Monday, July 2, 2018

Book Reviews Reloaded: Anthill

Anthill -- E.O. Wilson
W.W. Norton & Company
384 Pages

This article first appeared on East Niagara Post on January 27, 2015. It is repeated here as I work to put all my book reviews in one place. They will be posted on Thursdays or Fridays and only be altered from the original in that I will add publisher information and pages. Hopefully, by revisiting these reviews, other people might find a book they'd like to pick up for their own enjoyment.

Anthill by E.O. Wilson is an interesting story that is told from three different points of view. One is from the main character’s; one from his celebrated college professor; and one from the ants of an Alabama ant colony. This was a book that intrigued me as I was looking for another book on the shelf. It just kind of jumped out at me and the teaser from the dust jacket seemed to be a very interesting premise. This book has been billed as a coming of age novel, and I guess that could be true considering the life of our main character, Raff Cody.

Raff starts the novel as a young boy who wanders away at picnics to study the wonders of nature along the edge of a fictional Lake Nakobee in Alabama. He is instinctively drawn to bugs of all shapes and colors, especially ants. He is enthralled by the biodiversity around his own little part of the world. He wants to keep the wilds exactly that. There should be no human development in his view. He lives and breathes in solidarity with the nature wild of the lakeside.

We learn early that Raff’s mother was a member of the genteel Semmes family of Alabama who married beneath her station when she fell in love with Raff’s drifter and gambling father. Even with a job and house given to them at their wedding, Raff’s family still lives hand to mouth.  Seeing the natural curiosity and apparent intelligence of his nephew, one of Raff’s uncles promises to pay his way through college if he will take up law. Raff agrees and heads to Florida to study law and ecology.

When Raff graduates from a Florida college, he continues his education at Harvard, far away from his southern roots. While there, he learns about love and loss and what true friendship is all about. He returns home to land a job as a lawyer with the very corporation that is trying to eradicate the natural preserve around his beloved lake.

As an interlude between Raff’s childhood and his professional adult career, we learn about the colonies of ants that are located at the edge of the Alabama lake. It starts out with a brand-new queen mating and then finding a location for her new nest. Slowly the colony grows. Different classes of ants have different jobs to keep the community working smoothly. We learn how ants use scents and a means of communication, and what happens when ants of another scent invade another territory.

A mutation takes over the entire neighboring colony which sets it on the warpath to acquire as much territory as possible. It takes over most of the rest of the neighboring colonies. Unfortunately, the same mutation that allows it to take over all its enemies also dooms it to a short lifespan. This is quickened when their human counterparts recognize the runaway colony and eradicate it with chemicals. What’s left is a wasteland where nothing survives, except for a lonely, tucked away colony. And the cycle begins all over again.

Meanwhile, Raff’s personal mentor and undergraduate professor serves as a narrator throughout the novel. He seems to be the wise old man who keeps Raff on the path he’s supposed to take to save Lake Nakobee from development. While his interaction in the story is rather limited, it is his voice through which we hear most of Raff’s story.

Once Raff returns to Alabama and lands a job with the very company that is trying to develop Lake Nakobee, he takes it upon himself to discover a way to save his little corner of paradise while making sure the people he works for get what they want. It is a precarious balancing act that puts him in the crosshairs of a local right-wing evangelical group. It is their belief that God gave dominion over all land and creatures, and that no pissant nature lover will tell them no.

The book finishes with the battle between nature and progress.  Can Raff work out an amenable solution to save the integrity of the lake while appeasing the burgeoning growth of the Alabaman population? Will he survive the “take no prisoner” attitude of the evangelical group? Or will progress erase the  natural beauty of Lake Nakobee.

As I stated at the beginning of this review, this seemed like a very interesting story. And it was. It is an interesting look at the ecology of a wild lakefront.  The author, E.O. Wilson, is a biologist, naturalist and myrmecologist. It’s for these reasons that he is able to relay to us the delicate balance in the ant colonies, the dangers our wild areas face, and the fight to strike a balance between nature and progress.

It is likely for these same reasons that the novel seems somewhat clinical. His character development is minimal at best. Some of the scenarios and conversations seem a bit forced and unrealistic. However, his description of the scenery around the lake and it’s natural inhabitants are told with vibrant color and texture.  His essay in the middle of the novel describing the life of the ant colonies is simply superb. Wilson is definitely in his element as he educates us on the lives of those small creatures. By far, it is the highlight of the novel.

I’m sure that E.O. Wilson is held in high esteem in academic circles. He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to biology and ecology. He is the author of numerous nonfiction works with regard to his study of ants and biodiversity. Anthill is his first foray into fiction. If you can get past the sometimes dry, very matter-of-fact prose, this is a very good story. If you can only take the time to read the part from the ants point of view, please do. That, by far, is the most amazing part of the story. It gives the reader a whole new insight into those tiny creatures that invade every picnic everywhere.

Craig Bacon definitely has a healthy respect for ants. Despite his best efforts, they mock him repeatedly no matter how many times he tries to evict them from the back porch.