Friday, January 18, 2013

G29 Why we are here; Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City

Title of the Book: Why We are here; Mobile and the spirit of a southern city

Author: Edward O Wilson and Alex Harris

Publisher: Liveright Publishing Company

Publishing Date: 2012

ISBN: 978-0-87140-470-1


Entranced by Edward O. Wilson 's mesmerizing evocation of his Southern childhood in The Naturalist and Anthill, Alex Harris approached the scientist about collaborating on a book about Wilson 's native world of Mobile, Alabama. Perceiving that Mobile was a city small enough to be captured through a lens yet old enough to have experienced a full epic cycle of tragedy and rebirth, the photographer and the naturalist joined forces to capture the rhythms of this storied Alabama Gulf region through a swirling tango of lyrical words and breathtaking images. With Wilson tracing his family 's history from the Civil War through the Depression when mule-driven wagons still clogged the roads to Mobile 's racial and environmental struggles to its cultural triumphs today, and with Harris stunningly capturing the mood of a radically transformed city that has adapted to the twenty-first century, the book becomes a universal story, one that tells us where we all come from and why we are here.

Other Works:

Edward O Wilson has written books such as On Human Nature, The Ants and a memoir titled The Naturalist.

Alex Harris has photographed in Cuba, Inuit villages of Alaska, Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico and across American South. He also launched a DoubleTake magazine. He also helped with a book titled River of Traps. He has published fourteen books which include The Idea of Cuba, Red White Blue and God Bless You and A World Unsuspected: Portraits of Southern Childhood.

(from the book:)

Edward O Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1929 and was drawn to the natural environment from a young age. After studying evolutionary biology at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, he has spent his career focused on scientific research and teaching, including forty-one years on the faculty of Harvard University. His twenty books and more than four hundred mostly technical articles have won him over a hundred awards in science and letters, including two Pulitzer Prizes, for On Human Nature (1979) and, with Bert Holldobler, The Ants (1991); The United States National Medal of Science; the Crafoord Prize, given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for fields not covered by the Nobel Prize; Japan's International Prize for Biology; the Presidential Medal and Nonino Prize of Italy; and the Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society. For his contributions to conservation biology, he has received the Gold Medal of the National Audubon Society and the Gold Meda of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Much of his personal and professional life is chronicled in the memoir Naturalist, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Science in 1995. More recently, Wilson has ventured into fiction, the result being Anthill, published in 2010 by W.W. Norton & Company. Still active in field research, writing, and conservation work, Wilson lives with his wife Irene in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Alex Harris was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1949. He graduated in 1971 from Yale University where he also studied photography with Walker Evans. Harris has photographed for extended periods in Cuba, the Inuit villages of Alaska, the Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico, and across the American South. He has taught at Duke University for more than three decades and is a founder there of the Center for Documentray Photography (1979) and the Center for Documentray Studies (1989). Harris lauched DoubleTake magazine in 1995 and edited the publication through tis first twelve issues. He is currently Professor of the Practice of Public Policy and Documentray Studies at Duke. Harris's awards include a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial FOundation Fellowship in Photography, an Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Felowship, and a Lyndhurst Prize. His book River of Traps, with William deBuys (1990) was a finalist for teh Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction. Harris's work is represented in major photographic collections, including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the San Francisco Musem of Modern Art. His photographs have been exhibited in numerous museums, including two solo exhibitions at the International Center of Photography in New York City. As a photographer and editor, Harris has published fourteen books, including The Idea of Cuba (2007) Red White Blue and God Bless You (1992) and A World Unsuspected: Portraits of Southern Childhood (1987).


"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.- Edward O Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" (v)

Problems Addressed:

I would guess that the problem would be that people cannot see or understand themselves as being in relationship to nature or to racism, in which the authors explore the past and the present society and how environment has shaped and molded these factors.

Summary of Content:

Mostly the book is made of black and white pictures (I won an ARC which had only black and white photos and no colored ones.) and there are two stories; one is of Alex Harris's experiences and how he approached this project as well as his relationship (friendly one) to Edward Wilson. The other story is Edward Wilson narrating history from 1500s to modern times about the struggles and geography of Alabama as well as the racism that he has lived through.


"We wanted to express Mobile's impact on the senses, to capture its mood and its ambiance and- all together, if you will- its spirit: all the attributes that made me miss Mobile from my home at Harvard and all the events that make Mobile unique today among cities in the American South." (x)

Main Points:

" History, as expressed in narrative non-fiction, is inevitably a long passage of time told in gragments and, at times, sweeping observations. Thematic photography, in contrast, though planned, is instantaneous and minutely exact in composition and detail. But both arts ultimately reveal a picture whose individual components present an overall sense of place: a continuum, as when remembrance of a person's life leads to the instantaneity of conscious thought and the gift of enlightenment." (x)

Why/why not  Its interesting/informative:

Its interesting and informative because I didn't know anything about Mobile Alabama as well as history and the impact environment had on people. I also loved the pictures and photographs. When I showed them to my mom, she mentioned many times how she wished the pictures were in color instead of black and white. In order to understand the pictures, its important to read the story too. Pictures add dimension to Edward's story, although I wished they were more evenly dispersed. Instead a lot in beginning, some in middle and some in the end. Learning the culture and life of Alabama is fascinating too, because the families are of "old" aristocracy and it gives dimension to the South beyond the typical Civil War. It tries to explain why Mobile is the way it is.

Supports thesis:

I felt that the authors have done very well with capturing the mood and spirit of Alabama, as well as explaining how things were in the past and how different they became today.

Address Issues:

The issues that are addressed is the impact of nature and environment on the Southerners as well as long term effects it had. The book explores history of the South, from the time of Colonial Era of Hernando de Soto to beyond Civil War and to the time he lived and grew up in Mobile. I do wish that he could have addressed or talked about Judaism or christianity more in detail.

Book Ideas vs Larger ideas:

"There is another unifying entity at work in Mobile, unappreciated by most of its own people. The city sits in the middle of the biologically richest part of North America. From the Ice Age ravine forests of the Red Hills just to the north and thence south to the wetlands, estuary, and oceanfront at the southern rim, the land supports an unsurpassed array of ecosystems. Its inhabitants may seldom see it that way, but Alabama is preeminently an aquatic state...the whole contains the greatest diversity of aquatic organisms in America." (186)

Agree/disagree with author's opinions:

I don't see myself as a Southerner, and never will. I don't have roots that stretch out all the way to the original settlers and so forth. My family is also not part of any community. Its hard for me to either disagree or agree with the author. I agree with the impact nature has long term on people and whatnot, but others I am not sure about.

Other sources:

The author uses various books about history and nature. There are also pictures which are credited. I would think they are credible sources and whatnot.


Growing up, I felt that the only part of community I have been in is with my immediate family only. Its hard for me to feel inclusion in Texas, and I had difficulty understanding or relating to what the author was writing about. In truth my lack of belonging prevents me from understanding the book, sorry to say. Still, its an enjoyable narrative and history majors or those who love history should love it.

Quick notes: I won this book on thus this review will appear in its entirety on goodreads as well as the blog

3 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)

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