Remembering E.O. Wilson

In 2009, photographer Alex Harris traveled to Mobile to capture the traditions and rhythms of our city, hometown of world-renowned biologist E.O. Wilson. In tribute to Wilson, who died in December at the age of 92, Harris takes MB behind the scenes of his favorite photographs and remembers his tour guide — the gracious, ever-curious E.O. Wilson.

Mobile was E.O. Wilson’s beloved childhood home. It was one of the genuine honors of my life to work as a photographer between 2009 and 2010 on “Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City,” a book with Wilson. Collaborating with him, I was able to get to know a lot about his work, his life story, the landscape in and around Mobile, and to meet so many extraordinary people there.

I first met Wilson at Harvard in 2009. We had lunch at the faculty club. The first thing I noticed about him — perhaps because of the incongruous setting of the Harvard faculty club — was his deep Southern accent and courtly manner, which suggested a bygone era. Before we’d stood with our plates at the buffet, the subject of Mobile launched him into an adventure story that played out over an Alabama landscape so distinctive and vivid that the countryside itself became another character in his tale.

Over our meal in Cambridge that day, Wilson described the vast longleaf pine forests that once surrounded Mobile and stretched across the entire Southeast, and a huge, wild river delta that flowed into a city that had waned and waxed under the flags of five different nations. As we ate, he populated his stories with mound-building Native Americans, imperious Spanish Kings, all manner of snakes and the history of fire ants in Alabama. 

Portrait of E.O. Wilson at Harvard
E.O. Wilson at Harvard in 2009

By the time we were drinking coffee, I could swear his Southern accent took on an even deeper inflection when the conversation turned to his family and his childhood memories of Mobile. He wove some of his own ancestors into the story of the city and became even more animated as he spoke about characters like his great-grandfather, William Christopher Wilson, a river pilot and Civil War blockade-runner. By the time lunch was over, Wilson and I had decided to work on a book together. 

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“People must belong to a tribe; they yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here.” 

E.O. Wilson

Why We Are Here

With the above quote in mind from his book “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge,” it became clear to me that, as E.O. Wilson grew older, he wanted, in fact, to tell the story of where he came from, wanted to return to Mobile to consider his personal history there and also to look at Mobile as an evolutionary biologist.

“Why We Are Here” became a kind of mantra I repeated to myself as I made photographs in Mobile. I saw that my photographs could be about a particular people and a unique American city and its landscapes, while at the same time portraying something larger: the deeply human impulse to tell a story with our lives, a story connected to place. 

Wilson and his ants

In this photograph at the Fort Morgan Ferry near Gulf Shores, Wilson was looking at ants, but I can’t remember if he was talking to the ants or to me! On another occasion, my wife Margaret and I remember him having quite an extended conversation with dozens of monarch butterflies that had landed on a bush behind the Mobile restaurant where we had lunch that day.

From left to right: Antonio Holmes, Christian Robinson, Thomas Haring and Conner McClerry.

Boy Scouts from troops 28, 292 and 600, at Five Rivers State Park

One way I prepared for photographing in Mobile was to learn from Wilson and his books as much as I could about his youth in the city. On my first visit to Mobile, I decided that, because being a scout and capturing snakes were absolutely formative experiences for a young Wilson, as a photographer I would try to show this by portraying contemporary scouts in the same place. 

In 1941, by the age of 12, Wilson was already studying snakes and other reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals and insects in the riparian and hardwood forests around Mobile. By 13, he’d discovered the Boy Scouts of America and was well on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. Everything about the scouts drew him: the camaraderie, work ethic, competition, rules, uniforms, and, most of all, their focus on the natural world. Being a Boy Scout justified and encouraged his fascination with nature.

Murphy High School football practice

UMS-Wright football practice

Knowing Wilson played football at Murphy High School, I photographed Panther football practice as well as football practice at UMS-Wright. As it turns out, this view of UMS-Wright practice through the goalposts provides one way to visualize how Wilson and I worked together on a book about Mobile. Imagine that this football field represents the last 1,000 years in Mobile history, so each 10 yards represents 100 years. That’s Wilson down there around the 40-yard line about to catch the ball. Think of Wilson writing about Mobile as the wide receiver whose pattern is to go deep and long. He’s way down around the year 1610. And if, after catching the ball, he makes it another 7 yards, he’ll be all the way back to Fernando de Soto’s expedition to the Mound-building culture of Mauvila in 1540, precisely the moment in history he intended to begin his writing about Mobile. And if Wilson’s the wide receiver, then think of me as the tight end. I do a little buttonhook on the line of scrimmage and then spring for the sideline. I can go right or left, but my pattern is always short and wide. With my camera, I wanted to focus on a cross-section of contemporary Mobilians between 2009 – 2010: their lives, families, institutions and natural environment.

Eastern tiger swallowtail and pitcher plants, Splinter Hill Bog 

Wilson told me many stories about growing up in Mobile. One in particular I remember is about a pitcher plant bog he discovered on Dog River as a teenager. Of course, he didn’t know at the time that this represented the richest natural environment in North America. This picture with the swallowtail on a pitcher plant is my attempt to show what it may have felt like when Wilson was growing up, to wander through what seemed a primordial world, practically in his own backyard. 

Duckblind cane, osprey nest on dead cypress, Mobile Delta

As Wilson talked with me about Mobile, he described the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a 500-square-mile floodplain forest, as one of the natural wonders of the world. I knew that the Delta would be a vital part of my photographic journey in Mobile. 

Mistresses of Joe Cain, Mardi Gras

At our first meeting at Harvard, Wilson said something that seemed far-fetched to me but became very clear as soon as I spent time in Mobile. He’d seen pictures from a book my wife Margaret and I had edited on the Lacondon Maya, a remote people indigenous to southern Mexico. Thinking about those photographs, he said to me, ”You know, Mobile was isolated for centuries, and people there belonged to their particular groups with distinct traditions. And that identity is very important. Maybe this is something you can capture.”

Ben Davis, Cedar Point Pier

Wilson suggested I look for activities and traditions, even rituals, from the past that endure into the current day. He said, “That will tell you something important about a place, the structures of a society that endure.” So, of course, Mardi Gras, hunting, fishing and religion fit into those categories.

Birthday girls, Stewart Memorial Christian Methodist Church

I began to see that, in my pictures, there was often a joyful quality: people in Mobile taking such pleasure from being part of a group with distinct traditions. I photographed the Choctaw Bluff Hunting Club as its members drew cards to determine the territories where each man would hunt wild turkeys the next day, and I photographed a Hoji, or Buddhist memorial service, in Irvington. One Sunday morning in the Word of Life Community Church, I got a double lesson on the meaning of polyglot in Mobile when I photographed a group of churchgoers speaking in tongues and a few minutes later praying in English to the words and sounds of gospel music.

Choctaw Bluff Hunting Club

As a photographer here, I was trying to capture the tradition of drawing cards to determine the territories where each man would hunt wild turkeys the next day.

Grand Marshall’s Ball, Battle House Hotel

In a picture that embodies the same joyful quality, a group of elegantly dressed Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association partygoers is shown in the ornate setting of the ballroom of the Battle House Hotel. This picture speaks in its own way to changes in Mobile’s history. Behind the revelers is a tapestry depicting another gathering of elegantly dressed Mobilians from an earlier century. A multi-ethnic group of four bewigged men appears to be reading a bill of lading for goods being unloaded from the ship docked in the harbor behind them. Without setting out to do so, I had photographed one of the things Wilson told me that makes Mobile distinctive. The photograph shows Mobile as a port city that has always been a polyglot society where different languages are spoken, enriched by the citizens from many nations.

Word of Life Church, South Atmore Avenue

One Sunday morning in the Word of Life Community Church, I got a double lesson on the meaning of polyglot in Mobile when I photographed a group of churchgoers speaking in tongues and a few minutes later praying in English to the words and sounds of gospel music.

Hoji (Buddhist Memorial service for the deceased), Mrs. Heak Hong’s home, Irvington

Almost a week later on the outskirts of Mobile, I heard another tongue spoken as I made pictures of the same prayerful gestures from church but now in a culturally different setting. This was a Hoji, or Buddhist memorial service, in the Irvington home of Mrs. Heak Hong, whose Cambodian husband had died one year earlier. As I snapped the shutter, the group offered a prayer over a lunch we would all share, dishes intended first for the monks, who consumed only one meal a day and must eat before noon.

Roy Hyde, Fairhope

One of the most enduring ideas that Wilson introduced and popularized is called the “biophilia hypothesis,” essentially our urge as humans to affiliate with other forms of life. Wilson wrote:

“From infancy to old age, people everywhere are attracted to other species. Novelty and diversity of life are esteemed … to explore and affiliate with life, to turn living creatures into emotion-laden metaphors, and to instill them in mythology and religion, these are the easily fundamental processes of biophilic cultural evolution.”

That idea of biophilia influenced so many of the photographs I made in and around Mobile.

For instance, I photographed Roy Hyde one cold February morning listening to hear if his bees had been warmed enough by the sun to be awake and moving. I was struck by the look of pleasure and wonder on Roy’s face.

Rosa Barahona in her living room

I thought how universal biophilia must be for all people when I photographed Rosa Barahona in her living room surrounded by the paper flowers she was making for an international festival in Mobile. I learned that day Rosa was using her sense of touch to make the flowers because she was functionally deaf and blind.

E.O. Wilson Boardwalk, Blakeley State Park

I took a walk with E.O. Wilson in the summer of 2010 through Blakeley State Park on the E.O. Wilson Nature Boardwalk. As we strolled and looked out on bald cypress, cattails, wild rice and giant cutgrass, he began telling me about different insects we encountered along the way, like the huge Nephila silk spider whose web can reach six feet wide and 20 feet high. And inside those webs, there is another spider called the Dew Drop that lives and makes its own web to steal the Nephila’s food. Listening to Wilson, I was beginning to get a sense of other extraordinary worlds within worlds, parallel universes, right there in that place, going on around me that I hadn’t been aware of. 

After a while, we encountered a couple who had been walking in our direction. They lived nearby in Daphne. He sported a crimson University of Alabama cap and carried two fishing poles and a net. She was pulling and holding enough supplies for a long day on the Tensaw River. Different species of dragonflies had been buzzing by all morning, and now a green one with a huge head, white spots on its body and characteristic double wings landed briefly on the railing next to Wilson before flying off. 

Wilson, right, visits the E.O. Wilson Nature Boardwalk at Blakeley State Park, 2010

In one of the most ironic moments in the history of entomology, the man began to teach E.O. Wilson how to hypnotize a dragonfly. He said that when his sons were young and seemed to be getting bored in the woods, he always tried this trick. He would find a dragonfly, extend his finger, and move his hand just like this: in a circular motion, getting closer and closer to the legs of the insect until it stepped on board. 

Once the couple walked away, I was struck when Wilson said, “You know, I wake up every day, and I feel like I’m just getting started. I want to study dragonflies now. That’s my next project in Mobile.” 

Mobile Delta

In his 80s, E.O. Wilson had the same sense of awe and wonder at the natural world that he had as a young boy. As a photographer working on a book about Mobile with Wilson, I didn’t really need to go looking with my camera for the Mobile of his childhood; many of the aspects of the city that had attracted him then were still present when we walked that boardwalk. And many, I imagine, are still present now.

Alex Harris is a photographer and emeritus professor at Duke University where he was a founder of the Center for Documentary Studies. His most recent photographic book (co-edited with Margaret Sartor) is “Our Strange New Land: Narrative Movie Sets in the American South” (Yoffy Press 2021). 

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