Much like a colony of his beloved ants, ecologist E. O. Wilson’s career swarms with projects and specialties. His scientific researches in entomology and ecology, like diligent worker ants, pile up data in massive underground silos; like intrepid scouts, his public-minded theories range far and wide throughout culture and the media (and with names like consilience and biophilia, they seem as exotic as new species of insect). But deep in the nest, the overflowing royal heart of the whole enterprise is a storytelling drive as fecund as any formicid queen. With more than twenty books and two Pulitzer prizes to his credit, Wilson’s literary legacy rivals (and perhaps surpasses) his scientific achievements. In his prose he’s been a theorist, a scientific journalist, a naturalist, a philosopher, and a sort of religious apologist; with Anthill, he adds novelist to the list. Again like the anthill of its title, the book buzzes with plot lines — not all which are aware of one another, some of which unintentionally sabotage the good of the whole.
The novel’s framing story concerns Raphael (Raff) Semmes Cody, a boy of rich and troubled heritage growing up in rural south Alabama, a landscape of pine barrens and gator holes just down the road from Florida’s panhandle. But the core of the book dives deep within those woods to conjure a tale-within-a-tale of great originality and richness (indeed, it was excerpted in the New Yorker in a redaction that made no reference to the novel’s human characters.). In this stand-alone, novella-length section titled “The Anthill Chronicles,” Wilson describes the demise and subsquent rise of the ant colonies of the Nokobee tract, which comprise a tale of dynastic succession that reads like an insect version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and which treats the vicissitudes of these ant colonies in epic style. Each colony is a “superorganism” (to use Wilson’s favored term), and in a sense an individual with its unique endowments and deficits. But each is also composed of thousands of individuals who suffer their own trials and desires.
Unlike typical literary treatments of the animal kingdom, Wilson’s tale isn’t fabular or allegorical, but properly novelistic, treating its characters — heavily armored soldiers, shunned cemetery caretakers, and curious scouts, sisters all — not as ciphers, but as agents worthy of our attention and regard. An example: in the aftermath of a great defeat by a rival colony, the remnant ants mill and mob in a fashion at once alien and entirely pathetic:
In the confusion that reigned through the night, the Trailhead Colony felt — it knew — that it was in extreme difficulty. It had no conception of defeat, but the nest interior was filled with the odor of alarm and recruitment pheromones released by both sides during the attempted Streamsider break-in. The fighters were contaminated by the alien odor of the invaders. They could see the battle flags of the enemy, so to speak; they could hear the continuous shriek of alarms.
This is pathos without pathetic fallacy: Wilson strives to ground the colony’s struggles as problems in their world, not ours. This presents Wilson with a problem that is primarily not ethical or scientific or pedagogical but literary. Their challenges are theirs uniquely, not our own tricked out in costume. We see our own travails in them, reflected in the warped mirror of biological affinity — though in a time of increasing awareness of the fragility of the biosphere and the self-made plight we share with all Earth’s creatures, the reflection is not so distorted as it used to be.
The human drama within which this innovative work is embedded is more unevenly developed. Young Raff is the product of an unhappy marriage that mingled Confederate elitism of his genteel mother’s family with the proud, striving culture of the poor white South. Shy and intense, he develops a profound attachment to the shores of Lake Nokobee, a rare tract of southern longleaf pine that is the site of local conflict. Frequent woodland jaunts teach him the ways of squirrels and cottonmouth snakes, the habits of pitcher plants and migrant butterflies; but the tycoons of Mobile see it as the setting of future golf courses and lakeside homes. As the scion of the Semmes clan, he’s expected to grow into a leader in church and business, a linen-suited member of the club. But Raff’s proclivities point elsewhere; his future, like the Lake Nokobee woods, is a contested tract, with parents, family, teachers, and the wild all staking their competing claims.
Raff eventually unites his seemingly conflicting goals, striving for worldly success, family pride, and the preservation of the Nokobee tract: a triple ambition that ultimately makes him the (highly unlikely) lead counsel for a rapacious real estate firm, and pits him against not only the developers, but murderous religious fanatics. It’s a setup for a crash, and Wilson’s story has all the ingredients of a ripping yarn. But the narrative is curiously segmented, parceled out among various points of view. The dominant perspective belongs not to Raff but to Frederick Norville, a Florida State ecologist and family friend who becomes a mentor to the young protagonist. “Uncle Fred” tells much of the tale, but his avuncular, effusive perspective only estranges us from Raff — and his role as narrator inhibits his own commitment as a character in the story; his explications trump the vitality of his role. He claims, for example, that the tale of the ants is Raff’s undergraduate thesis, which he and an entomological colleague have edited into more readable form. But it seems both beyond the boy’s talents, and far more evocative than any scientist of Norville’s sober mien would deign to pen.
If Wilson’s skills as a teller of human tales seem nascent at best, his role as nature’s litterateur is unique and necessary. For the realms of insects and other creatures offer untapped possibilities for literary exploration. Some populations of the Globe Skimmer dragonfly, for instance, migrate up to 11,000 miles back and forth across the Indian Ocean. It takes four generations to make the trip — a sweeping epic in the making. Wilson has long championed the concept of biophilia — the love of life in all its forms — as a quality necessary to achieving balance and sustainability in our relation with the natural world. Perhaps biophilia’s promise will only be realized when we can inhabit nature with the full resources of our imagination, resources which literature marshals like no other mode of thought. Anthill‘s main plot is sketchy, its characters and their motives are fuzzily drawn, and its denouement unlikely. But the entomological epic at this flawed novel’s heart leaves me with a wild and hopeful question: has the time come for the dragonflies to have their Tolstoy?