BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Bill Finch always thought it would’ve been fun to grow up with E.O. Wilson. Several years ago, he caught a glimpse of what that would’ve been like.
Finch, founder of the Paint Rock Forest Research Center in north Alabama’s Trenton area, had known the acclaimed Harvard naturalist and biologist since Finch was an environmental reporter for the Mobile Press-Register in the mid-90s. Over the years, the two had gone on several trips through the Southeast to observe wildlife.
Wilson’s work studying ants, including linking the arrival of fire ants to the United States through a port in Mobile in the 1930s, was the hallmark of a long career, which included two Pulitzer Prizes and the International Prize for Biology. For his 90th birthday, Wilson knew what he wanted to do.
In 2019, Finch went with Wilson, whom he called “Ed,” through a trek of the Mobile Delta region, where he saw Wilson in his element, looking at ants and nature with the same wonder and curiosity he had had as a boy growing up in Alabama.
“I felt like we were both 8 years old and discovering this together,” Finch said.
Now, in the year since Wilson’s death, Finch and others have an opportunity to see more of Wilson’s life and passions through his personal collection of hundreds of books and field manuals, which have now been donated to the Paint Rock Forest Research Center. Alabama Newscenter first reported the news earlier this week.
The books were donated to Paint Rock through the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. Wilson had been on the board of advisors of Paint Rock and was involved in the early stages of bringing the center from a concept to reality. Unlike many of Wilson’s papers and research, which were donated to the University of Alabama after his death, this latest collection includes many books he owned, as well as short notes he made in each of them.
“I do think the books and the notes in those margins are complimentary and help us to see Ed in action and provide information that the journals don’t,” Finch said.
The books range from those Wilson kept as a student, books about Alabama’s natural history, as well as books he had received from governments in places like China and Africa. To Finch, the collection offers a look inside Wilson’s eclectic interests.
“Alabama’s most important export is its biodiversity and its knowledge of biodiversity through people like Ed,” he said.
Throughout their friendship, Finch saw a different side to Wilson than the towering figure in biology. He saw a man who could put anyone at ease by taking the time to listen.
“Discovering was important to him and he was supportive of other people’s knowledge,” Finch said. “It was easy to be scared by his intellect, but you felt like he was learning from you as you were learning from him.”
Finch said he and staff at Paint Rock are in the process of carving out space for a library to house Wilson’s books and have been consulting with librarians on how to best do it.