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The rainforest - a paradise for naturalists


The truly grand experience of my career
EO Wilson Scientist
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The truly grand experience of my career as a young scientist came in 1954 and '55 when I was given complete support by Harvard's Society of Fellows, travel, whatever money I needed to pull it off, to travel through archipelagos in the South Pacific and Australia just for the study of ants. And so for many of these islands I was the first ever to go in as a specialist on ants. And it was King Midas' riches in terms of what I could discover and collect and learn. And so I arrived in New Caledonia and started working there, and in Fiji, and then on up to the New Hebrides, now the Republic of Vanuatu to the north. Remote areas in the minds of most people in America and Europe, but a paradise of natural history. At the time that I was there, and of course completely open in terms of what could be discovered when you take a group like the ants and study them. And it was... then I went on to Australia and on up to New Guinea, and spent a lot of time in New Guinea. And it was an unusual period. The Americans, as they always do, after winning the Second World War in this particular case, didn't stay around. They picked up everything, lock stock and barrel, and went back home. Leaving large numbers of grateful planters and others through the jungles of these... of New Guinea and elsewhere who upon hearing, and this was scarcely nine years after the end of the Second World War, who upon hearing that a young American... and they've almost never saw Americans, young ones, there were no tourist centres, I mean, it was unheard of... was in the vicinity, would send for me and ask me to be a guest at their plantation with offers to be taken out to the rainforest and assisted and so on.

So I just floated from one place to the other, a freeloader, and in fact I had to be very careful to avoid offending various people here and there in the outback by not going and spending some time with them. And one of my hosts was in the New Hebrides, the Ratard family. French planters, and that very sparsely inhabited great island of Espiritu Santo, which was where a large American base was located, and it was the site for James Michener's South Pacific. I mean, that's where he got all his inspiration. So... and the Ratard family in fact played a role in his book. Fictional role, it was interesting for example at dinner to hear the stories about the Americans there and James Michener and where 'Bloody Mary' was, or was still at that time. I could have visited many of these characters in South Pacific. So it's that kind of an adventure.

In New Guinea I undertook a long, hard trek with a patrol officer through the Saruwaged Mountains of the Huon Peninsula. That's a little horn-shaped peninsula north east of New Guinea. And together we climbed with a large group of bearers and a couple of guards and so on... we climbed those mountains and walked along the rims visiting villages while I scooped up ants everywhere. I got back to Lae which was at the base of that peninsula, thrilled at this kind of adventure, and I was just the right age for that. I was 24... 25 years old. And I kept looking from Lae which is, you know, administrative center for that whole end of New Guinea... I looked up at the spine of the Saruwaged that extended to the north, and it was west of where I had gone. And it turns out that up to the time I was there in 1955, some 12 people had climbed, you know, non-natives, had climbed to the top of the Eastern end of the Saruwaged. Up over 12,000 feet. They're really tough conditions. And no one had ever climbed to the middle of the Saruwaged. No European. And there they were... you know... you could stand in Lae and look at this purple mountain range, and it looked like you could just walk there that afternoon. So I said, gee, this is the chance to have one of the great adventures of my life, I'm going to be the first to make it to the center of the Saruwaged. And I'm going to do a transect, studying... collecting different organisms, in this case not just ants but frogs and so on.

So to make a long story short, I made my way up with a... in a 1929 two cockpit biplane, the only remaining airplane of the Crowley Airlines operating in that district... up to a Lutheran mission which was halfway up there. Got some bearers and walked on up to the top of the Saruwaged. It took five days to make it up there, but I got to the crest and it was a thrilling experience. So by the time I finished that and my satchels and bags and boxes were so heavily loaded, and I was engaged to a lovely young woman back in Boston, I was ready to come home.

EO Wilson (1929-2021) was an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author (two Pulitzer Prizes). His biological specialty was myrmecology, the study of ants.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Harvard University, Society of Fellows, South Pacific, Australia, New Caledonia, Fiji, Republic of Vanuatu, New Hebrides, Espiritu Santo, Lae, New Guinea, South Pacific, New Guinea, Saruwaged Mountains, Huon Peninsula, James A Michener

Duration: 6 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: 2000

Date story went live: 22 May 2018