• EO Wilson and the Paint Rock Forest Research Center

Paint Rock’s week with Wilson


E.O. Wilson, Pulitzer-prize winning author and Harvard’s pre-eminent evolutionary biologist, sees Alabama in a way that few other people can.


Like so many Alabamians, Ed is proud of his alma mater, the University of Alabama. And he’s proud to recount “his people” and their long history in the state, going back to the dusty streets of Holly Pond in the hills of Cullman County and the ghost town of Blakeley overlooking the swamps and marshes of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.


But Alabama is more than a football team and a family heritage for Ed. It’s a place, with a very special and unusually rich landscape and one of the greatest concentrations of biodiversity in North America.


So there’s nothing that gets Ed’s mind churning quicker than the possibilities of a research center focused on Alabama’s unique biodiversity.


For a week, we hosted a meeting of the titans of ecological research at Paint Rock. Ed, along with UCLA’s Steve Hubbell and Patty Gowaty, began hammering out a vision for the Research Center in Paint Rock, challenging themselves and each other to develop a concept and program that gives us new insight into the way the world works. Kathleen Horton, who has worked for decades to get Ed’s prodigious research and writings into publication, eyed the proceedings knowingly.


Steve brings to the effort the Smithsonian protocol that he was instrumental in developing in the tropics. That massive and intensive forest monitoring program has transformed our understanding of tropical forests. It will be the baseline of our work in Paint Rock, and we expect the data from this site will provide groundbreaking information from the temperate forest.


Patty brings her own love of Alabama, having growing up wandering the banks of the Coosa River, and acute insight into that key passageway of evolution — sex and reproduction in the natural world.


Ed brings an intense appreciation for biodiversity in all its forms, the trees, the ants, the butterflies, the snails, the salamanders, even the primitive microscopic protists that live in the soil. Ed speculates that we know, at best, 20 percent of the species that make up our world. And the 80 percent we don’t know may well impact the future of humans more than the 20 percent we do know.


Merging those scientific visions – and getting good and useful scientific results in the process — is what the Paint Rock Forest Research Center is charged with doing.

Every morning, Ed rose early with his butterfly net in hand to tackle the Alabama countryside. Then we’d sit for hours, trying to figure out how to know more about all the things we don’t know. We spend our early evenings talking about the merits of fried okra and the herd instincts of our pack of border collies, then jump back on the research again – about what’s here, and why it’s here, and whether it will be here for another generation.

And so Ed warns us: You’re making a mistake if you think too small. This research center needs to be as rich and diverse as the forest it operates in. It needs to do for forest research what Woods Hole and Scripps do for marine life. It needs to put Alabama on the international map of forest, conservation and biodiversity research.


And if you don’t mind me inserting myself, he said, I’d like to be on your board.


Yes sir.