“Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City”
Authors: Edward O. Wilson and Alex Harris
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (W. W. Norton & Company)
Prize-winning photographer Alex Harris, a founder of the Duke University Center for Documentary Photography, has long admired biologist Edward Wilson, especially for Wilson’s “Consilience” in which Wilson argues for the “unity of knowledge.” Harris approached Wilson about this book and the result is a collection of 112 photographs of Mobile and Mobilians, taken over a two-year period, accompanied by an extensive text by Wilson.
Harris describes their attempt to “combine as many perspectives as we can muster—visual and verbal, artistic and scientific, intuitive and cerebral, objective and subjective, contemporary and historical—to create a book that is as much about the meaning of place as it is about a place itself.”
To Harris, Mobile was new territory; Wilson had roots there. In fact, Wilson writes: “I am not a Harvard professor who was born and grew up in Alabama; I am an Alabamian who, like tens of thousands of other Alabamians, went up north after World War II to work.”
Wilson’s essay, then, is laced with nostalgia. The stories he tells of his childhood will be familiar to the readers of “Naturalist,” his prize-winning memoir. Wilson recalls his early interest in the natural world and his first collections of spiders, butterflies and snakes
Also, using, and acknowledging, the work of historians like Jay Higginbotham and others, Wilson gives a substantial overview of Mobile history from its beginnings, through Spanish, French, English, Confederate and United States control. There are plenty of nice bits here including a long section on Mardi Gras and the importation of 23 young women by the French in the eighteenth century from convents and orphanages in Paris, as prospective brides, to keep the men from finding their mates in the Indian villages.
He is not breaking new ground here, but rather summarizing. Of special interest is his forthrightness on the subject of race, from early slavery through Jim Crow and Civil Rights to the present.
Racial conditions in Mobile are pretty tolerable now, he believes, but have been gruesome, even if not as wretched as on upriver plantations, where the masters had absolute power but were outnumbered, and the fear of a slave revolt generated even harsher conditions.
Wilson’s historical summary is gracefully done, but of more interest are his reports on the natural world around Mobile. He laments the loss of the long-leaf pine forests, the pollution of both air and water and especially the recent BP oil spill, the effects of which, Wilson is sure, are not yet fully known.
He reminds his readers of the magnificent heritage of biodiversity Alabamians have been given, the greatest diversity of aquatic organisms in America. Especially dense are the pitcher plant bogs where there can be as many as 60 species of plant per square meter, including several varieties of orchids.
The photos that this text accompanies are, as one might imagine, stunning, and all contemporary. Harris has shot not only in the outdoors all over the delta, as you would expect, and at Mardi Gras parades and parties, but at Boy Scout camps, football practices, church meetings, weddings, on the bay, on boats and fishing piers, at historical reenactments, and in trailer parks.
All the photos and the texts are in the service of the one idea: to tell the reader how Mobile is “unique today among cities in the South… where we come from and why we are here.”
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”