Showing posts with label Anthill. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anthill. Show all posts

Friday, July 8, 2011

Point of View by Margaret Atwood

The “ant” section of Anthill has been written as if ants have not only emotions but some sort of narrative memory. Do they have such things in any way that would be understandable to us if we could for a moment share them?

There have been other attempts to write from the POV of ants… I’m thinking of the Ant section in T.H. White’s The Sword In The Stone, in which the ants are used as an anti-fascist allegory…  Is it possible to write from the POV of another species, really? Is that question by its nature uanswerable?

(I have a stake in this matter, as my first novel (age 7) was about an ant.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Religion and Nature by Margaret Atwood

In Anthill, the protagonist is almost murdered by a fanatical Christian religious group that also has an interest in turning the natural area he champions into an intensive housing development.

1.    Financial self-interest aside, is the role of religion vis a vis respect for the natural world always this negative?  (I’m thinking for instance of the Green Bible, and the many groups who view the natural world as a sacred trust or something in relation to which mankind is a “steward.”)

2.     To what can we attribute the extreme anti-nature stance taken by some religious groups?

3.     Are there not other religions for whom all life is sacred?

4.     Are we as a species hard-wired to always pick the low-hanging fruit, and thereby anti-conservationist by our very nature?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Of Ants and Men: Too Big for Our Britches? Too Ant-Like for Comfort? by Margaret Atwood

In Anthill, there is a runaway Supercolony of ants – made possible by a genetic variant that allows many queenlets, each with its own subcolony, to exist in close proximity, rather than one colony with one queen, all other claimants having been killed. This Supercolony is killing and eating every living thing within its reach. Nothing can stand against it.
Then some “gods” arrive – in reality, human beings with insecticide sprayers, tired of too many ants at their picnics – and put an end to the Supercolony.


If this deus plus machina had not arrived, would the Supercolony have perished, having expanded beyond the capacity of its environment to keep it supplied with food? Or would it just have kept expanding outward in a ring, like a mushroom, leaving a dead center? 


Wilson draws explicit parallels between ant colonies and human civilizations.  Each arises, builds itself up, fights off competitors, flourishes, goes into decline, and eventually perishes, overwhelmed by stronger invaders.  Is this parallel fully merited?

Is there an implication that human society on earth has now become a Supercolony,  devouring everything in its path and with no check to its growth?  If so, is it in danger of eating itself out of existence?  


What about the “gods” – the equivalent of the human beings with insecticide sprayers?  Are we in danger of becoming our own annihilating “gods,” and if so, what form might this act of self-extermination take?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What would you ask Dr. Wilson about Anthill? (by the WILD READ Team)

Inquiring minds want to know, Dr. Wilson!

Going back to a question raised by a previous moderator, Mark Madison, Conservation Historian with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, regarding truth versus fiction:  I'd like to know what inspired E.O. Wilson to write his first piece of fiction after publishing over 20 non-fiction works.  Dr. Wilson, what is it that motivated you to communicate your passion for the environment in a novel?  Do you think conservation concepts can be "mainstreamed" via fictional works that perhaps appeal to a different audience, professor?  Is it a good strategy to entertain AND educate?

What questions would you like to ask Dr. Wilson?  Or, how do you feel about this idea of possibly reaching a different audience via conservation themed fiction?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

E.O. Wilson on Anthill and Ants by the WILD READ Team



In this speech at the 2010 National Book Festival, EO Wilson reveals why he wrote his first non-fiction book Anthill, the issues he included, and his privileged visit with a southern author (can you guess who?)

EO Wilson tells us why he ended the book with a compromise.  



In this video  Ed Wilson reflects on his boyhood (his "little savage period") and you can observe him in the field with his beloved ants. Wilson demonstrates how fire ants bite to defend their nest and he reflects on why he chose ants to study as his life work.

In this recent video, join Ed Wilson on a ramble through the Alabama woods of this boyhood.

See Ed Wilson with a group of biologists, "Ant Freaks," poking around to identify the rich diversity of the Red Hills of Alabama.

What comments do you have about Ed Wilson or what you learn in these videos?

Friday, June 24, 2011

How Much Is Enough? by Laura Bies

The final deal struck on the Nokobee tract would protect 90% of it. Two alligators would be moved across the lake, from one shore to another. Raff is happy with the deal, Bill Robbins writes a complementary newspaper article on it, and an award from The Nature Conservancy is rumored. The ending of the book brings up a common question for conservationists: how much is enough? How much is enough land to protect from development? How large must a population of a certain species be for it to thrive? How clean should our water and air be? In some instances, there may not be a ‘right’ answer. Wildlife biologists can tell us how large a population of a species we need for it to survive and thrive. But how much land should we protect from development?

In the case of the Nokobee tract, there were obviously many different ways it could have turned out. The entire tract could have been developed, assuming the developers could get around any restrictions regarding rare species on the land. Or it could have been purchased by an NGO or other entity that would put the entirety of the tract in a conservation easement or used another mechanism to make sure it was never developed. Wilson chose to show that in some cases, reasonable development can coexist with conservation. Would it have been a more fulfilling ending if a conservation group swooped in with enough money to purchase the tract and protect the whole thing?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Larger Conservation Community by Laura Bies

In this section of the book, Wilson touches on a few different communities and their contributions to or position regarding conservation. Raff is clearly meant to be part of what is probably viewed as the mainstream, liberal environmental community. In the context of explaining Raff’s trips to the shooting range, he talks about the role of hunters and anglers in conservation. While not a hunter himself, Raff recognizes the value of sportsmen in conservation. Raff and his colleagues at Sunderland talk about the politically conservative culture in their area and the extent to which those citizens support conservation. Raff also has a run in with a religious community, in the form of LeBow and his cronies.

Of these three groups, Wilson seems to view hunters and anglers as most supportive of conservation. I think this is true – the sportsmen’s community is very supportive of conservation. In the future, one of the strongest and most effective alliances for conservation may well be between the ‘green’ community and sportsmen. Raff also tried to explain to his colleagues that the politically conservative citizens of their area care about conservation. Do you think conservatives or liberals are more likely to support conservation? I thought Wilson’s portrayal of the religious community, through LeBow’s group, surprising. Obviously, this group represents a fringe group, not mainstream religion. It also adds an interesting twist to the plot. I’ve certainly never had a similar experience as environmental attorney! What was your reaction to this portrayal? Do you think it added to the story overall?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Following the Middle Road by Laura Bies

Hi, all. My name is Laura Bies. I’m an environmental attorney by training and the Director of Government Affairs and Partnerships with The Wildlife Society, a professional society of wildlife scientists and managers. I have an undergraduate degree in environmental science and graduated from George Washington University Law School, where I concentrated on environmental law. In my current position with The Wildlife Society, I work with our members and leadership to develop the Society’s positions on conservation issues and communicate these to government agencies, legislators, and others.


Going to law school in DC, I had the opportunity to ‘try out’ several environment law jobs through internships at the Department of Energy, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Department of Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency. After graduation, I took an internship with The Wildlife Society, soon moving on to a permanent position there.


Maybe because of this background, I was surprised when Raff went to work for Sunderland Associates. What about you, did you find this surprising? I think Raff has a good point, that many environmental conflicts can be solved through conflict resolution and following the middle road. However, I think I would have found it very frustrating to be Raff during that first year, putting all my time and effort into supporting an organization he didn’t necessarily believe in or support, hoping that he would be able to use his position sometime in the future to save the Nokobee tract. Do you think you would have been able to stay motivated to go to work every day, not knowing if or when you’d get to accomplish your true goal? Or would you felt like you’d ‘sold out’ by working for ‘the enemy’?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Truth or Fiction? By Mark Madison

It is interesting that after 21 non-fiction books, Professor Wilson decided to communicate his passion for the environment in a novel. It raises the interesting question: Does non-fiction or fiction provide the most powerful environmental literature? And the related question: What is the best book you have ever read on the environment?

Personally, if I had to pick, my favorite environmental book of all time is Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. I don't know if it is homesickness for my state of Wisconsin or Leopold's thoughtful prose, but this is a book I re-read every year. If I had to pick a powerful environmental work of fiction, I just recently read Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood--an all too real extrapolation of present environmental trends. Atwood will be moderating this blog beginning July 3 and I look forward to her thoughts on the role of fiction in environmental thought.

That is all for me, it has been a pleasure co-moderating with Kris Hoellen and all of you who have taken the time to comment!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ants, Novelists, and Lawyers by Mark Madison


A very warm welcome from your co-moderator this week—reluctantly following Kris Hoellen’s great discussion of this section. My name is Mark Madison and I am the historian for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is a real honor to be moderating this book blog. I have great respect for those of you who have taken the time to make insightful comments and my own career has been significantly influenced by Wilson’s work.
The first book I read as an undergraduate in 1986 was E.O. Wilsons On Human Naturea look at the genetic and evolutionary origins of human behavior. Two weeks after completing that book (the first book I read all the way through in college), I changed my major from Political Science to Biology. That is the type of impact someone like E.O. Wilson can have on impressionable minds. Later while a graduate student at Harvard University, I encountered countless students like myself who had come to the University or been attracted to the field by Wilsons exciting ideas. As for the natural environment, speaking now as a professional conservationist, I can say without hesitation Wilson is perhaps the most respected member of our field having done more to explain and protect the nature he loves than any other living scientist. So it is very exciting for me to discuss Wilsons first attempt to explain the natural world through a novel.
Which raises the first question: what fiction writers do you think influenced Wilsons novelistic style? Personally I sense a lot of Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and John Grisham in Wilson's Anthill.
The second question comes from the name of this section--The Armentarium. This was definitely a new term to me (and my computer spell check). It is extremely obscure but seems to refer to medical training/tool kit. Presumably Raff is adding a legal degree to his personal tool kit. This begs another question: is a law degree an essential tool for environmental protection? Or to spin it out more broadly: are environmental laws the best means to protect nature?
I look forward to reading your thoughts on one or both of these quite disparate questions. . .

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Better than Before? By Kris Hoellen

Uncle Cyrus tells Raff, “Just because it gets developed, doesn’t mean it has to be any less beautiful.” I was struck by this statement. While I think the built environment can be absolutely beautiful and designed to fit into the natural environment as well as serve all sorts of critical functions, such as providing access, shelter, mobility, etc., I wonder, what are your reactions to this statement? In my work with infrastructure developers, I frequently hear the sentiment of ‘we’ll leave it better than before’ – a truly admirable goal and possibly achieved if one considers the amount of conservation capital that can be obtained from infrastructure projects to perform needed preservation/restoration work, but again, is this possible – what examples can you think of where the natural environment has been left ‘better than before’ as a result of a development project?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Balancing Nature and Commerce? By Kris Hoellen


Hi all, my name is Kris Hoellen and I work for The Conservation Fund. As a bit of background, The Conservation Fund is a national non-profit, established in 1985 and chartered under a dual mission of both conserving land and water resources, and promoting sustainable economic development. While the Fund has been exceedingly successful in conserving land, over 7 million acres since inception, given its dual charter, we also actively promote the concept of balancing nature and commerce in the areas where we work. But, what is a balanced approach? I have had the privilege of working for regulators, the regulated (specifically, infrastructure proponents) and conservationists, and frequently am asked that question. I would be curious as to your thoughts on this subject – is there such a thing as a balanced approach, what does it look like - what would Raff say is a balanced approach?

Additionally, given my own background, I am a proponent of working within the system, if you will, to achieve positive outcomes, but recognize the role that environmental activists play to effectuate positive change. Raff struggles a bit with his philosophy of compromise versus that of his girlfriend’s full attack mode or ‘aggressive polemics’ as he noted when it comes to the environment. Where do you fall on the spectrum and what are the pros and cons of both approaches?

Looking forward to the discussion!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Storytelling as Teaching by Drew Bell

One of the goals that Wilson had in mind with writing the Anthill Chronicles section was to introduce readers to the realm of ant biology without overwhelming them with scientific or technical writing. In a way, it is stealth teaching. How many of you learned things about ants that you never knew or that you found to be surprising? How many of you enjoyed learning these things by reading a story? Do these new pieces of knowledge stick with you better than if you had learned them in a more traditional fashion?

Do you think that the book would have been better or worse if this section had been left out and ant biology had been included in the book in the form of footnotes or an appendix?

Finally, since this is my final day as moderator, I wanted to be certain that I put forward the offer to answer any questions you may have about ants or ant biology.

I have enjoyed my time with you and look forward to reading your comments. Thanks for allowing me to share!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Natural Cycles, Ants and Humans by Drew Bell

In the comments to my last post, several of you have picked up themes about natural cycles in The Anthill Chronicles. Wilson has traced the "history" of several ant colonies and their interactions with each other and the environment. Many of you have also pointed out parallels between ant behaviors and human behaviors.

What points do you think Wilson is trying to make about natural cycles? In particular, what do you think Wilson might be trying to teach us about the human place in and impact on nature? Even though this section of the book is written from the ant perspective, is it about ants alone? How does Wilson weave these lessons together with the other sections of the book?

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Ant Point of View by Drew Bell

The Anthill Chronicles section of the book is unusual in that it is written from the point of view of the ants. Wilson has done this to accomplish several tasks, and I would like to take the next several posts examining those different reasons.
When we study animal behavior, one of the things we must do is try to put ourselves in the mind of the creature we are studying. If the animal we are studying is one of the higher vertebrates, for example a wolf, this may be easier because it shares more in common with our own mentality and means of perceiving the environment. However, if the animal we are studying is very different from us, for example an ant, its psychology and sensory perceptions will be alien to us. This can be a challenge for the researcher, as we may have difficulty understanding the motivations that drive the animal.
How did you feel about seeing things from the ant perspective? Did you find the point of view alien? Has your understanding of the motivations of the ant changed? What similarities and differences are there compared to humans?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Anthill Section IV - Moderator Introduction by Drew Bell


Hi! My name is Drew Bell and I will be moderating the discussion of chapters 19 through 27 (Section IV – The Anthill Chronicles) of Anthill.
Like the author of the book, E. O. Wilson, I am an entomologist specializing in the study of ants. In particular, I look at their foraging and territorial behavior. I can identify with the character of Raff Cody (and the author, E. O. Wilson) in that I also grew up exploring nature around my home and, in particular, watching and catching insects. I was especially fond of ants - I think in part because their world was so accessible to me. Unlike many animals, I was able to see all the different stages of ants, and I could see for myself all the things they do that I had read about. For me, they brought the nature I had read about to life.
By way of introduction (at least to me), what nature experiences have you shared in common with Raff Cody?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Importance of Outdoor Mentors by Danielle Brigida

One of the themes in Anthill that resonated with me is the importance of an outdoor mentor.


In the section of The Launch, we see that Raff gets financial support from his Uncle Cyrus to attend college. He chooses Florida State University, where his longtime family friend and mentor, Dr. Norville, teaches.


While at FSU, Raff also meets Dr. Needham, who serves as yet another mentor in Raff’s life and even points him in the direction of studying the anthill at Nokobee.


Who was your outdoor mentor? If you’re like me, you’ve been fortunate to have many. My father was one of mine, along with my college entomology professor, Dr. Michael Meyer (pictured with me on the right) . His enthusiasm for the subject was contagious and his passion and wonder was something I'll never forget.


I think an outdoor mentor is an essential piece to loving the outdoors. Aside from being a helpful person to run ideas by, they can inspire us to learn more and share their love and knowledge for the topic.


Who was an important mentor in your life?
I’d love to hear about a few of them.

Fostering Outdoor Mentors
Outdoor Mentors is a program that does just that, inspiring people to pass on and share their love for nature. There are also organizations like Children and Nature Network and my own, National Wildlife Federation, that are working to empower parents, teachers and other leaders to help get kids to connect to nature and have a passion for the outdoors.

What Needham gave Raff, was not only a professional opinion but also the space to safely grow in his knowledge of entomology. Needham was so passionate about the subject that he even opened up his office to let the students partake in a group called the Bug Bash, where they drank tea, talked about timely topics and always brought the discussion back around to the world of entomology.


Needham was a great listener. When he suggested Raff study the anthill, he didn’t do so forcefully, but merely pointed out that it was an option. I think this is a great example of how a mentor gives you enough space to explore and learn on your own, while listening when you have questions and offering open-ended advice. Raff is a lucky character to have two!


"If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in." - Rachel Carson

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Exploring New Habitats by Danielle Brigida


“The tribal bonds of naturalists, you should know, are woven out of war stories from past field trips” - E.O. Wilson in Anthill

Raff's desire to work outside and use the knowledge he gains from his exploration at Nokobee and through his Eagle Scout experience sounds familiar to me. While I was never an Eagle Scout, I did spend countless hours at the nearby creek which led me to realize my passion was to work for the environment.

This leads me to the question, do you see yourself in Raff?

The Launch portion of the book introduces us to how Raff was propelled into a new landscape after receiving acceptance to Florida State University. While his knowledge of Nokobee continues to feed his education, these chapters do give you a look at how Raff's sense of wonder for the natural world continues.

I think it points to a very important piece of being a naturalist: having an endless curiosity of where ever you are and the places you’re visiting. Few of us take the time to learn of the many species or even the threatened or endangered habitats and wildlife that are closest to us.

I especially like how E.O. Wilson does not miss an opportunity to reference native species or unique habitats. Every time one of the characters mentions a species or habitat, I jot it down and revisit it later.

Since Raff begins to experience his new landscape, we hear about a few animals, native plants and unique habitats that Raff can now study. Here are just a few that were mentioned in passing that I thought I'd highlight:

  • Torreya taxifolia (pictured above) is also known as Florida Torreya. Raff wanted to explore and find this rare pine that suffers from fungus attacks from up to 11 species and is critically endangered.
  • Adjacent to the FSU campus is the Apalachicola National Forest, the largest forest in the state of Florida.
  • Florida's Pitcher Plants - Florida has six species of pitcher plants (very unique and colorful) and the bogs where they grow proved to be on Raff's checklist.
  • Mesic Pine Flatwoods (PDF) - This habitat is said to be home to the Florida panther and the Key deer.

Did anyone notice brief mentions of places they've been to or would like to learn more about? I'd love to hear them.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Is Nokobee really worth saving? by Bill Finch

Nokobee, it seems, is meant to be a portrait of the natural world of south Alabama and adjacent areas of northwest Florida. That’s not a part of the country people visit often, and except for some moderate-sized cities, much of it is rather thinly populated.

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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nokobee: The Character and Characters of a Landscape (Chapters 2-14) by Bill Finch

We are introduced to many new characters in Section II of Anthill. But two of the most important aren’t formally introduced until the last half of this section. The first of those “characters” is the landscape of Nokobee, along with the plants and animals it supports. That swirl of wild creatures, that neighborhood of trees and meadows and lakes, seems at times to be an odd mirror of the communities of people Raff grew up with.

The second important character we’re introduced to here is “ a kind of ant” whose anthill colonies are “special to the history” being related in this novel.

Raff, at a young age, begins learning from his encounters with these characters. His attempt to shake hands with a cottonmouth leaves a deep impression on him, and the description of that meeting with the cottonmouth recalls his search for the Chicobee Serpent and his run-in with the Frogman. As Raff explores this world of Nokobee and its many characters, in particular the creatures of the anthill, it seems they’re already influencing how he sees the world of people he grew up with.

But at this point in the book, it might be just as interesting to ask whether Raff’s circle of human acquaintances, his experiences with people, may have influenced how he sees the wild world of Nokobee. How much of what he sees in ants is colored by the people and social circumstances he grew up with? How much of what you see of nature is affected by your dealings with people?

Is it useful to see the people and the wild species of Nokobee as similar, so that the actions of one can illuminate the actions of the other? Are there limits and cautions if we try to make these comparisons?