“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
Entranced after reading Edward O. Wilson’s timeless evocation of his Southern childhood in The Naturalist and Anthill, photographer Alex Harris approached the Alabama-born scientist about collaborating on a book about Wilson’s native world of Mobile. After agreeing that it was a city small enough to be captured through a lens yet old enough to have experienced an epic cycle of tragedy and rebirth, the photographer and the naturalist joined forces to record the rhythms of this storied Alabama Gulf region through a swirling tango of lyrical words and breathtaking images.
Revisiting the landscape that set him on his course in life as a scientist, conservationist, and writer, Wilson has retraced his family’s two-century 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. Echoing Wilson, Harris renders in photographs the story of a man who knows the land as only an evolutionary biologist can know his home ground. As one of our greatest documentary photographers, Harris captures the mood of a radically transformed city that has vibrantly managed to adapt itself to the twenty-first century. The history is told with sweeping and poignant observations. The images are instantaneous and exact. But both forms come together to brilliantly reveal a portrait of a modern city whose individual components keenly evoke the human condition in one place over time.
Individually and collaboratively, Wilson and Harris have brought together vastly different perspectives—visual and verbal, artistic and scientific, intuitive and cerebral, objective and subjective, contemporary and historical—to create a book that is as much about the meaning of place as it is about a place itself. The result not only records a particular people and a unique American city and its landscapes, but portrays something much larger: the deeply human impulse to tell a story with both our lives and the world that surrounds us.
In this historic collaboration between a beloved naturalist and a celebrated photographer, Harris and Wilson connect the dots—between the people, the culture, the geography, the city—to give us a singular panorama of not only Mobile but the larger South today. A new kind of documentary history, Why We Are Here then becomes a universal story, one that tells us where we all come from and why we are here.
Asking big questions has been at the heart of Edward O. Wilson’s work since, as a young teen, he began to study ants in the vacant lot next to his family home on Charleston Street in Mobile. Over the last seven decades, he has scrutinized the living creatures, plants, and processes of the Earth and managed to weave together nothing less than a new grand narrative about life on this planet. Alex Harris