E.O. Wilson: Boy Naturalist

  • By Edward O. Wilson
  • Posted 05.20.08
  • NOVA

When he was 15 years old, Ed Wilson lived in Brewton, Alabama, just north of the Florida panhandle. It was a herpetologist's Eden, with 40 species of snakes, one of the highest densities in the world. Here, the budding biologist spent long, happy hours catching snakes and otherwise exploring a dense swamp beside a fish hatchery run by a 60-year-old Englishman named Mr. Perry. One experience there might have ended Wilson's life, but instead it served, decades later in his lyrically written autobiography Naturalist, as a reminder of all the reasons—some clear, some inchoate—as to why he was a born naturalist.

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The future biologist, nicknamed Snake by his fellow teenagers, as a 15-year-old Eagle Scout in Brewton, Alabama, the same year he met his match in a swamp. Enlarge Photo credit: Copyright © 1994 Island Press

Adults forget the depths of languor into which the adolescent mind descends with ease. They are prone to undervalue the mental growth that occurs during daydreaming and aimless wandering. When I focused on the ponds and swamp lying before me, I abandoned all sense of time. Net in hand, khaki collecting satchel hung by a strap from my shoulder, I surveilled the edges of the ponds, poked shrubs and grass clumps, and occasionally waded out into shallow stretches of open water to stir the muddy bottom.

Often I just sat for long periods scanning the pond edges and vegetation for the hint of a scaly coil, a telltale ripple on the water's surface, the sound of an out-of-sight splash. Then, sooner on hot days than otherwise, I worked my way down for a half-mile or so along one of the effluent streams into the deep shade of the swamp, crossed through the forest to the parallel stream, and headed back up it to the hatchery. Sometimes I cut away to explore pools and mudflats hidden in the Piranesian gloom beneath the high closed canopy.

In the swamp I was a wanderer in a miniature wilderness. I never encountered another person there, never heard a distant voice, or automobile, or airplane. The only tracks in the mud I saw were those of wild animals. No one else cared about this domain, not even Mr. Perry. Although I held no title, the terrain and its treasures belonged entirely to me in every sense that mattered.

Swamp things

Water snakes abounded at abnormally high densities around the ponds and along the outflow streams, feeding on schools of blood-gorged fish and armies of frogs. Mr. Perry made no attempt to control them. They were, he said, no more than a minor source of goldfish mortality. Although neither of us had the vocabulary to express such things, we shared the concept of a balanced ecosystem, one in which man could add and take out energy but otherwise leave alone without ill consequence. Mr. Perry was a natural-born environmentalist. He trod lightly upon the land in his care.

A swamp filled with snakes may be a nightmare to most, but for me it was a ceaselessly rotating lattice of wonders. I had the same interest in the diversity of snakes that other 15-year-old boys seemed automatically to develop in the years and makes of automobiles. And knowing them well, I had no fear. On each visit I found something new. I captured live specimens, brought them home to cages I had constructed of wood and wire mesh, and fed them frogs and minnows I collected at the hatchery.

The tigers and lords of this place were the poisonous cottonmouth moccasins, large semiaquatic pit vipers with thick bodies and triangular heads. Young individuals, measuring 18 inches or so, are brightly patterned with reddish-brown crossbands. The adults are more nearly solid brown, with the bands mostly faded and confined to the lower sides of the body. When cornered, moccasins throw open their jaws, sheathed fangs projecting forward, to reveal a conspicuous white mouth lining, the source of their name.

Peterson's A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, written by the herptetologist Roger Conant, warns, "Don't ever handle a live one!" I did so all the time, with the 15-year-old's naí¯ve confidence that I would never make a mistake.

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Wilson's love of insects began early. Here, at age 13, he collects bugs in a vacant lot beside his home in Mobile, Alabama, summer 1942. Enlarge Photo credit: Copyright © 1994 Island Press, Photograph by Ellis MacLeod

Meeting his match

Immature cottonmouths were never a problem, but one day I met an outsized adult that might easily have killed me. As I waded down one of the hatchery outflow streams, a very large snake crashed through the vegetation close to my legs and plunged into the water. I was especially startled by the movement because I had grown accustomed through the day to modestly proportioned frogs, snakes, and turtles quietly tensed on mudbanks and logs. This snake was more nearly my size as well as violent and noisy—a colleague, so to speak.

The snake began to turn its head far enough to clamp its jaws on my hand. ... I was losing control.

It sped with wide body undulations to the center of the shallow watercourse and came to rest on a sandy riffle. It was the largest snake I had ever seen in the wild, more than five feet long with a body as thick as my arm and a head the size of my fist, only a bit under the published size record for the species. I was thrilled at the sight, and the snake looked as though it could be captured.

It now lay quietly in the shallow clear water completely open to view, its body stretched along the fringing weeds, its head pointed back at an oblique angle to watch my approach. Cottonmouths are like that, even the young ones. They don't always undulate away until they are out of sight, in the manner of ordinary watersnakes. Although no emotion can be read in the frozen half-smile and staring yellow eyes, their reactions and postures give them an insolent air, as if they see their power reflected in the caution of human beings and other sizable enemies.

Wrestling a monster

I moved into the snake handler's routine: pinned the body back of the head, grasped the neck behind the swelling masseteric muscles, and lifted the snake clear of the water. The big cottonmouth, so calm to that moment, reacted with stunning violence. Throwing its heavy body into convulsions, it twisted its head and neck slightly forward through my tightened fingers and stretched its mouth wide open to unfold inch-long fangs. A fetid musk from its anal glands filled the air.

In the few seconds we were locked together the morning heat became more noticeable, reality crashed through, and at last I awoke from my dream and wondered why I was in that place alone. If I were bitten, who would find me? The snake began to turn its head far enough to clamp its jaws on my hand. I was not strong even for a boy of my slight size, and I was losing control. Reacting as by reflex, I heaved the giant out into the brush, and it thrashed frantically away, this time until it was out of sight and we were rid of each other.

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Wilson with his pet giant Cuban anole, Methuselah, during a Harvard-sponsored field research trip to Cuba, July 1953 Enlarge Photo credit: Copyright © 1994 Island Press

Digging deep

This narrow escape was the most adrenaline-charged moment of my year's adventures at the hatchery. Since then I have cast back, trying to retrieve my emotions to understand why I explored swamps and hunted snakes with such dedication and recklessness. The activities gave me little or no heightened status among my peers; I never told anyone most of what I did. Pearl [his stepmother] and my father were tolerant but not especially interested or encouraging; in any case I didn't say much to them either, for fear they would make me stay closer to home.

My reasons were mixed. They were partly exhilaration at my entry into a beautiful and complex new world. And partly possessiveness; I had a place that no one else knew. And vanity; I believed that no one, anywhere, was better at exploring woods and finding snakes. And ambition; I dreamed I was training myself someday to be a professional field biologist. And finally, an undeciphered residue, a yearning remaining deep within me that I have never understood, nor wish to, for fear that if named it might vanish.

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Wilson's boyhood collecting experiences fed right into his career as a field biologist. Here, Wilson treks through New Guinea's Huon Peninsula in search of ants, April 1955. Enlarge Photo credit: Copyright © 1994 Island Press

Dr. Edward O. Wilson is professor emeritus at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. He is the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of, among other books, On Human Nature, The Ants (with Bert Hí¶lldobler), and Naturalist (Island Press, 1994), from which this essay was excerpted with kind permission of the author and publisher.

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