Van Gogh Is Visiting Birmingham

 A favorite memory of the day after Thanksgiving is of my parents taking me to Pizitz department store in downtown Birmingham and taking the escalators to the sixth floor and Santa’s Enchanted Forest. The memory of that tradition that stands out most for me was probably in the mid ‘60s. The line wound through cheerful displays of reindeer, winter scenes, and elves at work in their workshop. At the end of the path, Santa on his throne was there to greet all. After Pizitz, we trekked across the street to check out the holiday windows at Loveman’s and went a few blocks north to see the city’s newly-lit Christmas tree in Woodrow Wilson (now Linn) Park. Finally, my parents took me to a book store on Southside and treated me to a book of my choosing. In this particular memory, it was a Dr. Seuss book.

Pizitz is now a residential building where I go to see indie films at Sidewalk Cinema and to grab a bite in the expansive food hall. Loveman’s long ago became a children’s science museum. But I never go to that part of town without remembering that one special night after Thanksgiving.

I thought of Santa’s Enchanted Forest this week when I took my mother to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center for “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” People of all ages wandered through the three rooms of the event and I realized, as I watched kids scamper around, that a memorable holiday experience was being created for a lot of people that night.

One of the odd cultural touchstones of this second year of pandemic is the fact that about half a dozen “immersive” shows inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh have sprung up and been attended by enthusiastic responses wherever they landed around the world. The iteration playing in Birmingham through January 2 is the creation of French-Canadian Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Montreal’s Normal Studio. A Monet immersion is beginning to make the rounds and I understand that a Frida Kahlo event is in the works for 2022.

The art of each of those artists seems ripe for the sort of trippy experience I witnessed in Birmingham. The “Beyond Van Gogh” immersion begins with a line moving through a room that serves as a primer for Van Gogh, with panels providing capsule synopses of the artist’s often tortured life, interspersed with comments that include quotes from letters between Vincent and his brother, Theo. The viewer then enters the “Waterfall Room,” which seems to be there primarily to acclimate the audience to the main room. Vertigo is a real risk as the flowing abstractions move down the wall and across the floor. I realized that I needed to be careful about looking down.

The main room, which the publicity bills as “masterpieces … freed from frames” is the reason for the experience. Scored to instrumental music, with an occasional voiceover, the room has projected images flowing across all walls, on three tall triangular pillars in the middle, and over the floor. Some projections are reproductions of Van Gogh’s work but much of the event is flowing abstractions and layering of images from line to detail to color to a recognizable painting. When we entered the room, almond blossoms covered the walls and floor; some of the flora was static while other petals floated gracefully all around. It was a breathtaking moment to enter.

The audience is free to move around. Several sat on the floor. Some moved constantly, others stayed in one place; cameras and selfies were abundant all around. The experience is truly beautiful and mesmerizing in many ways. As I get older, I am more drawn to contemplative experiences, art that frees the mind to wander and find connections. Several dozen people of all ages were in the room and it seemed that each viewer was having a singular experience.

The musical score is often soothing, often soaring, and generally adds to the grandeur of the experience. There is, for me at least, one jarring exception: A lovely instrumental version of Paul Simon’s “America” plays in conjunction with the almond blossoms and beyond. That song is so familiar, at least to a Boomer like me, that I found myself humming along and distracted. Why I thought is “America” part of a Van Gogh exhibit? I still haven’t figured it out.

There have been snarky reviews and comments about the various Van Gogh immersions by art critics around the country. (I’ve written a fair amount of critical essays and reviews through the years and I know snark when I see it; I have perpetrated it on occasion.) The reviews seem to feel that the public domain status of Van Gogh’s work is being exploited and that the various immersions cheapen the work. They don’t think the works’ complexity is given its due or something like that. They don’t think it educates enough – or something like that.

Mainly, however, the snark seems to be aimed at the audience: They take too many selfies; they miss out on the true experience of viewing the works in a museum. There are children running around. It’s all just too “commercial.” The producers make a bald-faced appeal to the audience, especially the “influencers,” to take photos and spread the word. The gift shop is offensive … Or something like that. I saw one article that even told readers which museums they could go to and see the actual works represented in the immersion. That piece was by a New York writer.

I get their righteous snark. I really do; there were moments during the event when I felt that I was being a little bit suckered. But they miss the point. These enterprises are clearly commercial and are buoyed by the entertainment aspect of a necessary and mostly pleasant escapism inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh. All audiences do not necessarily have the access to the authentic art of Van Gogh that a New York audience might. And I suspect that the majority of the audience for an “immersive” art experience already has at least a basic knowledge of the art they’re being immersed in; that’s probably why they bought the ticket to begin with (and it’s not a cheap ticket). Others, who may not know the work but are drawn in by the enthusiastic word-of-mouth, may be inspired to learn more after the experience. As for the children, I was amazed at how well-behaved they were. And I was delighted when something would happen that would stop them – wide-eyed and gaping – in their tracks.

My mother, for one, left the experience “a little sad.” Viewing the work, and watching the audience response, she found it sad that Vincent did not live to experience the acclaim he achieved in his post-mortem.

These immersive experiences are certainly destined for oversaturation and for the waning popularity of audience-pleasers of the past like Cirque du Soleil and Riverdance. But, for now, they are achieving their goals and providing an interesting footnote and diversion for our need to readjust and recalculate in the face of a pandemic that doesn’t seem to fade away gracefully.

In Act Two, scene nine of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play, True West, a mother returns home from her vacation and announces to her son that “Picasso’s in town.” Her son replies that “Picasso’s dead, Mom.” The mother insists, replying, “No, he’s not dead. He’s visiting the museum.”

In the final weeks of 2021, at least, Vincent Van Gogh is not dead; he’s visiting Birmingham’s convention center and he’s providing a pleasant and enjoyable hour or so of community and escape.

New Reviews of Southern Fiction

To all of the kind people who responded to my most recent post about missing books (“Page by Page, Measuring a Life”) — Thank You! The books have been found, but I was so moved by the concern and generosity of many.

Here are links to my most recent reviews for Alabama Writers’ Forum:

Page by Page, Measuring a Life

WARNING: This essay deals with what has become known as a “first-world” problem, so be aware of that as you read. I am very aware of how privileged I am to be stressed about lost books.

I bought a house in the spring. I like it, I like the location, and I know that I will be happy there. Eventually. I moved in on June 1, unpacked, and had the interior arranged the way I wanted it by Independence Day. On July 20, I came downstairs to find water leaking from upstairs onto my kitchen counters; the plumbers and I discovered a well-disguised leak in an upstairs guest bath that had been missed in the home inspection.

Extensive, mainly hidden, damage was found that resulted in my having to get all new floors upstairs, new stairs, and new ceilings downstairs. I used the opportunity to make some upgrades. The house, upon completion, will be much better than it was when I moved in.

The contractors finished their work a few days ago and I spent Saturday putting my stuff back in place. The books in the upstairs bookshelves had been packed away by the construction crew and left in the garage during the construction.

I am a little OCD about my books. They are always placed in alphabetical order by author or, in the case of biography, subject. Even in my most impoverished days in grad school, living in a squalid four-plex in the student ghetto on 13th Avenue, I always kept my books carefully organized. When a career in professional theatre moved me frequently around the country, I always moved with a trailer filled with my books and shelves to be assembled on arrival. Often, the books, my clothes, and some pots and pans were about all I had to move.

When the work on the house was completed, the construction crew moved my books back up to the bedrooms where my bookshelves waited. I hate moving, but I take pleasure in stocking my bookshelves. On Saturday, as I unpacked and alphabetized my books, I discovered that letters “A” through “F” and part of “G” are missing. I searched everywhere in the house and garage where boxes of books might possibly disappear with no luck. I contacted the contractor and project manager to let them know. The contractor got very defensive and assured me that he didn’t take my books; I never thought he “took” them, but I have a hunch they might have been accidentally hauled out with construction debris. It seems far-fetched, but no other explanation comes to mind.

The contractor washed his hands of the problem, but the project manager says he will have the dumpsters checked at the company site (a horrifying prospect). Somehow, I don’t have a lot of confidence in the success of the dumpster dive.

Over the years, I have occasionally weeded out some books. I donated 250 titles to the library on this last move. Another 150 play scripts and theatre books were donated to my old academic department when I retired. By my rough estimate, another 180+ books have now been potentially lost in this latest development. I have been trying to do a mental inventory of some of the books that have been lost. Here is a by no means complete (and alphabetized) list of authors I have remembered so far:

Achebe. Agee. Amis. Atwood. Avedon’s Portraits (1976). Baldwin. Bangs (Lester). Ann Beattie. Beckett. Bragg. Anthony Burgess. Capote. Jimmy Carter. Raymond Carver. Chabon. Cheever. Mark Childress (a college classmate). Cleage. Cunningham. DeLillo. Dickens. Didion. Norman Dubie (whose “Pastoral” is one of my favorite poems ever). John T. Edge. Eggers. T.S. Eliot. Walker Evans photographs. Percival Everett. Faulkner (everything he ever wrote, plus biographies, and critical materials). Fitzgerald. Richard Ford. Franzen. Gaines – Charles and Ernest. Ginsburg …

Also, critical studies of film director Robert Altman. Dozens of issues of The Black Warrior Review, a literary magazine. Photographic volumes on Birmingham and Alabama history. Personally inscribed and signed first editions. Books I bought in high school. Books I bought a couple of months ago.

As I keep listing, I get increasingly out of sorts, but you get the idea. Other readers will understand. Fortunately, my collections of cook books, books on architecture, gardening books, and art books are housed in other parts of the house so those collections remain intact.

I have been asked on more than one occasion if I have read every book on my shelves. Yes, I have. In fact, a book didn’t go on the shelf until I had finished reading it.

I have been asked why I keep the books if I’ve already read them. If you ask a question like that, I’m afraid you will never understand. Suffice it to say, some books I re-read. Some books I use for reference. Some books I just want to have around.

An example: I read The Great Gatsby every year on the Summer Solstice. A decades-long ritual. Once a copy of Gatsby is worn out, I replace it with a new edition, but keep the worn-out copies on the shelf. It is interesting to see my notations in the text from readings past; I mark my life by the passages that once stood out to me and now mean less, and by the passages that I have never particularly noted before which suddenly take on a significance with age.

In 1990, in a home robbery, my entire sizable collection of vinyl records was stolen, along with my stereo system. That was hard, but I shifted to CDs and moved on. This book loss seems more visceral, somehow, and harder to wrap my head around. My book collection from the middle of “G” to “Z” is intact, but one whole bookcase is completely empty.

Almost empty, I should say. I just finished reviewing a book and had not placed it on the shelves yet. The author’s last name starts with the letter B.

James Braziel, it’s all up to you, man. You’re standing in for a host of good authors.

The Houndstooth Trigger

Fried Green Tomatoes (, a comfort food place in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, is an offshoot of the Irondale Café across town, which was the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Café in Fannie Flagg’s popular novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. The food at Fried Green Tomatoes is mostly seasonal and locally sourced. It offers dine-in and take-out, has a friendly staff and a casual vibe, and has been a great place to have close-by during the pandemic.

It’s popular with the after-church crowd on Sundays and I was standing in a long line waiting to order take-out on a recent Sunday afternoon. I was masked and trying to stay socially distanced, standing against a wall near the door and leaving enough room to let people pass. There was plenty of room to cross in front of me; even so, a woman got up in my face, rudely saying “Excuse me!” I tried to press myself even tighter against the wall. Moving on, she shrieked “War Eagle!” twice to the couple next in line to me, looking back and snarling at me the whole way out (she wasn’t masked, so I could see the snarl). The two fellas with her followed suit (“Excuse me! War Eagle!”)

These are crazy times indeed.

When they were out the door, I glanced at the couple next to me and saw that the man was wearing an Auburn shirt. I was wearing a houndstooth mask. It all became clear. I had just been figuratively slimed by an Auburn fan. My mask must have been a trigger for the woman’s unpleasant outburst. We’re all on edge these days, I guess.

In 1995, I bought a houndstooth scarf at Lazarus department store in Evansville, Indiana, on a wet and cold day. This purchase was years before houndstooth had become so associated with the attire of my alma mater, the University of Alabama. I liked the scarf, didn’t associate it with the University at the time, and still wear it sometimes when it’s cold enough. I was amused a few years later when the University began to exploit the design. I was a student at Alabama during the “Bear” Bryant era and he didn’t always wear houndstooth hats; there are plenty of images of him wearing checkerboard and plaid patterns, too. Still, if you’re going to adopt a fashion statement for sports iconography, houndstooth is a pretty stylish way to go.

Around the time, in the early 2000s, when Alabama football fans began to flaunt houndstooth, I would get a “Roll Tide” any time I wore the scarf. Since I don’t really mind an exchange of “Roll Tide,” I respond appropriately and move on, not bothering to explain that the scarf was never about football for me. I will admit, however, that the houndstooth face mask was a conscious choice.

I take great and justifiable pride in Alabama’s football legacy and I am aware that on occasion some of our fans step over the line. I have not forgotten the idiot who poisoned the live oaks at Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner (live oaks that were already being slowly killed, unfortunately, by the Auburn tradition of toilet papering them whenever Auburn won a game – and power-washing them to get the paper out the next day). And I am embarrassed by the fact that Alabama sorority rushees’ TikTok posts went viral during the recent Fall Rush. I have long considered Alabama’s greek system of fraternities and sororities to be the biggest blemish on the University’s reputation.

I am reminded of an incident in Pasadena in 2010 when Alabama won its first national championship of the Saban era. On the day of the Rose Bowl, an Alabama fan, who had probably partied too much early in the day, took to an intersection to scream “Roll Tide” to all who passed. A demure Alabama fan left her seat at a sidewalk café and rested her hand on his shoulder. “Honey,” she said, “you need to settle down. We don’t do that sort of thing out in the middle of the street. Save that for the Rose Bowl tonight.”

Which brings me back to my “War Eagle” woman at Fried Green Tomatoes. I am irritated by that huge chip Auburn people seem to have on their shoulders about Alabama’s football dominance. Frankly, I don’t pay much attention to Auburn football until Iron Bowl week – the week of the annual showdown between the intrastate rivals. Beyond that, Auburn football, for me, is like a gnat – an occasional annoyance, but no big deal. I am quick to point out Auburn’s good veterinary medicine and architecture programs, but the football team and its succession of milquetoast coaches don’t occupy much of my attention. Even on the occasions when Auburn beats Alabama on Thanksgiving weekend, the sting is gone by Monday morning.

Auburn won its second national football championship in school history in 2010. Their first was in 1957. Based on that average, they might have their next national championship around 2063.

I’m pretty sure I can take a pass on that. Roll Tide.

Book Review: From Preaching to Meddling by Francis X. Walter

See my latest book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum:

Savoring Sidewalk 2021

REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” blasted through the Alabama Theatre near the start of the Opening Night festivities and screening for the 2021 “Homecoming” chapter of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival. It was labelled “Homecoming” because the festival was returning to its home in Birmingham’s downtown theatre district after exiling itself to drive-in screenings for the 2020 pandemic version.

When I preordered my pass for the festival, I was not expecting the upsurge in Covid outbreaks and the “break-out” cases of fully-vaccinated people that have plagued the second half of the summer. Also, Alabama – embarrassingly – has one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the country. As my great-grandfather McCarn, who was an old-time country schoolteacher in Cullman County, allegedly said about some of his students, “You just can’t beat sense into these stupid people.” (And Grandpa taught school back in a time when you could try.)

But the good people of Sidewalk have been conscious and responsible throughout the time of Covid and, when screenings resumed at the Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center late last year, I felt safe each time I attended. For this year’s festival, proof of vaccination or a current negative Covid test, diligent masking, and lowered seating capacities made the event feel as safe as it could be in our current moment.

Fittingly, the Opening Night movie was Television Event, a 2020 documentary by Jeff Daniels (not the actor) about the making of the 1983 made-for-television movie, The Day After. Opening Night at Sidewalk is often something frothy and light-hearted – a respite, perhaps, before the usually more serious fare of the festival weekend. This year the programmers chose a heavier appetizer.

The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, is a drama about a nuclear attack and its impact on the town of Topeka, Kansas. Daniels’s documentary explores the fear during the Cold War era and the controversy and politics surrounding the production. Younger audiences can’t comprehend what those years were like for Baby Boomers who grew up when “duck and cover” school drills for nuclear attacks were almost as common as fire drills. The film reminds us that a large portion of the U.S. population expected nuclear war within the decade. I remember seeing spray-painted outlines, representing vaporized bodies, drawn on the sidewalks at the University of Alabama to commemorate the anniversaries of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.

One hundred million Americans watched the ABC broadcast of The Day After when it premiered in November 1983. Television Event makes much of the fact that such a communal television experience can never happen again. The documentary implies that the film might even have influenced Reagan’s decision to pursue nuclear arms limitations with the Soviets.

The screening was followed by a made-for-Sidewalk panel moderated by’s Ben Flanagan and including broadcast journalist Ted Koppel and the director, Nicholas Meyer. Among the more urgent comments made during the panel were Meyer’s suggestion that, with the rise of terrorism, the nuclear threat is as bad as it’s ever been and Koppel’s assertion that cyber-attack is an even greater threat than nuclear to national and world security in our present time.

The eye-opening Opening Night screening was also entertaining and lived up to Creative Director Rachel Morgan’s promise to scare the audience. It was good to be back at the Alabama Theatre in an ongoing search for somewhat “normal” experiences in 2021.

I have a tendency to watch mostly documentaries at Sidewalk and 2021 was no exception. Ailey, directed by Jamila Wignot, provides an intimate portrait of the celebrated choreographer and stunning archival footage of performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Ailey was screened at the Lyric Theatre and, in its introduction, the audience was reminded that we were the first audiences in the Lyric since March 2020. Dancer Germaul Barnes, in a moving and dramatic pre-screening tribute to Ailey, encouraged the audience to look around at the people around us. It was a reminder to be in the moment.

The Capote Tapes, directed by Ebs Burnough, revisits the life of the twentieth-century writer with new audio from George Plimpton’s interviews for his 1997 oral biography of Capote. The film focuses on the many scandals and broken friendships that attended Capote’s final legendary but unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

The homegrown documentary, Socks on Fire, directed by Bo McGuire, chronicles a family drama. McGuire, whose writing and voiceovers in the film are impressive, directs a vivid and imaginative rendering of the squabble over his beloved grandmother’s estate – centered on homophobic Aunt Sharon, who changes the locks, and drag queen Uncle John, who assumes he will continue to live in his mother’s house.

Socks on Fire takes place in Alabama and earned the best documentary prize at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. McGuire tells his family’s story with humor, love, and energy. The film itself is a creative log ride; in case that was not enough, McGuire’s animated introduction included live performances by three drag queens on the Alabama stage (well, two drag queens and a third act, “Saliva Godiva,” whose frenzied performance seems to defy any known label). One performer, Queen Brown Suga Spice, seemed to have a couple of praise dancers as back-up. As the ladies performed, runners passed the hat around the theatre to collect tips from the audience.

In his introduction, McGuire again made the point that seemed to be a theme for this 23rd edition of Sidewalk. He stressed the importance of the communal audience experience that is central to the filmmaker’s art. Being back together in actual theatres in downtown was a reminder of how much has been missed over the past year and a half.

Queen Brown Suga Spice at the Alabama

In earlier years, I would try to see how many screenings I could squeeze in on Sidewalk weekend. Nowadays, I curate carefully and take time to savor the experience. Sidewalk 23 did not disappoint.

Icarus | Bourdain

The Icarus myth has always had special appeal for me. It’s the story of the boy who, on man-crafted wings, flew too close to the sun and, when the sun melted the waxen wings, fell into the sea and drowned. A favorite poem is W. H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” which begins, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters …” and ends with a consideration of Pieter Breughel’s painting, “The Fall of Icarus,” which portrays the tragedy as an ignored event in the midst of a world that goes on with its daily tasks. The viewer has to look closely to find the legs of the boy as he plunges into the sea.

In my teaching years, I used the Auden text as an introduction to my Oral Interpretation performance class. I used it as an exercise in perspective and point of view. The poem reminded me, decades after Auden wrote it in 1938, of the brilliant late-summer morning of September 11, 2001, when television hosts on “Today” were casually chatting with tourists in Rockefeller Plaza — commenting on the weather — as the unthinkable was happening just four miles away. Coincidentally, I was — at the same time — reading Franzen’s The Corrections and getting what was probably my last true suntan on a Florida panhandle beach.

I gained a new perspective on Icarus recently as I watched Morgan Neville’s documentary, Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain, at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Cinema – one of my favorite refuges from the Pandemic. Bourdain’s brother, Christopher, reads an anonymous tribute left at Anthony’s former Manhattan brasserie, Les Halles, after his death. It says, “Icarus didn’t fail. He was coming to the end of his triumph.”

Near the beginning of Roadrunner, we hear Bourdain’s voice: “Here’s a little preemptive truth telling; there’s no happy ending.” We knew that going in and perhaps that is the reason we are so eager to see the film. Three years after Bourdain – a writer who did not write a suicide note – took his own life, many are still searching for a reason; Neville’s film offers some possibilities to mull, but the depth of the grief of Bourdain’s friends, family, and colleagues is palpable.

Despite the promise of a bleak ending, much of the film is triumphant and fun, chronicling Bourdain’s rise from dishwasher to executive chef, from author to influential and charismatic television personality. It deals with his addictive personality, commitment issues, and demons as he becomes a globe-trotter, sampling the world’s foodways and using that pretext to explore the world’s issues and humanity. Neville focuses at times on the haunted look on Bourdain’s face in the middle of a shoot; we also see Bourdain’s suspicion of his rise to fame and his horrified face as he must admit that he’s about to appear on “Oprah.”

Raodrunner has faced some manufactured controversy over certain directorial choices and omissions, but documentary – like journalism – is always a subjective form at its core and each creator makes choices about how the “truth” will be presented. Bourdain certainly made those types of choices throughout his globe-trotting culinary documentary career, which the film and many of its interviewees assert was never really about food.

Neville’s documentary choices seem sound to me and his aesthetic choices are intriguing throughout. The insertion of footage from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now seems right, highlighting Bourdain’s obsessions with that movie and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – the source novel, when he is finally able to spend time in the Congo. When Bourdain and his film crew are stuck in Beirut in 2006 during the July War between Hezbollah and Israel, Bourdain questions the ethics of getting a tan at the hotel pool; he has little choice – the airport is closed and there is little to do but stay at the hotel, listening to the sounds of war all around. He seems both excited and guilty at his predicament.

Bourdain was always one to speak truth to power and, even at his most brash and surly, his authenticity and humanity come through. Roadrunner manages to capture another side of Bourdain – his vulnerability and joy in his family and relationships. When one interviewee seems to favorably compare the relationship of Bourdain and his first wife, Nancy Putkoski, to “Sid and Nancy,” I laughed out loud a little thinking, That’s a good thing? Maybe, for Bourdain, a little bit; Bourdain worked hard to maintain his punk persona throughout a career that was ultimately respectable and highly influential.

Roadrunner doesn’t sugarcoat; nor does it explain anything, really. But it reveals and listens and leaves the viewer with many things to ponder. Without giving too much of the ending away, it involves the mutilation of an image by a Bourdain friend and confidante. It’s the kind of moment Bourdain would have chosen.

Revisiting a Joni Mitchell Moment

This was fun. Out of the Blue, Lee Hedgepeth, a reporter from Birmingham radio station CBS42, called me a couple of days ago and asked if I would be willing to be interviewed about Joni Mitchell’s 1976 Tuscaloosa concert. He contacted me after reading my post, “Love Song for Joni,” on “Professional Southerner.” Perhaps I come across as a little too much of a “fanboy,” but I always appreciate the opportunity to praise a unique musical icon.

A birthday, a rose and a little white lie: 45 years later, fans remember Joni Mitchell’s only Alabama concert

Dr. Wilson and the Ants

The University of Alabama, my alma mater, brands itself as “Where Legends Are Made.” I think it’s a good brand, although I am wary of the fact that all institutions of higher education nowadays seem to be more about the branding than about their academic distinction. Even so, I think that one of our university’s truest legends is author / biologist / ecologist / naturalist Edward O. Wilson.

Wilson, a native of Birmingham, grew up around Washington, D.C., and Alabama’s Gulf Coast, has the distinction of being considered the world’s foremost expert in myrmecology – the study of ants, and is frequently called the primary Darwinist of our time. Retired now, but still active, he received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in biology at the University of Alabama and his Ph.D. at Harvard, where he spent most of his professional teaching career. He has been regularly ranked as one of the most important scientists in history.

So, Roll Tide.

One of the few benefits of Pandemic isolation was the opportunity to read more widely, including a more in-depth exploration of Wilson’s award-winning writing. My most recent reading of Wilson was motivated by The Library of America’s Spring 2021 publication of three of his most acclaimed books in a single volume. Included are Biophilia (1984), The Diversity of Life (1992), and Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist (1994).

In The Library of America compilation, Biophilia is a brief and user-friendly examination of the interdependence and connectedness of human beings and nature. Wilson, a dyed-in-the-wool scientist, has the vision of a poet and his ability to translate his scientific passion to accessible terms for those, like me, who are essentially non-scientific, is an impressive one. After reading Wilson, you will never look at an ant bed the same again. For that matter, you shouldn’t be able to take nature for granted again.

The text of The Diversity of Life is a little more textbook-y at times. The first part of that carefully researched book details the history of evolution. Wilson addresses the five previous periods of extinction on the planet and the millions of years it took for the Earth to repair itself after each. He convincingly asserts that we are now in the midst of the sixth great extinction, caused by human activity, and that there may be no recovery from this one unless we act quickly and with purpose. Wilson is pragmatic in his approach, presenting options for human progress while working with nature rather than against it. The fact that The Diversity of Life was written almost thirty years ago makes it even more compelling, given Wilson’s prescient observations.

I’ll admit that parts of The Diversity of Life were a slog for me and I found myself putting the book down to take a breather for a few days on a few occasions. I was not bored – just overwhelmed by the amount of information. So, it was a pleasure when I moved on to Naturalist, Wilson’s very entertaining autobiography. It is a compulsively readable book that explains the passion the scientist brings to his more scholarly texts. His writing is candid and his detailed description of the flora and fauna of the everyday as well as the exotic are breathtaking.

Finishing Naturalist, I was eager to move on to Wilson’s one novel, Anthill (2010). It is clear, having read the autobiography, that Anthill has many autobiographical elements as it tells the story of Raphael Semmes (Raff) Cody, who grows up in south Alabama and becomes obsessed with a parcel of wild forest near his fictional hometown, Clayville, in Nokobee County. We follow Raff’s childhood explorations and his growing fascination with the ant colonies of the Nokobee forest.

As enticing as the coming-of-age story of Raff may be, the novel becomes singular in its appeal and uniquely E.O. Wilson in its mastery and finesse with “The Anthill Chronicles,” the novel’s centerpiece. The “Chronicles” comprises nine chapters and seventy-one pages. It is a memorable and impactful rendition of the life and death of woodland ant colonies from the perspective of the ants. Margaret Atwood calls it the “Iliad of the ants.” “The Anthill Chronicles” cunningly provides keen science-based parallels into the challenges and evolution of the human species. The action of the battle scenes, when rival ant colonies vie for dominance, are as action-packed and suspenseful as any war story you might have read. It’s hard not to be moved by the death of a colony’s queen and the methodically efficient way in which the duty-bound ants handle the aftermath of that colonial tragedy. I am still surprised at how invested I became in dozens of pages of the lifestyles of the ants. Wilson doesn’t give his ants the human traits that a Disney version might; his ants view the humans who come into their territory as “moving trees.” Wilson’s ants are guided by instinct and genetics.

As the “Chronicles” conclude, the reader is back into Raff’s story as he finishes an undergraduate degree at Florida State and heads to Harvard law school. By this time, Raff has a clear path in mind for his goals to use his law degree to advocate for conservation causes. He makes the conscious but unexpected decision to go into practice with a Mobile development company which does not have a good record on environmental issues. We find a direct correlation between the fate of the ant colonies of the “Chronicles” and the story of the developers.

Wilson masterfully uses his fiction to illuminate his naturalist concerns; the book is rife with twists and turns, colorful and disturbing characters. Raff’s environmental activism attracts the attention of a fundamentalist, violent, and anti-conservation religious sect, leading to an unexpected, violent, and thrilling climax. Wilson’s choice of narrative style, shifting effortlessly from an omniscient narrator to the first-person observations of one of Raff’s ecology professors at Florida State, raises intriguing questions about Raff’s destiny at the book’s closing.

E.O. Wilson is a writer who should appeal to the casual reader as well as the environmentally-committed. He’s a “good read,” as we say.

Book Review: Magic City Rock by Blake Ells

Blake Ells documents Birmingham, Alabama’s often overlooked rock and alternative music scene in his new book, Magic City Rock: Spaces and Faces of Birmingham’s Scene. I enjoyed reviewing it for Alabama Writers’ Forum. You can read my review here:

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