But when someone says “Alabama” to you, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Come on, give me your first impression. Even your second one will do.
Maybe you remember hearing about Alabama from the recent news accounts of tornadoes. If you follow football, you may recognize the name of the college team. Many people’s first lessons about Alabama, I expect, involved stories about racial conflict or stories about Alabama’s importance to the civil rights movement. These are important stories to tell, but if it’s not a disaster or a conflict or a national championship football team, you don’t seem to hear much from this part of the world.
If I asked most people to name a plant most associated with Alabama, I suspect their first inclination would be to name an agricultural crop like cotton, since farming cotton was once so important to the history and the legends of Alabama and the Deep South. Some might think of kudzu, that legendary vine introduced from Asia that supposedly grows a mile a minute.
But racial conflict, cotton, kudzu — these are all things we humans have recently introduced to Alabama. They are some of the more conspicuous things we've done TO Alabama.
Anthill, in its description of Nokobee, begins to reveal a part of Alabama we’re not used to thinking about, the Alabama that existed before humans started scribbling their stories across it.
If you peel away our initial impressions of Alabama, we can discover some surprising facts:
— Alabama, according to a seminal report by NatureServe, is rated as having the greatest biological diversity — the greatest diversity of native plant and animal species — of any Eastern state. That means Alabama has more species of plants and animals than places like Florida, which has a long leg dipping down into the tropics, and North Carolina and Virginia, which are famous for their central Appalachian forests. Only two or three states nationally have significantly more diversity than Alabama. One of those is California, which is more than three times larger than Alabama. The other is Texas, which is about 6 times larger. (No, neither Hawaii nor Alaska come close to Alabama in total biological diversity.)
— If you’ve always suspected there must be something in the water that causes Alabama to be like Alabama, you know, you’re right. A significant portion of Alabama’s exceptional biological diversity is the result of the richness of its stream systems and wetlands. Alabama has more species of fish than any other state, and a single small river in Alabama can have more than twice the number of fish species as the entire state of California.
— Scientists have recently calculated that the greatest concentration of turtle species in the world is centered on southwest Alabama, the area celebrated in this novel. (A river drainage basin below the Himalayas in northern India has a comparable number of species, but spread out over a much larger area.)
— The diversity of oaks, hickories, magnolias and other broadleaf trees is much higher in Alabama and immediately surrounding states than it is in the central Appalachians. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, often considered one of the country’s most diverse national parks, has 12 species of oaks on some 500,000 acres. A 100-acre patch of the Red Hills of southern Alabama may have 15 to 20 species! And yet, Alabama’s most diverse forest is the longleaf pine forest, a forest dominated by only one species of tree, but with a forest floor that can support one of the richest assortments of wildflowers anywhere in the temperate world. Some people have counted 60 or more plant species in a single square meter (about one square yard) of Alabama longleaf forest.
— Amazingly, Alabama’s diversity is hanging on even though it has one of the lowest percentages of conservation land of any large eastern state, and only a tiny fraction of the publicly held lands that exist in places like the central Appalachians, California or Montana.
Does any of this surprise you? Why would Alabama be so much more biologically diverse than many other states? Why do you think people aren’t aware of this part of Alabama? As you read the rest of the book, consider how preconceptions about Alabama will present challenges to Raff as he goes away to school, and then returns to protect the place he loves.