Recommended read: Anthill
Each month, Muskeg Press will review one of our favourite books that we have on our bookshelf.
We hope these reviews reinforce a love of literature for our readers, or perhaps give you some ideas for the next book on your list to read.
by E.O. Wilson
W.W. Norton & Co., 2010: 382 pages
We’re not the only creatures that have found ways to work together. Some species have developed eusociality, a level of society that involves specialization of tasks and care of the young, among others. A few mammals are considered eusocial, but mostly this falls in the realm of insects, namely bees, wasps, termites, and chief among all, ants.
Ants have been around much longer than humans – at least 139 million years more – and the most famous student of these crawly creatures is E.O. Wilson, a biologist and expert in myrmecology, and former professor at Harvard University, who has been writing about his favourite insects for over 60 years. He is, in other words, a scientist who uses the scientific method in all his writings, trying to prove (or disprove) hypotheses and figure out how everything works in a rational manner.
And in 2010, he decided to write a novel.
Anthill, as Wilson points out in his introduction, is a story about humans and ants, but it’s also a story about the biosphere, “the totality of life, plastered like a membrane over all the Earth.” His respect for nature is strong, and so this scientist-cum-novelist argues that practical actions are required to respect the environment because, well, we need it more than it needs us: “For each careless step we take, our species will ultimately pay an unwelcome price – always.”
This unadulterated respect for the environment is embodied in the character of Raff Cody, who we first meet as a young boy growing up in rural Alabama (also where Wilson grew up). Gentle and curious, Raff is descended by Southern royalty on his mother’s side, and by white trash on his father’s. He spends a lot of time with his parents at Lake Nokobee, and is joined in the summers by a professor of biology from Florida State University, who encourages Raff’s naturalist instincts. Raff loves a small tract of land near Lake Nokobee so much that the professor anoints him the “citizen of Nokobee,” and describes how his curiosity fosters his respect for the environment:
“The towering longleaf pines and the wild native flora beneath them became as familiar to him as the shrubbery and gardens of Clayville. One or two snakes were always there to be caught on a given day, examined closely, and released. Raff found insects, spiders, and other arthopods of endless variety and put many into jars for temporary captivity. In spring and summer, bird nests could always be found, and a few were low enough to be monitored for eggs and nestlings. Hawks and other large birds high overhead came reliably in sight, to be watched as they drifted to unknown destinations.”
Raff’s love and curiosity exist in an feedback loop about this small ecosystem – each one informs the other and gives purpose to it. This citizen of Nokobee can see himself being its leader one day.
The problem is, Raff’s parents are poor, so he probably won’t go very far in life, like most of his brethren that live nearby. He does, however, have a rich uncle, who humours his nephew’s dreams of becoming a naturalist, and makes him an offer: he’ll pay for Raff to go to whatever university he wants to follow his dream, but only if he first promises that he’ll go to law school afterwards and get a career befitting a Southern gentleman. The young Raff agrees, and soon enrolls at Florida State University, where his professor friend works, and where he meets another mentor, a world authority on beetles. Through some discussions, the three of them agree that Raff should study the ants around the Nokobee tract of land. A variety of reasons lead up to this decision: there are more ants on Earth than all other animals combined; their societies are the most complicated on the planet, next to humans; and Raff has already studied these ants for the six years leading up to his admission to university. The result is “The Anthill Chronicles,” a 74-page short story right in the middle of Wilson’s novel.
Now, I have a huge admiration for Wilson. I haven’t read all his works, but the stuff I’ve read is endlessly fascinating. I also admire his ethics and his intellectual approach: he’s said a lot of controversial things over the years, but he hasn’t backed down, and he lets others debate his arguments without lashing out at them. A true intellectual, in other words.
That’s a small prelude to say that, while I’m sure Wilson’s heart was in the right place when he decided to write the novel, the best part of it, far and away, is “The Anthill Chronicles.” Told through the ants’ point of view, the writing moves in a way that the other parts of the novel doesn’t. The story of Raff using shrewdness, guts, heart and brains to play sides off against each other and get what he wants is somewhat inspiring, but it is a common trope in American movies; Wilson doesn’t really add anything there. But the story of the ants – how they forge their communities, keep them going, and go to war with other anthills – is remarkable, not least because it’s the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution; the pages can’t turn fast enough, and it’s tough to put the book down in this section.
A brief summary, then. “The Anthill Chronicles” starts at the end of the reign of the Trailhead Colony, a society of about 10,000 ants, whose Queen has just died. This death strips the very soul and purpose of the colony, which had been living a very prosperous ant-life for 20 years prior to her death.
From there, we rewind to the beginning of the Queen’s life, when she had wings and was suddenly impregnated by a male wasp during mating season. That was the male’s one job, and he buzzes off to die somewhere. But the Queen, at odds of 100,000-to-1, survives the day after fighting off countless predators in the air, on the ground, and in the chamber she digs for herself. After that initial flurry of activity that lasts a few days, the Queen doesn’t really do much for the next 20 years, other than lay eggs for her colony, giving birth to other female ants: workers, soldiers, foragers.
After the Queen’s death, other ants try to sustain the colony, but with no leader to lay eggs and populate their society, they’re vulnerable. Eventually, some soldiers vie to take the crown and become soldier-queens, but since their eggs are unfertilized, they only produce a bunch of useless males, “which can do nothing but inseminate females.”
The days of the Trailhead Colony are numbered, and a younger colony nearby – the Streamside Colony – senses this. This neighbouring colony would frequently test the strength of its rivals by sending in scouting groups, navigating back and forth to the next using an ant’s strongest sense: smell. One day, at a flat open area between the Trailhead and Stremside colonies, scouts from both sides intermingle and, “in a short time the representatives from the two colonies appeared to dance with one another.” This dance, however, is a way for the Streamside ants to find out how strong the Trailhead Colony is, a military tournament of sorts that's been going on since time immemorial.
Eventually, the Streamside ants annihilate their weaker foes and take over the nest of the Trailheaders. A nearby colony that had just been founded – the Woodland Colony – is too small to be any threat, and anyway that conquest could wait another day. To the Streamsiders go the spoils.
Not for long, though. Unbeknownst to them, they’re up against a far bigger threat nearby: a Supercolony of ants along the shore of Lake Nokobee. Due to a small mutation, Supercolony ants are no longer as sensitive to smell as their peers, and as a result, tolerate more than one Queen. Normally, if an ant tries to dethrone a Queen, she is treated without mercy by the colony, eaten up and spit out. But Supercolony allows multiple queens to exist at the same time, “distributed widely through the webwork of galleries and chambers of the vast Supercolony nest.” That means more reproduction of more ants – not those useless male ones – and makes Supercolony seemingly boundless.
The Streamside ants are no match for Supercolony, and they are soon destroyed in combat. And their new territory extended past antdom:
“The sounds of birds and singing insects were no longer heard. Fewer squirrels, voles, and other mammals foraged across the quitted land. Butterflies and other pollinators of the ground plants were close to extinction.”
By its sheer size, Supercolony put nature out of balance. Why would birds, reptiles or other insects traverse this realm? After all, there’s no food; the ants have eaten it all. To Supercolony go the spoils.
But not for long. Ants are not the only residents of Nokobee; humans like going there for picnics, which can be very easily ruined by millions of ants running all over the place. One day, the ants notice some giants spraying a strange substance over the entire Supercolony territory: within a few hours, they are all dead, the victims of pesticide.
With Supercolony destroyed, a door opens for the Woodland ants, that small colony that was ignored by the Streamsiders. As a result of the countless holes dug into the ground by Supercolony, the ground is nicely aerated and eventually yields an abundant harvest for the Woodlanders. The workers bring back huge stores of food, allowing the colony to grow and breed soldier-ants to protect its territory. By the end of “The Anthill Chronicles,” the Woodland Colony is in control, and balance has been restored to Nokobee.
But for how long? Now we’re back in Raff’s world, a few years after he’s submitted his thesis, and after he has attained his law degree. He hears of plans for the development of condominiums on his beloved tract of land, all but guaranteed after the last hold-out landowner sells to the highest bidder. The rest of Anthill is Raff’s quest to save Nokobee, and it’s a pretty good story, if predictable and stiffly written.
Although Wilson isn’t the greatest fiction writer in the world, he does have an unconditional love for the planet, which spills out into his descriptions of the natural world. These are the best excerpts of the book, other than “The Anthill Chronicles.” Case in point: in one of the final episodes of the book, Raff makes one more trip to Nokobee, and how Wilson sets the scene is just wonderful:
“On a fall morning at Dead Owl Cove six months later, rays of the sun first touched the longleaf pine canopy, then climbed silently down the branches and trunks, until, filtered by the understory, they cast a kaleidoscope of light and shadow, of warmth and chill, onto the forest floor. A breeze lifted off the water and worked its way across the bluff forming the lake margin. It passed over the anthills and into the surrounding woods, where it raised a fresh, life-affirming scent of fallen pine needles accented by holly and clethra.”
Indeed, why shouldn’t we all work together to save such places of pure beauty?