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The world of Nature is open to us—not just through our eyes and ears, our hands and feet, but through words that direct us down paths of discovery.

           I would like to roam through books, through the words of Naturalists–and begin this January with Edward O. Wilson, a benefactor of the Mobile Tensaw Delta, a man of generous heart and spirit, often considered the world’s leading entomologist. I am honored to have known him, to have dined with him, served him grits, and to have had him write a foreword to my book, In The REALM OF RIVERS , about the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

            Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama on June 20, 1929. Following his parent’s divorce–and though his mother was awarded legal custody, she sent him to live with his father, a federal government accountant. She felt he could give their son better opportunities. When Wilson’s father remarried, the family moved to Mobile. Here he attended Barton Academy in 1941-1942 and subsequently Murphy High School.

            NATURALIST is the story of Edward Osborne Wilson’s life. Much of it covers the time he spent exploring this area at “the edge of the subtropics.” 

            In 1941, our budding biologist says: “At every opportunity I charged out on my balloon-tired, single-gear Schwinn bicycle, pumping my way down Charleston Street to the rubble-strewn weedlots of the riverfront, west to the scattered pine-and-hardwood copses of Spring Hill, south on the Cedar Point road as far as Fowl River, and east across the Mobile-Tensaw Delta on old U.S. 90 to Spanish Fort in Baldwin County.” 

            Wilson has a life-long interest in and esteem for the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. In the Foreword to IN THE REALM OF RIVERS, he says: “Those who . . . open their senses to the Delta will see a meeting place for science and the humanities, for research and art, a sanctuary to explore and dream, a venue to learn and teach, a playground, and a temple of immeasurable value.” 

            It is his wood-world of wonder that Wilson looked for pileated woodpeckers and eyed “alligators in the marshes of the Tensaw estuary.”  He tells of scouring the riverine hardwood forests for holly trees and orchids and remembers building “a secret outdoor shelter partly from the stems of poison oak.” This he paid for “with an agonizing rash” over a large part of his body.

            And just Imagine the reception he received when he walked into his house with a coachwhip snake, nearly as long as he was, wrapped around his neck. Not surprisingly, he was told to “release it as far from the house as could be traveled round-trip during the remaining daylight hours.” 

            Much can be learned from Wilson about industriousness and dedication. He says he arose at 3:00 a.m. every morning, slipped away in the darkness, and delivered 420 newspapers before returning home for breakfast and school.  In the afternoon, at 3:30 p.m., he went home and studied. On Monday nights, he met with his Boy Scout troop at the United Methodist Church on Government and Broad streets. 

            Wilson’s book NATURALIST is a treasure trove of wisdom as well as a fascinating account of biodiversity evident today at Historic Blakeley State Park. He wrote that after entering the University of Alabama, he explored the edges of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta floodplain, calling it a “vertiginous world of beauty and complexity,” a place no field biologist had visited at the time. 

            What experiences shape our Being? What defines the person we will become? “If facts are seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom,” Wilson says, “the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” The years of childhood prepare the soil. 

            A summer spent with a family at Paradise Beach shaped the kind of Naturalist Wilson would become. Out fishing with minnow hooks, he hauled in a Lagodon rhomboids, a small perch-like creature whose dorsal fin pierced his right eye and blinded it. Thereafter, he knew he would have to hold things close to see them clearly and would “celebrate the little things of the world–the animals that can be picked up between thumb and forefinger and brought close for inspection.” Hence his attraction to ants.

            As readers, we find wonder and delight in Wilson’s memoir, NATURALIST. William Faulkner wrote: “the past is never dead. It’s not even past,” and it is through words in books, especially this one, that we may experience the wonders of Nature again and again.


Sue Walker, Professor Emerita at the University of South Alabama, Poet Laureate of Alabama, 2003-2012, and editor / publisher of Negative Capability Press.

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