If a single place can capture humanity's fraught relationship with nature, Edward O. Wilson makes a good case for Mozambique's war-torn Gorongosa National Park. Its limestone gorges and lush rainforests helped rear the earliest humans, and it was humanity that almost destroyed the park during the country's post-colonial civil war. Now, with the help of international conservationists, local people have established a unique sanctuary for the region's biodiversity.
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Their fates are intertwined. As Wilson tells it in "A Window on Eternity: A Biologist's Walk through Gorongosa National Park," saving Gorongosa means saving not only local culture, but forging a "different kind of immortality" than the fleeting works of human history can hope to achieve.
It's somewhat surprising to learn the trips recounted in this book are Wilson's first to sub-Saharan Africa. The 84-year-old Harvard professor is a widely celebrated biologist and probably the world's leading authority on ants. He's been an author of hundreds of scientific articles and dozens of books, two of which — "On Human Nature" and "The Ants," co-authored with Bert Hölldobler — have won Pulitzer Prizes. But his eyes are fresh for this journey into Mozambique, and it's the reader's gain.
Wilson's latest book is somewhere between a biological treatise on wildlife conservation and a wide-eyed field journal from this Garden of Eden in resurgence. The excitement with which he observes Gorongosa's elephants, crocodiles and tenacious Matabele ants is infectious, aided greatly by Piotr Naskrecki's spectacular photographs. An accompanying 40-minute documentary about the park — "The Guide," directed by Jessica Yu and produced by Yu and Elise Pearlstein — rounds out the visual content of "A Window on Eternity," which is every bit as enjoyable as Wilson's storytelling and exuberant prose.
Here the landscape looks more or less like it did 100,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch. But that legacy was almost squandered during the 1960s and '70s, when the war for independence from Portugal began a prolonged period of conflict that destroyed the country's infrastructure, claimed more than 1 million lives and decimated wildlife populations in Gorongosa. A bitter exodus by Portuguese colonists left the largely illiterate country ripe for a revolution, which embroiled Mozambique in a vicious civil war made all the worse by regional Cold War conflicts. With the backing of white-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), rebels killed countless civilians and crippled the young nation.
The dust settled, revealing scars. Bullet holes still riddle the wall of a restaurant on Mount Gorongosa; the railing of the Hippo House, once a busy tourist spot, remains smashed and contorted. Almost all of the park's large animals were killed in the crossfire or hunted for meat and money, causing an explosion of brush that begat devastating wildfires. Biologist Joyce Poole says Gorongosa's elephants, some of which survived the decades of war, "have seen terrible things." Some of them still charge at the scent of a gun.
But from the brink of extinction, Gorongosa's wildlife rebounded. It's safeguarded now by National Park status and the caring eyes of indigenous people like Tonga Torcida — the main character of Yu's documentary. Born on Mount Gorongosa, Torcida is an aspiring biologist, local community relations expert and an apprentice of Wilson's conservation ethic. Wilson speculates as much as 90 percent of the region's flora and fauna are still undescribed by science — indeed, during a "bioblitz" to catalog native species one afternoon, a local child brings Wilson a thrashing, plated insect that leaves the eminent entomologist nonplused. One can easily picture Torcida returning from his studies in Tanzania to continue the work of counting Gorongosa's natural treasures.
And as Wilson frames it, that would make Torcida a keeper of human history, too. Gorongosa serves as the backdrop for critical advances in human evolution. The park and its environs have been the source of some critical fossils from early human history, helping scientists trace the development of Homo sapiens and our ancestors to Africa's Great Rift Valley. Recent discoveries in Malapa, South Africa, have called the traditional understanding of human evolution into question, presenting the new species Australopithecus sediba as a competitor to Homo habilis for the title of our true ancestors.
"The all-important details of the emergence of Homo will likely be enhanced by excavations in central Mozambique, including new sites at the border of Gorongosa National Park," Wilson writes. Five "scrub-covered limestone ridges … bear openings that appear to be the entrances of unexplored caves," which may have been occupied by Homo sapiens and their ancestors since the beginning of humanity.
An online textbook titled "Life on Earth" will help bear witness to Gorongosa's natural wonders, but it's Wilson's plea for preservation that is this expedition's greatest discovery.
"If I read our own species right," Wilson writes, "humanity is too ignorant and selfish, and thereby inevitably lethal to most other species, for anything but large sanctuaries to work."
He envisions our existing parks connected by corridors, linking preserves across North America like beads in an emerald necklace.
Their "final sanctuaries are our transcendent heritage," Wilson writes. "Let us first of all take constant pleasure from the surprise, mystery, awe, wholeness, relief, and redemption they offer … While our species continues to manufacture its radically different and untested all-human world, the rest of life should be allowed to endure, for our own safety."
Chris Bentley is a freelance journalist based in Chicago.
"A Window on Eternity"
By Edward O. Wilson, Simon & Schuster, 149 pages, $30