Sunday, May 15, 2011

Making a Mountain Out of an Anthill - E.O. Wilson's Anthill Discussion - Chapter One: "Frogman" led by Anne Post, Chief Librarian, NCTC

"What to make of Anthill? Part epic-inspired adventure story, part philosophy-of-life, part many-layered mid-century Alabama viewed in finely observed detail, part ant life up close, part lyrical hymn to the wonders of earth, part contribution to the growing genre of eco-lit..." (Margaret Atwood's review - "Homer of the Ants" in the NY Review of Books)

Why spend eight weeks discussing E.O. Wilson's Anthill (see schedule)? We knew the book would appeal to young adults. We knew the story would resonate with both the Aldo Leopold essay and the Curt Meine essay and further enrich the WILD READ discussions so nobly led by Curt Meine and Will Stolzenburg here these last two weeks. We knew Anthill had the potential to shed light on the visioning process to discover bold ideas and ask deep questions about the future of conservation and with a focus on our beloved wildlife refuges. However, Anthill was chosen first and foremost because it is a story and as Jimmy Fox with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fairbanks, Alaska, so eloquently commented via this discussion blog, "Humans are deeply influenced by stories...If we conservationists want a land ethic to flourish, we must tell stories that convey what we know and feel in our hearts - a noble, unselfish concern for others and this planet we call home. If we can't tell these stories, then we must find those who will tell them for us." The power of the story can really stir our imaginations even as we look hard science in the eye and envision our conservation future.

Anthill is about the life and times of Raff Cody growing up in the last of the longleaf pine-filled Alabama wildlands, his education, the mentors who inspire him, the ant colonies that connect him to a better understanding of the natural world and the magnifying glass view of human nature too. We are along for the ride through his many rites of passage and epic encounters - from his exquisite connection to the Noxubee Tract (see Noxubee NWR), his career choice and a climactic ending with the Frogman, the Cyclopean character who vigorously defends his property, a dark and iconic creature from the woods, of the woods. There is even Frogman’s Chickopee Serpent that asserts its epic head into the story (“gnashing his terrible teeth” – remember that childhood quote?) Raff is a young Ed Wilson in a way and clearly has caught the "bug" literally and figuratively. The nature "bug" meant Raff left no anthill unturned in his exploration of the natural world which lead to his scientific focus on ants and ultimately the interesting career choice made to effect the change and exert the most power to protect the places he loved.

This week we focus on Chapter One “Frogman.” We are introduced to 15-year old Raff and cousin Junior. They are rough and tumble young people who know the Alabaman "back forty" like the back of their hand and Wilson in his own autobiographical way sets the stage for the young men’s clear and deep connection to the land. The plot immediately thickens however as Frogman is introduced into the landscape and his presence carries that seminal moment in the wild outdoors that carves a deep niche in our life – that fear-ridden, but enchanting archetypal figure that emerges from the swamp of our greatest fears. Many of us experienced that vicariously through fairy tales when fear wore wolf clothes, or the trickster fox, or many ogre-like, extinct perhaps creatures of the wild. That archetypal figure is wildness gone wild, fear incarnate, primordial and always nagging and sometimes dangerous.

Our WILD READ questions for you:

What happens when we look our fear of the unknown, the wild in ourselves, directly in the eye?

Is there any relationship between that “Green Fire” referenced in “Thinking Like a Mountain” and the predatory nature of the “Frogman” character in Anthill? Does overcoming fear have a place in establishing our sense of connection and purpose or does it inspire supremacy?

How critical is the connection between a child and a natural place to ultimately incite action to protect that land and build a strong environmental ethic?

Note: I will respond through our comments but our WILD READ team members will continue to post here this week to tease out more questions. Check out our Schedule including the grand finale week July 3-9 when Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet and essayist, will join our discussions. These discussions all lead up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wildlife refuge visioning conference July 10-14 in Madison, WI.

*Photo image used by permission of Associated Press


Anne said...

Here is an attempt to take on your questions, Anne:
There is in Anthill’s narrative voice a certain willingness to be near people, open to the whole range of characters, human and non-human, as they exhibit their own fears. This braveness, which Atwood in her review reads as classically heroic, is certainly part of the appeal of Raff. I like to see him as a modern picaresque hero. Like the pícaro, he wades into many levels of society, quietly benefiting as he goes, and troubling the waters in each of them with his hunger and strength of spirit. And I would say that his true hunger (and pícaros are innately hungry) is for nature, for a magnitude of wildlife, something in it that is greater than any one creature, and something the wild individuals in it sense and live by. To be honest, I share that hunger.

Before Raff’s character is given much depth, his hunger is first symbolized in his search for the “Chicobee Serpent” —the mythical river monster he’s looking for when he meets Frogman. Then it is projected onto Frogman, a wild and dangerous lunatic who senses people coming, and lives in constant fear of losing his wilderness to humans. Frogman says “and any sons a bitches come around here and mess up my property I’ll kill ‘em.” Before Raff himself truly enters into the wilderness and discovers the communal consciousness of the anthill, he is fascinated with the Serpent and Frogman and he wants to understand them. Maybe Wilson wanted us to feel how the wonder of the child was a way of instinctually pushing through fear. I started liking Raff when he went too far from home and dared to ask Frogman questions though the lunatic was obviously dangerous. At the same time, I couldn’t really feel much draw in Raff’s character until later. It was once he knew the ants that he became hungry for a mighty, communal understanding, and became both picaresque and heroic.

What interests me in reading Raff as a hungry young person who goes feeding his mind and spirit as he maneuvers through society (ant and human), is that as a pícaro he reflects the fears of others so well, and as he readies himself for his ultimate “grab” in a human society that would rob him of what we all deserve —wilderness— I watch along with him as others angle for what they want. He does not expect to change individuals really, but to find a social position in which others share his hunger, and are willing to let him have what he needs: the wilderness of his childhood imagination. But the communal quality of the wilderness —its magnitude —also makes that personal, psychological desire ironic. I can hear in the narrator’s love for Raff the resonance of a much less egocentric struggle, the voice of a colony, a forest, or as Wilson says, “the biosphere.”

All this brings me to what I find the scariest: Those who seem to have no hunger for wilderness, who, have an image of the human that is figured from outside of the wild, a mythical human that could attack our freedom as the Chicobee serpent could pop out of water and gobble up the boy explorer. This is a fear that some “citified” people have of rural America, a fear of entrenched ideas that define human “nature”…and because of that fear they sometimes don’t want to go to rural lands. I don’t want to jump ahead in the reading here, so I’ll just sit with the idea of Raff as a boy left on his own to slake a hunger for wilderness.

Karen Leggett said...

In response to your second question, Anne, I think we should do all we can to encourage early connections between children and a natural place – but I don’t think this is critical to developing a strong environmental ethic.
Tylar Greene is a case in point. A college student from the Bronx who spent a summer working at Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire, Tylar wrote about her experiences in the Refuge System's Refuge Update newsletter

Tylar wrote: “Errol, NH, is a long way from the busy streets and high-rise housing that I was used to. My comfort zone was nowhere in sight…The internship opened a new world for me. I was able to get close to wildlife I had never seen before. I saw a cow moose protecting her calf, common loons building a nest, a black bear munching on blueberries, wood ducks scavenging for food, bald eagles, osprey and other birds soaring. And I had faced my fears head on."

Interestingly – especially in connection with Anthill - Tylar is now pursuing a career in environmental justice.

Jesse Furrow said...

Hi everyone,

That was a nice anecdote that Karen put forth; Its always good to hear some positive news regarding environmentalism. I am also still trying to digest Anne's last paragraph regarding "citified" people having a fear of rural spaces. I agree that this can happen and I find it a complicated subject. For example, I sometimes come across "city" people who appreciate the wilderness and hiking and camping but hold deep prejudices against rural culture and prefer to simply "pass through" this culture on the way to their pristine hiking trails. Does there need to be a distinction between what is wilderness and what is rural? Can wilderness be found in the city? Can it be found in rural places? What is the difference between wilderness and wildness?

I enjoyed the Frogman chapter and found Wilson's writing to be very accessible, I can't help but be reminded of the movie (or book) Stand By Me and the scene in which the four boys come face to face with Chopper - the junkyard dog with a nasty reputation - only to find out he was harmless. The man at the Junkyard, Mr. Pressman, however, screamed and threatened the boys. Are Milo Pressman and the Frogman similar? Is it possible that they are as afraid of something as the young boys are? If so, what are they afraid of? Certainly not just some kids, there must be something larger at stake here. I have not read beyond the first chapter so I am excited to see the story unfold.

Jesse Furrow
Oakland, CA

Heather said...

I think the first question really hits home what the first chapter is about. I found it very significant that this story is the first chapter. The narrator (Raff's mentor) doesn't introduce himself until the second chapter, and is not mentioned or discussed in the first chapter at all, despite being the narrator for the rest of the book. I think the exchange with the Frogman was very significant for Raff in not just that he faced the boogieman, but that he found a connection with the boogieman. I believe the connection is established as the Frogman describes what he's seen in relation to the Serpent legend, and Raff sees the passion Frogman has as similar to his own. Just as the question states, Raff stares at his fear of the unknown in the Frogman...and finds a reflection of himself.
And much like it did with Leopold witnessing the green fire dying in the wolf's eyes, this strange and unexpected connection plants a seed within Raff that slowly guides the rest of his life. Leopold saw a reflection of himself in the wolf's eyes as a fellow predator, but he was out of touch with the whole (thinking like a mountain). Raff had a wildness in him that those around didn't understand...a wildness that set him apart from his family and peers yet connected him to the boogieman. This clearly painted the Frogman in a different light to Raff, just as Leopold began to see predators in a different light. Ultimately, both came away with an altered view what they had so easily feared in ignorance.
To address the last point, I think it helps but it is not essential. Although some may tie their love of nature to a childhood favored location, I do not think that is the case with everyone. It wasn't with me at any rate.

Jesse Furrow said...

Heather's concise comments were very insightful and reminded me that I didn't respond to any of Anne Post's questions. I have never participated in a moderated blog discussion like this so please forgive me if I step out of line.

I'd like to comment on the question regarding overcoming our fears. I tend to think that when it comes to wilderness, we are always (eternally) on the path to overcoming our fears and that something goes wrong once we think we have overcome them. I am thinking specifically about the "Grizzly Man" who thought he could live amongst the Grizzlies and perished as a result. There was clearly a problem with his lack of fear. For me, it is this eternal quest to overcome our fears that can keep us coming (going) back into nature to experience the thrill and that this is a way of connecting. Unfortunately, some people do not respond to fear this way. I think the alternative is an attempt to reign supreme over nature - instead of embracing the fear as healthy, one responds by asserting dominance over the cause of their fear. This is, to me, what inspires supremacy. So, in most cases, I don't think we ever truly overcome the fear. I think we either embrace it and acknowledge it or we try to dominate it. It is the latter I believe that leads to a lose-lose situation for nature (including humans).

The question I can't answer is the question of what causes one person to embrace a healthy fear of wild(er)ness and as a result connect with it versus what causes another person to try and dominate what makes them afraid. Maybe the rest of the book will help me with that.

Anonymous said...

How critical is the connection between a child and a natural place to ultimately incite action to protect that land and build a strong environmental ethic?

In my opinion, I believe the connecton is critical for a larger impact - but I don't think a worthwhile connection can only be made in youth. At any age the connection can be forged and nurture action to help protect natural places and develop a healthy land ethic.

When it happens in youth, though, the amount of impact that can result throughout a person's lifetime might amount to more. For instance, E.O. Wilson made the connection very early in life (I remember reading about his early experience seeing a jellyfish). His career flourished and has been very influential on many conservation movements. A person who finds the connection later in life may be less likely to have a similar impact as Wilson, but they can still be incited to action. For instance, s/he could vote on measures that protect land. It seems the sum of all these parts can synergize into a collective healthy land ethic.

WILD READ Team said...

How about getting a sense of who we have reading this blog and participating in reading Anthill. How many of you are from urban areas and who is from what you consider to be 'the country'? Did your childhood include adventures like Raff's?
Post your short answer here.

Kate said...

I grew up in an urban area, but it certainly wasn't a large metropolis (a town of about 75,000 people). But, in spite of my urban environs, I was fortunate enough to have a father who would take me out to local green spaces (the town arboretum). As I grew older, he took me on camping and fishing trips. My childhood adventures were somewhat like Raff's - we didn't have a Nokobee tract, but we did have a vacant lot - 2 acres - across the road. I have memories of sneaking across the road to explore and build a "fort" (which was more of a lean-to made up of sticks propped against trees or fallen logs, but to us it was an entire universe of adventure!). My experiences were on a much smaller scale than Raff's, but served the same purpose. Ultimately, I chose a career in conservation - and have never once looked back with anything but gratitude. It will be interesting to see what others share!

Heather said...

I grew up in PA, in way like Raff. We were in the suburbs, but I spent as much time as I could in a patch of woods near our house (usually bringing home some creature or another). It hasn't worked out for me yet to live in the country as I've always dreamed, so I'm working on making my suburban property in VA into an urban farm along with getting my NWF wildlife certification for it.

Margaret said...

I grew up in suburban New York but there was a farm on the other side of a dark wooded areas, across a stream. It was old and falling apart and an old man lived there - scary, grouchy fellow- who would chase us off his property with a pitchfork. He wasn't quite as extreme as Frogman but oh wow, the dark woods we had to go through to and from that farm became one of the scariest passages I can remember. But my family loved to camp and hike through the years so I connected, felt a part of nature, but to this day the decrepit farm scene haunts me. Give me a wild place and I am fine. Deserted and falling apart buildings and a Frogman-like character? Yikes!

Anne said...

I sure am happy to read everyone’s comments, which get quickly to such important points. I was especially moved by Jesse’s description of the return to nature as a healthy return to fear, a repetition that I think was a felicitous part of my rural childhood.
Maybe that was in the back of my mind this evening when there just leapt into me a thankfulness to the place my siblings and I call the farm. It is a largely wooded, rural property in the Missouri River bluffs, and we grew up there with the nearest neighbor’s house a fifteen minute’s walk away — in isolation by most standards. This evening’s unexpected sense of thankfulness was not the familiar one taking me back to canopies of trees, and choruses of frogs —not the thanks for the wild backdrop of our childhood. Rather, just now I thought of the dangers there, where I ran barefoot and wandered for hours alone out of reach of anyone’s voice. And it occurred to me that rattlesnake, bobcat, coyote, black widow, sinkhole and a dozen other things could have killed me, but never so much as harmed me. I did not feel protected —I was very conscious of these dangers — I just felt curious and free to be among them. I proudly counted and pulled 36 small leaches from my legs one afternoon after a wade in the pond, a pond where snapping turtles the size of hubcaps were commonplace. Somehow, I was never harmed on or “by” the farm; and tonight I felt strangely grateful not to have paid as I might have for that risk.

My children live with me in a town caught in the tangle of suburbia. I drive them to the woods and pry them away from computer screens. I doubt that they will ever have a sudden surge of thankfulness as I just had: Thankfulness for being given the chance to explore in solitude with risk right against the skin. Nonetheless, I don’t believe there is some privileged background for being nature lovers. It’s great how differently we each access wilderness and the sense of wonder! Maybe keeping this diversity in our senses of nature is part of the task of conserving our human place in it.

Anonymous said...

The Antelope Valley in California's Mojave Desert is where I grew up. The city where I lived is specifically a suburb (of Los Angeles). This high-elevation (apprx. 2000') desert is populated by Joshua trees, creosote, various cacti, wildflowers (like the California Poppy), coyotes, rabbits, ravens, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, etc. I considered this "the country". Our houses throughout my childhood and adolescence were always on the edge of town. From very early on I would ride my bicycle alone or with my younger brother and explore the surrounding landscape.

In the first chapter of Anthill, I definitely see a parallel between my childhood and Raff's. While reading it, I was reminded of the many bicycle rides I would take alone or with my brother deep into the desert. We were not often afraid of wildlife (except snakes), but more of the private residences that seemed to house strange people. We also feared people on motorcycles. Sometimes, we would venture onto new housing tract developments and use the freshly cleared land to ride around. Over time I grew to resent these developments because they would encroach upon some of my favorite natural places to explore.

Jesse Furrow said...

I grew up In Tucson, Arizona, right in town, but with a good dose of Scouting and family excursions to the nearby mountains and reservoirs. I spent many hours exploring lake shores and streams with my fishing pole both alone and with siblings. Like Anne, though, I don't recall being afraid of nature. I think my "boogiemen" were in town. I remember worrying about the big cats escaping from the zoo. I remember a homeless man that wandered my neighborhood on a bicycle - we called him "the cussin' bum". How terrible, he probably swore a lot because kids teased him. We were terribly afraid of that man and were convinced that he wanted to hurt us. Later, Mexico was a sort of boogieman with tales of corruption and lawlessness on the other side of the fence that severed the desert. I think the big cats, the homeless man, and my ideas of Mexico all represented an unpredictable wildness to me, like nature.

Nadine from Seneca East High School Se2 said...

My answer to the first question:
We try to be brave but tend to get scared, and don’t show it. We try our best by taking small steps to conquer our fears. In the book Anthill Junior and Raff have a fear of the “Frogman”, but test them by going to when Frogman lives. They then come face to face with him and witness their fear.
My answer to the third question:
The connection between a child and natural place to ultimately incite action to protect that land and build a strong environmental ethic is critical. I think this because the child connects with environment as the child grows up. The child tends s to spend more time with the environment as a young child.As the child grows up won't spend as much time as he did when he was young. A child enjoy discovering many different things in Earth environment.

Anonymous said...

Nadine, thanks for your insightful comment. I think your observation about the boy's fear as not only from their encounter with Frogman but deep within themselves so when they see him they are perhaps looking from within as though Frogman was the incarnation of fear itself. Why do you think E.O. Wilson the author would have highlighted this frightening character and the boy's trepidation right at the beginning? It sounds as though you believe early connections to nature are important. Looking forward to hearing from you again and your classmates as we read and discuss the story.

Heather said...

After reading the other posts, I wanted to expand on my answer regarding the question involving the connection between child and a natural place...if that is allowed.
I took the question to be about a specific natural place, as Raff had Nokobee. I answered I didn't think it mattered so much as I didn't have that but still am inclined to action to protect the land and feel I have a strong environmental ethic. In a way, it is, in my mind, the nature vs. nurture argument...which my answer has always been "yes." I think a love of nature is inherent in some of us, and some of us are lucky enough to have a place to exercise that. I had my little wooded lot in the suburbs, but my love of nature was really a broad one as opposed to specifically incited by that small lot. That lot is still wooded and untouched today, but I was also affected by two other lots that I never stepped foot on, both bulldozed, one to become a grassy field and the other to become a golf course. Because of an inherent love of nature, the wastefulness of both gnawed at me even when I was young, especially when I noticed the increased diversity and number of roadkill on the highway after the golf course went in. But all of this was innate to my personality. I have three siblings, two of which were often out there in the woods with me, but none are as conservation-minded as I am. They just have different focuses in life, though we all speak with the same amount of nostalgia for our childhood days in the woods. I think, too, if you look at Thinking Like a Mountain, Leopold was not alone when he shot the wolf...but did it affect the others the way it did him? And Junior had Nokobee available to him as well, yet he did not take to it the way Raff did. I'm not saying having connection to a natural place isn't important, I just think there is more to it than that. The connection with a natural place along with an inherent love of the natural world. But I think you can have the connection, but not be incited to action without the inherent love.

SE10 from Seneca East said...

The green fires the life of the mountain and frogman strives to serve nature in the swamp. Over coming fear often inspires supremacy over living things.

It is vital that children learn the value of nature to help preserve that feeling when they are adults.

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