Edward O Wilson is one of the most important biological theorists of our times. An expert on social insects, discoverer of new species and passionate advocate of biodiversity, he is best known for his groundbreaking work on animal behaviour.
Wilson has written what he knows best: a book where ants hold centre stage. A boy in southern Alabama is in the thrall of ants and nature. The protagonist, Raff Cody, lives in a working-class neighbourhood, whose mysteries extend beyond the complex codes of social ambition on his mother’s side and his father’s robust rules of manhood, into the wild edges of a place called Nokobee County.
The story gets off to a Huck Finn-like start as Coody persuades his cousin to sneak away on a perilous journey in search of the Chicobee Serpent, a legendary river monster. But soon his mother drags him to visit the family matriarch, Aunt Jessica—in many ways the perfect Queen Ant. Sitting calmly in her stuffy room, the matriarch disseminates faint odours and crucial information about the family, while her unpaid lifelong servant gets busy with bringing soda crackers. Raff is stupefied—if ants wrote a stage play for human characters, it would look like this.
Wilson does exactly that in the novel’s second section. Presented as Raff’s undergraduate thesis, it carries the reader down the ant-hole to present the biological cycles of ant colonies. It describes life from the ants’ point of view: “Where humans send their young men to war, ants send their old ladies.”
Radha Mohan is a theatre actor in Mumbai
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