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The Homer of the Ants

atwood_2-040810.jpg
Bert Hölldobler
Two sister carpenter ants, adopted by different queens, confronting each other with threat displays; from The Superorganism

Let’s consider the importance of names, because, like the Greek authors before him, Wilson certainly does. Raff’s mother is a Semmes, descended—we are told—from the real Raphael Semmes who was a famous admiral during the American Civil War. Like many aristocrats, Raff’s mother is as addicted to genealogy as Homer was: in upper-level Alabama as in the Iliad, who is related to whom is very important. But she has tumbled out of her illustrious family by marrying a man beneath her. Raff’s father, Ainsley Cody, is a rifle-cult, beer-drinking semi-redneck who lives by his own code of honor, which includes respecting others if they deserve it, defending yourself, and never backing down if you are right. Both the Semmes side of the family and the Cody side contribute to Raff’s inheritance. (Needless to say, there is marital tension. Don’t marry goddesses, the mortal Greeks were warned: such matches don’t turn out well.)

But “Raphael” is not only the name of an admiral, it’s also the name of an angel—an archangel, no less, and one associated with healing and the driving away of devils. As for “Cody,” it would be impossible for an American of Wilson’s generation to be ignorant of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, sharpshooter, fighter, and plainsman. Healer, charismatic wilderness-wise fighter, brave warrior who never quits: Wilson has given his hero some big shoes to fill.

After Wilson’s prologue has been duly delivered in fine Shakespearean form, the action begins with a quest. Teenaged Raff and his cousin Junior set out to look for the “Chicobee serpent,” a mythical Loch Ness creature said to haunt the Chicobee River. On the way they visit a local eccentric—and possibly lunatic and killer—called “Frogman,” who lives by himself in a riverside cabin, sells frogs’ legs to keep himself in sundries, and is the self-appointed guardian not only of the land but of an enormous alligator called Old Ben. (This Cyclopean Frogman creature—part man, part custodian of nature, part dangerous monster—has a key part later.)

The narrative then doubles back to fill us in on Raff’s parentage, birth, childhood, and growth, using several well-chosen episodes. The elders in his story bestow gifts upon him: Dr. Norville gives him encouragement for his interest in natural history, and his father donates self-reliance and a code of honor, and eventually some rifle practice. But his biggest teacher is the Nokobee Tract, a stretch of pristine longleaf pine that is almost all that’s left of this once widespread Alabama ecosystem.

Raff learns it inside out: he leaves, literally, no stones unturned, and is richly rewarded with the red-tailed skinks, pillbugs, centipedes, and—yes! —ants that he finds in and around them. Through these explorations and his boyish air-rifle hunting, Raff comes to realize the fragility of his beloved tract and his own power to destroy its creatures, but also its ultimate strength:

He constructed a broader context in which he drew a picture of humanity, and of himself…. In time he understood that Nature was not something outside the human world. The reverse is true. Nature is the real world, and humanity exists on islands within it.

Raff is now—as Norville calls him—a “citizen of Nokobee.” This implies that—like every ancient Greek hoplite-citizen—he is pledged to defend his territory.

Thus equipped with essential wisdom, Raff is ready for the third section of the book, which is called “The Launch.” Through the wealthy and established Semmes side of the family, he is given yet another gift: he’s offered a higher education, provided he promises to go into law. He does so promise. Unlike wily Odysseus, he’s a Boy Scout and also a Cody, so we know he’s honor-bound to keep his promise, though he’s not all that keen on being a lawyer. But off he goes to Florida State University in Tallahassee, where his childhood “Uncle” Norville is well placed to continue as mentor. Thus Raff can happily continue his study of biology even while en route to a law career.

A number of beetle identifications later, Raff completes a thesis for Norville that has as its subject an anthill colony located at Dead Owl Cove, near his hometown. This leads us to the fourth section of the book, which is a retelling of Raff’s anthill thesis by Dr. Norville, leaving out the “measurements and tables” and rendered as closely as possible to “the way ants see such events themselves.”

This section is called “The Anthill Chronicles.” It’s a sort of Iliad of the ants, being concerned with tragic ant martial conflicts. Why did Wilson choose the word “chronicles” instead of “histories” or even “wars”? Perhaps because the word lends a certain gravitas, or a feeling of mythic antiquity; one thinks of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, used by Shakespeare for many of his plots. There is also Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, a space-world set of stories involving encounters with aliens. “The Anthill Chronicles” lives up to all these flavors of its name, especially the last one: if its protagonists were Martians, it couldn’t be stranger.

Following Homer, Wilson plunges into the anthill’s history in medias res. The Queen has just died, and the Trailhead Colony’s doom is upon it, because no anthill can survive the death of its Queen for long. If someone had told the ants of their Queen’s death, they would have responded as Dorothy Parker did when informed of the death of Calvin Coolidge—“How could they tell?” Ants don’t identify another ant as dead until it smells dead—they communicate almost entirely through chemical signals—and the deadness aroma takes a couple of days to develop.

The Trailhead Colony of ants is cast as Troy, with the neighboring colony of Streamside playing the invading Greeks. First the Streamsiders and Trailheaders puff themselves up and strut about like so many Hectors, boasting and testing their enemy’s strength; but as the Trailhead colony weakens, deprived of its Queen and thus its ability to produce more heavily armored hoplite soldiers, the Streamsiders move to the attack. Soon it’s an all-out fray. “Elders were among the most suicidally aggressive,” we’re told. “They were obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: where humans send their young men to war, ants send their old ladies.” (This reader paused to recall the floral-print-dressed Monty Pythoners reenacting the Battle of Waterloo by bashing one another with their purses, but she did not pause for long.)

When Troy falls, most of its inhabitants are slaughtered and the rest carried off as slaves, and—in a sizzling account of terror, murder, and cannibalism—so it goes with the ants. You’ll never get closer than this to life inside an ant colony, nor find an account so riveting. Wilson knows his ants, and he’s with them all the way, as they deal with every huge grain of sand, tasty caterpillar, and hostile ant-soldier they encounter.

Then Fate enters in the form of a dangerous mutation produced by some of the ants. Instead of one queen to a colony, with war at the peripheries, the colonies produce queenlets with the ability to coexist. A supercolony forms, with disastrous results for the outnumbered Streamsiders. Unfortunately for them, the oversuccessful supercolony not only annihilates almost everything in its area, thus destroying its own food base, but it annoys the gods, who in this case are human beings. Formerly they showered cookie crumbs upon the happy ant recipients, but too many ants spoil the picnic, and this is too many ants. Like H.G. Wells’s Martians spreading havoc from above or like Zeus hurling thunderbolts, the godlike exterminators arrive, spraying insecticide. Not a moment too soon, for the supercolony was about to release a giant swarm of queens, who’d have spread their kind far and wide after mating with the hapless male ants—“complete with wings, large eyes, massive genitalia, rudimentary jaws, tiny brain, and the one big purpose…followed by quick death.” (No wonder Max Beerbohm felt that the ant was not a good example.)

In time, a fourth group of ants emerges—like Rome from the ashes of Troy—and takes over the Trailhead territory, and all goes on as before among the longleaf pines.

3.

But fresh disaster threatens. The Nokobee Tract is owned by a family whose members will soon want to sell, and then the tract is likely to be developed, and Raff must now arm himself for his own coming war. In the section called “The Armentarium”—a term meaning the medicine collections of doctors, or else the things necessary to complete a given task—Raff chooses and polishes his weapons. They are verbal ones—his affinity with Odysseus comes to the fore—and he hones them at Harvard Law School, part of the “great brainy anthill” of Cambridge. He enters manhood through an affair with JoLane, an early-1970s ideologically driven fellow student who doubles as “Lilith, Aphrodite, a force of nature.” (The description of this steamy encounter will probably raise hackles on any “radical feminists” who happened to be around at the time.) Like all such love goddesses from Inanna onward, JoLane throws her paramour over for a rival, and Raff leaves the pompous Gaia Force student movement through which he’d met her. He will not choose the violent extreme.

Fully armored now, Raphael returns to Alabama for the final section, called “The Nokobee Wars.” The forces arrayed against him in his quest to save the tract include the moneymen and power brokers and developers, but even worse is a bunch of thuggish, murderous Alabama fundamentalists who believe that God wants Nature to be destroyed in order to hasten the Second Coming. Not being a dastardly ending-revealer, I won’t say what happens next, except that it’s nip and tuck for young Raff and it’s a good thing he’s a fast runner. But a hint: there are uses for the creepy Frogmen of this earth, and for their giant pet alligators, too.

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: yes, all these. But hidden within Anthill is also a sort of instruction manual. Here’s an effective way of saving the planet, one anthill at a time, as it were—preserving this metaphorical Ithaca as an “island in a meaningless sea,” a place of “infinite knowledge and mystery.” The largeness of the task and the relative smallness of the accomplishment make Anthill a mournful elegy as well: this may be all that can be saved, we are led to understand. But we are also led to understand that it’s worth saving.

Despite the seriousness of the warning he means to convey, I believe Edward O. Wilson had a fine time writing his first novel. It shows in the exuberance of the prose, and in the inventiveness of the plot. And—with the exception of small stretches of awkwardness and preachiness—the reader will have a great time reading it. Certainly I did. For now I must confess: I too was a child pillbug admirer and skink-hunter, and my first novel was about an ant. I wrote it at the age of seven. It was not nearly as good as this one.

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