E.O. Wilson: “Trailhead”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. E.O. Wilson’s “Trailhead” was originally published in the January 25, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

E.O. Wilson, at 80, is just about to publish his first novel, Anthill, and this short story is either an excerpt or a summation of it.  However, Wilson is not new to the publishing world — or to the ant world.  His book The Ants , written with Bert Hölldobler, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991.

When I started this story I had already read Colette and Kevin’s comments below (unimpressed by the story), and I also read it knowing that Wilson is a famous biologist.  I think, therefore, that I was pleasantly surprised.  It was much better than I expected — indeed, so far it is my favorite piece of “fiction” so far this year, though it’s not really “fiction” like we think.  It’s much more a dramatization of an ant colony.

The story begins with the death of the queen ant: “While humans and other vertebrates have an intnernal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone.  Hence the workers were at first unaware of their mother’s death  Her quietude said nothing, and the odors of her life, still rising from her, signalled, I remain among you.  She smelled alive.”

The story then goes back a bit to when the queen was inseminated and began this colony with just a few small ant children, who were small and few by biological necessity.  We read about the processes of building and then the destruction of the colony when the queen is dead.  Honestly, I was enthralled throughout.  I never knew ants could be so fascinating.  There is a lot going on under foot.

14 thoughts on “E.O. Wilson: “Trailhead””

  1. Comments are open for this week’s New Yorker fiction.

  2. Colette Jones says:

    This is not fiction; it is a biology lesson.

  3. I’m with Colette on this one and the biology lesson is not even very good. The tournament/battle “metaphor” at the end — which does not have much metaphorical application either — was terrible.

  4. Well, Kevin, you are now entirely caught up and one story ahead of me. I think I’ll get this issue in the mail tonight — and after the comments from you and Colette, I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it! I see, though, that it is quite a bit shorter than the others of the year.

    How was your online reading experience, by the way? I’ve tried to do it before, but it’s so distracting to me. I have better luck reading such things on my iPhone, though I don’t prefer that by any means. I wonder why there’s the difference there?

  5. I suspect my online reading experience was similar to those who read a Kindle while commuting. I was waiting for a new piece of art to arrive which meant I had a 30-60 minute window with nothing to do but wait. Too short to dive into a novel but long enough to read something — so New Yorker online short stories were a good alternative. They did fit the bill very well — all good enough that I never once when the guy would arrive and when he did I was about 500 words away from the end of the third story. Not a bad use of time at all, I would say.

    The New Yorker website is not bad (except for the damned blinking cartoons, but that is probably a generational thing) and I am sure a better alternative is available for the stories if I had searched for it. I did upgrade to a larger type and don’t think any of the electronic experience degraded the stories (although none of them were very good). I don’t have an iPhone (thanks, god) so I can’t compare.

    I still like reading the physical magazine — mainly because of the way the articles are arranged. I always think that I can abandon a few articles and never do. And I know when I get to the fiction, that the critical articles are to follow. I’m one of those guys who leaves eating the sundae cherry until last, so that is a natural progression for me.

  6. Colette Jones says:

    I increase the type size too, Kevin, and I try not to read the cartoon which shows up in the middle, as I usually don’t understand them and am left feeling ignorant.

    I figure this story is supposed to be a metaphor – we’re supposed to say “Ah, that’s what’s happening in Iraq” or “Ah, that’s what’s happening in gang warfare” or ?

    No thanks.

  7. Colette: I too assume it is supposed to be a metaphor for something and have little interest in trying to figure out exactly what. My best guess would be that all empires eventually die and that they often don’t know they are doomed to death until after it has actually been determined — which would seem to imply U.S. hegemony generally. The “tournaments” of war in the story would be the equivalent of the Chinese increasing power by a) buying up U.S. debt and b)cyber-attacks as “agressive” acts, rather than traditional war-like behavior. While I think that political scenario is both real and has some great fictional possibilities (is China or Google the greater threat to liberties?), this particular metaphor certainly adds little value.

  8. I finally finished the story, Kevin and Colette, and I wrote my mini-response in the post above. Maybe I should thank you for your comments here because I started reading expecting to hate it. Of course, when I didn’t, I was pleasantly surprised and everything became delightful!

    I’m not sure I agree that Wilson was going for anything metaphorical here. I think he is simply dramatizing, in sometimes human terms, an ant colony. Ants have been a major part of his life, and I think he’s simply trying to show just how fascinating the little creatures and biology (you’re right, Colette, it is certainly a biology lesson) can be if approached from that perspective.

    Now, it’s placement in fiction, and the upcoming “novel” suggest I may be reading it too simplistically. What do we call these dramatizations based on fact? Especially when the fact has been part of an immutable biological process since the late Jurassic period (thanks, Prof. Wilson). Is it fiction because it of the dramatic language? Because it places ants in terms that are relatable to humans? Or did I really miss Wilson’s greater metaphorical goal? I really think that in this case Wilson is most interested in the ants, how fascinating — and intense — their world is, than in any connections to our contemporary world.

  9. I did not realize this was an excerpt from a novel, one which I assure you I will avoid.

    I do think that a metaphor, however clumsy, is intended. But then we will have to wait for the novel that I don’t intend to read to find out.

    What I do like about it is that this is exactly the kind of short story I expect the New Yorker to publish. Okay, I did not like it very much — but I had to think for a while to understand why. And I love that you have created this forum so that I have to rethink those first impressions.

  10. I am not tempted by the book either, Kevin. I like this sort of thing (on the level I read it) in about the length I got it here. I can’t imagine reading a novel-length ant/biology book. I hope that others will chime in with thoughts on the metaphorical angle. Perhaps when the book is published there will be more talk about it. If it is metaphorical, I agree that it is not effective or necessary. I much prefer to think of this as a passionate man of science’s attempt to show why he’s so passionate about the drama he sees that the rest of us tend to ignore. On that level, I thought it was very good.

  11. Colette Jones says:

    Oh dear. This comes from a novel? And by a scientist who co-wrote a book called “The Ants”?

    Any bets on whether this exactly follows “The Ants” with a bit of dramatization?

    I’m all for trying to make science more interesting and fun to learn, but for goodness sake, don’t pretend it is fiction! Steve Jones could give a name to some pieces of coral and describe their evolution in somewhat human terms to get a point across – but that wouldn’t make it fiction.

    I tend to agree with Trevor that there is no metaphor intended, now that I know the background.

    Incidently, if you want to experience some real insect fiction, try the excellent “The Roaches Have No King” by Daniel Evan Weiss.

  12. Interesting!

    There is an interview with E.O. Wilson on The New Yorker webpage. Here are a few quotes. The first confirms my hypothesis that his motive was to show us mere humans what a fascinating and complex world we are missing:

    At any rate, the main reason, though, was that I wanted to try something I don’t believe any novelist has ever done, and that’s 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.

    Of course, then he goes on to explain what he means by “put it as part of the human experience,” and confirms Kevin and Colette’s ideas that this is a metaphor:

    The ants represent Nokobee, the land in this ecosystem that is being fought over by developers and environmentalists. I used them to represent it, and, as a reader, follow through an epic of one great war after another among the ant colonies. That’s what ant colonies do all the time. They’re always at war with one another and employ their complex social systems to extract energy from the land and win in the wars. Following through, to show what that kind of existence looks like or feels like to the ants themselves. And I can do that because I’ve spent much of a career working on how ants communicate, how they learn, what they know, how they orient, and so on. And it’s as though I were describing, I think many will see, as though I were describing in that novella—as you say correctly, it takes about a quarter of the book—as though I were describing accurately how life might have evolved up to a high social level on another planet.

    So the book Anthill has a larger story than just the ants, and the ant colony is a sort of novella within that story. Again, I don’t think I can read the whole novel, but I did think casting this ant colonies battles in terms of a human epic was very entertaining and passionately done by a biologist who has won two — not one, as I said above — Pulitzers for his nonfiction work.

    The interview is fun to read in part because Wilson is eighty years old and has nothing to lose here — we can tell he’s a very curious man who has followed his curiosity and devoted a lot of his life to satisfying it. For example:

    I think I started actually with ants a little bit when I was about nine years old. The way I’ve always expressed it is that I had a bug period. Every kid has a bug period. Mine was especially intense, and I never grew out of it.

  13. I found this”fiction” fascinating, but puzzled to see it characterized as narrative.I even googled to see if there was another writer named E.O.Wilson.There isn’t!It was the complexity of this miniscule society that had me goggled. I had also just finished reading about the Penn Museum’s Patrick McGovern who is a (What?) biomolecular archaeologist! Using new high tech methods, he can tell you what the folks who buried King Midas drank at his burial many moons ago.He proves to my satisfaction, in addition, that brewing beer antedates baking bread in the human panorama. That in fact our ancestor first stumbled upon the exhilirating effects of alcohol, munching,say,on figs which were decomposing. As a retired professor of English deep in the throes of determining why the English major is disappearing, I hypothesized that the adventurous spirits of E.O Wilson and Patrick McGovern recently got buried in a junk heap of nitwit lit crit theories that turned off potential English majors. What this nonhumanist scientists were wittily doing was redefining Humanism for our times. If I were 23 instead 83 once more, I’d follow the ants and delightedly investigate the prehistory of brewing.Theirs is the New Humanism.As we bury J.D.Salinger, let us wonder at how he turned zillions of Teens inward for generations when the sciences should have engaged them in efforts to contol the complexities of globalization.Patrick D. Hazard, Weimar, Germany. http://www.broadstreetreview.com.www.MyGlobalEye.blogspot.com/.

  14. Eliz says:

    This piece was a fascinating description of ant social forces. How scientifically sound I don’t care, I have recommended it widely.

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