In 2oo2 I was on Reunion Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. At the time I wrote in my journal: ‘I have seen the beauty of nature on a tropical island, been fascinated by the workings of the physical world around us, realised that I am part of the biosphere – something much bigger than my personal problems – discovered how pressing is the need to conserve and restore global biodiversity, and found new direction in my life in wanting to help do that.’
When I was on Reunion the place had a 43% unemployment rate, plenty of bad drivers and groups of men drinking rum on the side of the street in the middle of the day. Despite some of the problems on the island, being in a very different cultural framework – the French speaking, Creole eating tropical scene with a little bit of African influence – allowed me to see nature like an alien on another planet. I read E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life for the first time. Wilson and the land both inspired me, and thus this blog entry has to be about both. Wilson’s prose in his book Consilience – which I also read while I was there – put me on a new path, bound up in his broader conservation ethic, to approaching my own life. The tone was amelioristic, in control, optimistic, rational, autonomous, fascinated, and knowledge-hungry.
Reunion is a volcanic cone poking up out of the Indian Ocean. The somewhat undisturbed south-east is called the ‘sud sauvage’, the wild south in English, and it is crested by this constantly unpredictable volcanoe, the Piton Fournaise. This mountain is three thousand metres from the sea to the top. Dribbles of dark lava come down the south-east slope.
The interior of the island is sometimes dry, sometimes lush, but nearly always slashed by very deep gorges and outrageously tall mountain peaks. This beach is typical of the island. I don’t love the French habit of leaving cigarette buts everywhere in the sand, but I do love the fact that you can float in a pool at the end of this beach and see the warm colours of live coral beneath you. You can see what a great place it was to be reading about the workings behind the diversification of species of life on earth.
The rivers that flow to the sea carve deep gorges full of icy water holes, like this secret spot…
So this is the tropical crucible within which I first heard the uplifting and philosophical voice of the greatest prose stylist of modern science. Thanks Edward O. Wilson. Partly because of your writings, everywhere I walk on this earth I feel I belong, as part of the biosphere.
When I returned to Australia in 2003 I was saddened to find that the conservationist figure embodied by E. O. Wilson – the affable, well-mannered southern gentleman with a prodigious intellect and stylish approach – didn’t fit very clearly among Australian Wilderness Society activists and Greenpeace recruits.
Still, I have continued to be influenced by Wilson’s outlook on the world. True, I write about novels, poems, and films, and not about the workings of ecosystems. But some science does inform my environmentally- slanted literary criticism. Most of all, I’m humbled by the complex workings of the species of life on this earth; my cosmology places us humans firmly within this natural realm; and much of my spiritual sustenance comes from the creation. Partly thanks to the tone of the writings of an old Harvard professor, I’m still determined and I’m still impressed.