Saturday, September 25, 2021

A Magic Kingdom

Edward O. Wilson (1929–2021)
From Edward O. Wilson: Biophilia, The Diversity of Life, Naturalist

Chrysaora quinquecirrha, photograph from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, via WikiMedia Commons. “I stand in the shallows off Paradise Beach, staring down at a huge jellyfish in water so still and clear that its every detail is revealed as though it were trapped in glass,” recalls Edward O. Wilson. “The jellyfish, I know now, was a sea nettle, formal scientific name Chrysaora quinquecirrha, a scyphozoan, a medusa, a member of the pelagic fauna that drifted in from the Gulf of Mexico and paused in the place I found it.”
“Paradise Beach was paradise truly named for a little boy,” writes E. O. Wilson in his memoir Naturalist. “Each morning after breakfast I left the small shorefront house to wander alone in search of treasures along the strand.”

During the summer of 1936 seven-year-old Edward Wilson boarded with a family in Paradise Beach, on the coast of Perdido Bay near Pensacola, Florida. His parents sent him there while they tried to work through the marital difficulties that would lead to their divorce the following year. One day he went fishing from a dock, “jerking pinfish out of the water as soon as they struck the bait,” he recalls. “The species, Lagodon rhomboides, is small, perchlike, and voracious. It carries ten needlelike spines that stick straight up in the membrane of the dorsal fin when it is threatened. I carelessly yanked too hard when one of the fish pulled on my line. It flew out of the water and into my face. One of its spines pierced the pupil of my right eye.” Left untreated, his eye developed a traumatic cataract several months later and he underwent surgery at Pensacola Hospital, partially losing his sight. “I was left with full sight in the left eye only. Fortunately, that vision proved to be more acute at close range than average— 20/10 on the ophthalmologist’s chart—and has remained so all my life.”

By the time he was in high school, Wilson had decided to become a biologist. But then he lost most of his hearing in the upper registers from a cause that was never determined. “So when I set out later as a teenager with Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds and binoculars in hand, as all true naturalists in America must at one time or other, I proved to be a wretched birdwatcher. I couldn’t hear birds; I couldn’t locate them unless they obligingly fluttered past in clear view; even one bird singing in a tree close by was invisible unless someone pointed a finger straight at it. The same was true of frogs.”

These two childhood events shaped his fate: “I am blind in one eye and cannot hear high-frequency sounds; therefore I am an entomologist.” More specifically, Edward O. Wilson became a myrmecologist (a scientist who studies ants), not to mention one of the best-selling and most popular science writers of recent decades.

The spring after his trip to Paradise Beach, Wilson attended the Gulf Coast Military Academy near Gulfport, Mississippi, for one term, “a carefully planned nightmare engineered for the betterment of the untutored and undisciplined,” as he later described it. “I hated the place then but came to love it later, savoring it ever more in memory as the years passed and recollections of my distress faded. I stayed just long enough to be transformed in certain qualities of mind.” Because his parents lived separately and his father changed his job and moved frequently, Edward lived a peripatetic life for the remainder of his youth. Over the next eleven years, he attended more than a dozen different public schools throughout the South. The frequent disruptions in his social life ended up reinforcing his early selection for a career. “A nomadic existence made Nature my companion of choice, because the outdoors was the one part of my world I perceived to hold rock steady.”

In a recent interview, the science writer David Quammen discusses the importance of why Wilson chose Naturalist and not Biologist for the title of his coming-of-age chronicle: “That choice reflects his awareness of the fact, still true, that a life devoted to the study, understanding, and appreciation of non-human life in all its forms is not likely to begin in a classroom. It’s not likely to arise merely from books, let alone screens. It’s a sort of devotion, an instinct like morality, that grows from green shoots. Not every great biologist begins as a kid with a butterfly net and a desire to turn over rocks in clear-running brooks to see whether the miracle of a salamander might lie underneath. But many of them do.”

In 2006 Wilson noted that over the course of his career as a myrmecologist, he “had separated and diagnosed 624 species, including 337 new to science, which at that time composed 19 percent of all the known ant species of the Western Hemisphere and 6 percent of all the ant species of the world.” In “A Magic Kingdom,” a chapter from Naturalist, Wilson remembers his childhood explorations of Nature and his early forays into the realm of ants. “Most children have a bug period,” he writes, “and I never grew out of mine.”

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Come back with me to October 1935, to Pensacola, for a walk up Palafox Street. Let’s start by peeking over the seawall that closes the south end of the street. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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