A Tribute to E.O. Wilson

“You teach me, I forget.  You show me, I remember.  You involve me, I understand” ~E.O. “Ed” Wilson, 1929-2021, The American Chestnut Foundation’s Honorary Director

Ed’s interview being filmed by Jake Boritt.

Since hearing of Ed’s passing, a day I knew would come but dreaded, there is little I can add to the many deserved accolades of this towering conservationist. Ed is considered the father of biodiversity, a prolific author, and an unparalleled scientist with endless curiosity and energy. We are saddened he is no longer with us, but he leaves a profound legacy.

Little did I know I would actually have an opportunity to meet and get to know Ed, thanks to introductions by his staff at the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation (EOWBF) and one of TACF’s board members. He was a hero since my undergraduate days studying ecology in the late 1970s. After joining TACF, I had an idea that he might be interested in our bold mission to rescue a species; after all, his Half Earth Project was an urgent call to prevent extinction across our planet. Upon receiving his contact information, I sent a humble email inquiring about his potential familiarity with TACF’s work. I also asked if he would kindly consider the invitation to be recognized as an Honorary Director of our organization, and consent to be interviewed for our documentary film. Much to my great surprise, he responded immediately with enthusiastic affirmatives on both counts.

In November 2017, filmmaker Jake Boritt and I traveled to Harvard University, where Ed was a professor and scholar at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. His long-time assistant, Kathy Horton, met us and we wound through the catacombs of the old building until reaching Ed’s offices and labs. It is hard to describe my excitement and nervousness meeting him, after having worked in the environmental field for nearly 40 years. My unease disappeared the minute this tall, unassuming man greeted us with the warmth of a true southern gentleman. While Jake set up for the film shoot, Ed asked me into his office and we chatted one-on-one for more than a half hour. Although I don’t remember everything about our conversation, I certainly remember how at ease he made me feel and how he personally ensured me that TACF’s mission mattered.

Ed’s collection of ants and framed mementos in his Harvard office.

After his interview (which can be viewed here), Jake and I were treated to a luncheon with his other colleagues; myrmecologists who curated and studied his vast collection of ant specimens from all over the world. At the conclusion of the visit, Ed asked me if I had heard of the conifer Torreya; I replied, “taxifolia? If so, yes!” Thanks to my previous work with The Nature Conservancy and the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, home to this rare species, I was familiar with how close it was to extinction. He then enthusiastically invited our lead scientist Dr. Jared Westbrook and I to give a talk on chestnut restoration at the Tree of Life conference to be held the following winter in North Florida.

Ed delivering a keynote address at the Tree of Life conference, Torreya State Park, Bristol, FL March 1, 2018.

The connections to TACF continued when I was introduced to Dr. Dennis Liu, EOWBF’s Vice President for Education. Dennis graciously agreed to join our board of directors in 2019 and has lent his expertise in distilling complex scientific projects into accessible, compelling stories with great passion and elegance. He speaks of his friend and mentor: “Although Ed was a renowned Harvard Professor and global spokesperson for biodiversity, his heart remained in his boyhood home of Alabama and its wetlands, longleaf pine, and yes, American chestnut. Ed understood that achieving our goal of saving Earth’s biodiversity would take national, regional and local efforts and he was a strong proponent of communities like TACF’s conservation work. Ed hoped that the Half-Earth Project could be an inspiration and umbrella for such efforts.” Dennis enabled some TACF supporters and I to attend Half-Earth Day in New York City in October 2018 which was yet another unforgettable and inspiring experience.

I continued to correspond with Ed on occasion and in our last email exchange he had this to say: “Lisa, it’s always great to hear from you. I include TACF’s great achievement in almost all my conversations and talks about conservation.” At that moment, I knew earning Ed’s sincere affection for TACF’s audacious goal was a soaring vote of confidence. Rest in peace, dear Ed, and may your teachings and grace live on forever.

Half-Earth Day; a conversation with Ed (right) and Paul Simon (middle) moderated by Thomas L. Friedman, October 2018.

Lisa Thomson, TACF President & CEO