New England writers at work

At 84, E.O. Wilson still writes out in the field

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

E.O. Wilson’s office, next to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, is filled with ants. Ant sculptures, rendered in various media, dance across his bookshelves. Framed ant illustrations and ant photos dot the walls. The world’s foremost ant authority, revered naturalist, and Harvard professor emeritus writes here sometimes, but more frequently in his Lexington home. At 84, the two-time Pulitzer winner still writes in the field, like at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, the subject of his just-released book, one of more than two dozen — a canon that has drawn honors like insects to something sweet.

WRITE WHEN YOU CAN: I write opportunistically, depending on my schedule. The book I’m just finishing is called “The End of the Anthroposcene,” and I did a large part of the writing sitting on an uncomfortable wicker chair on a cement porch in Chitengo center, Gorongosa National Park. When I was in Mozambique, when I wasn’t in the field exploring, [writing] took up most of my time because I’m not up for long treks.

WALK ON THE WILD SIDE: I’m still writing, with others, technical papers, and that takes a lot of intense concentration and care. I’m obedient to [the credos of] what has been called the ideal scientist: Think like a poet; work like a bookkeeper. You get new ideas by thinking on the wild side, but if you’re a poet you might stop on the wild side. Scientists think of fantasy, possibility, what might be going on and worth looking at, and these fantasies tend to coalesce into specific projects.


QUICK AND CHEAP: I’m a great believer in sloppy laboratory work and other kinds of work. The value of a sloppy experiment is that it can be designed so that it’s quick and cheap, and with a very good chance that if there’s something there, an effect, or something to be discovered, it will allow you a peek that may indicate that what you’re thinking about may have some kind of merit. That’s when you bring out the notebook. There’s still a good deal of excitement because you might find yourself at the edge of a breakthrough.

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THE REALITY PRINCIPLE: I’ve only written one novel, “Anthill,” but when I was writing it, I found a lot of parallels in the thought process [to scientific work]. A novelist does a lot of the things a scientist does, like working out fantasy. The difference is that the scientist stops and says, “I wonder if my fantasy has any relationship to reality.” The novelist may or may not have a story in mind, but the novelist has the advantage of maintaining the fantasy to the end.

FIELDWORK: I’m going to be 85 in June — most scientists have gone fishing by this time, or are visiting their grandchildren in San Diego. I’m still active in research, but this isn’t the time to go into a rainforest and tear things up. I did that during my maximum period of physical strength and vigor, such as it was, in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, then I began to shift as a writer and a scientist into more synthetic work, like “On Human Nature.” . . . In my early 20s, I was already in Australia and New Guinea, and I was filling notebooks with everything I thought and saw. I really could have used a digital recorder.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson