we thought that together presenting the history, interpreting what the main features of its historical changes, the kind of city it is as best we could, would be well complimented by the kind of brilliant picture of present day Mobile he was able to provide.”


Wilson is most recognized for his work in entomology, or the study of insects. He’s authored more than 28 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Ants and The Naturalist. At first glance, Why We Are Here may seem like a departure from the subject, but Wilson shares some personal stories about his earliest interest in bugs.


“I discovered and was mesmerized by black widows spiders, which are common, at least during those days in vacant lots of Mobile,” recalls Wilson.  “And I just discovered that I could keep them in large jars and feed them and they would lay their eggs. At that time, just as a 13-year-old, the year was 1942, I happened to come across the nest of an important fire ant ever recorded as anything distinct in the United States. The infamous fire ant was beginning to spread but it was still limited to Mobile. I didn’t know that, nobody knew that.”


In his new book, Wilson also talks about the Civil Right movement in Mobile. Claudette Daphins, an African-American woman who witnessed the integration process in Alabama during the 1950s. Wilson says Daphins was “aware that the racism of Mobile was more muted in expression than in other parts of Alabama.” Wilson says he agrees


“Having been in the old Mobile I always experienced black people we respected but we wanted to be strictly separated, I mean it was flat out racism of all the ugly words,” recalls Wilson. “Mobile was a port that attracted people from all over- New England from England from the West Indies over from New Orleans and so on.  And it was a port city, so the Civil Rights movement began. There was more of a mood of tolerance to start with we didn’t have poor share croppers afraid that their land was gonna be given over to black people and all of that.”


Why We Are Here comes out in mid-October.



Transcript of Maggie's interview with E.O. Wilson...


(Wilson):  Alex would portray Mobile as it actually is in this moment of time. So we thought that together presenting the history, interpreting what the main features of its historical changes the kind of city it is as best we could would be well complimented by the kind of brilliant picture of present day Mobile he was able to provide.



(Martin): Now at first glance this book may seem to be a departure from your work the study of ants, but you actually share some personal stories about your earliest interest in bugs, including black widow spiders and fire ants. Could you talk a little about that?



(Wilson): I discovered and was mesmerized by black widows spiders, which are common at least during those days in vacant lots of Mobile.  And I just discovered that I could keep them in large jars and feed them and they would lay their eggs. At that time, just as a 13 year old, the year was 1942, I happened to come across the nest of an important fire ant ever recorded as anything distinct in the United States. The infamous fire ant was beginning to spread but it was still limited to mobile. I didn’t know that, nobody knew that.


(Martin):  Something else that I thought was interesting; Mobile was almost not the principle sea port for Alabama it was supposed to be Blakely, you describe it as people of the time thought it was going to be this utopian community, what happened?



(Wilson): It wasn’t a utopian community in the sense of utopian ideally organized it was just a new town being built.  And it was going to be built on commerce. Blakely however was as abrupt as its mushroom like rise and that was the end was caused by two yellow fever epidemics in the 1820s.



(Martin): There’s a woman you write about, Claudette Daffins, and African American who witnessed the process of integration in Alabama during the 1950s. She says racism in Mobile was more muted in expression then other parts of Alabama. Do you agree?



(Wilson): yes, emphatically. Having been in the old Mobile I always experienced black people we respected but we wanted to be strictly separated, I mean it was flat out racism of all the ugly words . Mobile was a port that attracted people from all over- New England from England from the West Indies over from New Orleans and so on.  And it was a port city, so  the Civil Rights movement began there was more of a mood of tolerance to start with we didn’t have poor share croppers afraid that their land was gonna be given over to black people and all of that.



(Martin): Finally, you talk about 2 Alabama’s quote, “During the antebellum period Mobile was the first Alabama and the rest of the state was the second” Can you expand on what that means?



(Wilson): As I said earlier we had up river. Quite a few people of different backgrounds they were a different sort of people. They were agricultural they were pioneers, true pioneers many of them were slave holders. While in Mobile you had much more of a commercial class.