“Trailhead”: E.O Wilson and the ants
“The instincts of the are very unimportant, considered as the ant’s; but the moment a ray of relation is seen to extend from it to man, and the little drudge is seen to be a monitor, a little body with a mighty heart, then all its habits, even that said to be recently observed, that it never sleeps, become sublime.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)
E.O. Wilson’s first novel Anthill attempts to do something that Wilson (as he explained in this interview with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman) thinks no novelist has done before: “describe the natural world as it actually is, in fine detail—indeed, maybe as it could best be seen by a biologist who’s spent a substantial career studying it in fine detail—but put it as part of the human experience.” Explaining the project further, Wilson continues; “I actually tried to make the natural world—that contested lot of old-growth forest that’s the center of the novel—of equal importance, almost equal importance as the human protagonist.” Wilson’s description seems to fit the guidelines of what makes an “environmental text” as first laid out by Lawrence Buell in The Environmental Imagination (1995). However, whether or not it is environmental, the novel’s success as a piece of literature is another question.
The novel won’t be out till spring, but Wilson recently made his début in the New Yorker as a fiction writer with an excerpt from the book: this short story titled “Trailhead.” Infused with human drama reminiscent of the Iliad and other epics, the story follows a single ant colony through its birth and eventual siege and destruction by an “enemy” colony. As Wilson notes in the interview, ants live in “the most advanced social system that exists on Earth outside of human beings.”