Saturday, June 1, 2013

Book Review: Anthill by E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson: "Anthill" (W. W. Norton, New York, 210), 378 pages.

E O Wilson, the (in)famous "sociobiologist" has written his first novel and it is a winner.

This American scholar has given us a privileged view into the environmental "culture wars" wracking his country and his hopeful view of what can be done to build bridges between the warring camps.

"Anthill" is, at root, the coming of age story of a young, Alabaman ecological activist. Raphel Semmes Cody represents in his birth some of the internal divisions of his culture. His dad is a working class cracker, his mother, the scion of a family of land developers with proud Civil War (Confederacy) roots. She loves her man but is secretly ashamed of her fallen social status.

But Raphael - or Raff, as he always called - is something of a free spirit, a non-conformer. While not a great student, he is drawn from an early age to the life of a naturalist. "His" land is the Nokobee Lake tract of wildland where his family often picnics. A chance meeting of the small family with a biology professor from Florida State University ends up launching Raff for earnest into the life of the natualist scholar. The relationship between Raff and his adopted "uncle Fred" remains one of the anchors and motive forces of his life. Raff goes on to study earth science at Florida State, graduating with honors.

While a student, Raff learned from his land developer uncle (on his mother's side), Cyrus, that the Nokobee Lake tract's days are counted. Sooner or later, within a few years, the wilderness will be razed and covered over with concrete. Since he loves "his" land about as much as his life, Raff decides to go to the best law school, Harvard, - his marks and family connections permit it - to study environmental law in order to protect his land. Raff undoubtedly serves as a foil for author Wilson's own ideas about reconciling the competing worlds of Nature and Progress.

At Harvard, Raff becomes something of an expert in conflict resolution. His goal, as an environmental lawyer, is to reach compromises through which both parties - the environment and those who want to protect it and those promising jobs through "development" - find satisfaction and can live in peace. In the simplest cases, a tract of biodiverse land might be exchanged for one with less ecological importance. Despite his basic good nature and compromising spirit, down deep Raff recognizes that no one is going to defend the land if he doesn't. Passing the buck doesn't count in this most final of "culture wars", the war to save the earth we walk upon from human greed.

Unfortunately, people get hurt in wars and soon Raff crosses swords with the religious extreme right. He has returned to work for the company of his developer uncle Cyrus as attorney and counsel on land issues. Somehow his work comes to the attention of a fanatical self-ordained preacher, the "Reverend" LeBow, who is convinced that the End Days are here. Jesus wants the world to end so he can establish the Kingdom of God. People like Raff who fight for the earth are therefore serving God's enemy, Satan in person. At first LeBow tries to frighten Raff off with lightly veiled threats of violence. When Raff continues, drawing publicity to himself in ongoing negotiations to develop a strip of the Nokobee Tract while protecting the rest, LeBow decides, simply, to eliminate him.

Wilson, for a first time novelist, shows himself surprisingly versatile in the action packed and graphically violent concluding pages. To Wilson's credit he does not glorify or romanticize violence: he depicts it all its biological, sensorial and existential nastiness. This, I suspect, was intentional.

"Reverend" LeBow and a couple of accomplices have stalked Raff and, as he is leaving the tract after a day of photography and solitary wandering, they confront him and force him to accompany them on a walk to the river flowing from Lake Nokobee. Raffs notes the concealed weapons and decides he has to make a break for it or he will end up in the river as the gators' supper.

So as not to spoil the surprises, I will go no further. However, blood is shed and Raff escapes. He contemplates dropping environmentalism but a call from a collaborator, a local environmental journalist, thanking him for his good work in saving 90% of the Nokobee tract from development, rekindles his sense of duty and mission.

Raff, as expected, bears post-traumatic stress syndrome scars from the attempted assassination. He can no longer enter the Nokobee tract unless he is surrounded by people. However, his boy scout troop serves him well here. On an outing to Nokobee lake, as the sun sets and the boys wait for the bus home, Raff contemplates his world, his land: "Nokobee was here, now and forever, living and whole and serene as he had first found it in his childhood. This was his sacred place.. Nokobee was a habitat of infinite knowledge and mystery, beyond the reach of the meager human brain.. It was his island in a meaningless sea. Because Nokobee survived, he survived. Because it preserved its meaning, he preserved his meaning. Nokobee has granted him these precious gifts. Now it would heal him. In return, he had restored its immortality, and eternal youth, and the continuity of its deep history."
What greater manifesto of environmental activism could one find?

Although Wilson is a noted scholar and has published many books and papers, this is a surprisingly strong first novel: it won the Pulitzer Prize.

I really love Wilson's description of the ideal scholar. In a note to the admissions committee at Florida State, "Uncle Fred", the biology professor who served as Raff's mentor in all things natural, wrote "Raphael Semmes Cody, admittedly has participated in no team sport, or sport of any kind. He plays no musical instrument. He has never been more than two hundred miles from Clayville, Alabama. But then, one recalls, Henry David Thoreau was similarly limited. Like Thoreau, young Cody walks to a different drummer's beat. As his Eagle Scout record shows, he is ambitious and hardworking in a unique way, with goals of his own choosing. I predict that among the ten thousand students admitted this year to FSU, he will someday be one of the alumni whom this university will be most proud."

One of the more surprising and interesting sections of the novel is the section entitled "The anthill chronicles" in which Wilson, drawing from his own studies as a biologist, describes the life an ant colony - from the ants' perspective. It makes for very interesting reading for nature and science buffs.

It's hard to fault "Anthill" much, aside from the odd clumsy or ambiguous sentence. In this novel, Wilson reveals his own liberal, middle of the road, biases and ideology: "Raff lived by three maxims. Fortune favors the prepared mind. People follow someone who knows where he's going. And control the middle, because that's where the extremes eventually meet." It's inspirational message to those struggling for a livable future is tonic and bracing. Let's hope he's right. I willingly give "Anthill" a nine on ten.

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