Monday, September 12, 2011

Of Ants and Warfare

I was driving home, one evening, only a quarter of a mile from the house, when my headlights picked up an anomaly in the road, like a fat black hose stretched from side to side. I stopped in the road and got out to investigate. To my amazement, the “hose” turned out to be a veritable river of ants! All were moving in the same direction and at warp speed. I could actually hear the faint susurration of a million ant knees, as they marched! Never have I witnessed, before or since, such a vast upheaval of the ant kingdom. To avoid running over them, I backed the car, turned around and went all the way down the mountain and came up on the other side. Nothing could have induced me to disrupt such magnificent disruption!

Early the next morning, I walked up the road to the spot, almost expecting the unending flow to have continued, but nary an ant was in sight. There was, however, a cleared path on the shoulder of the road, as if a bicycle tire had skidded through the duff. It would be the equivalent of a ten-lane freeway, in human proportions. Every stick, every pebble had been removed, an heroic task. Where were they bound, and why, this superorganism on the move? I followed their highway to where it disappeared into the underbrush, bearing away its mystery and enigma with it.

On another walk, I discovered a large black scorpion, perhaps two and a half inches long, completely mobbed by red ants, which swarmed over its body like a red tide. The scorpion put up a valiant fight with the weapons at its disposal, stinging the marauders that clambered on its back and pinching in half those that it could reach with its grasping claws. For a time it looked as if the predatory arthropod might escape, but then, ant reinforcements arrived and, despite the scorpion’s tough exoskeleton, managed to simply bite it to death. I watched in fascinated horror as this ant execution took place, bent double at the waist, hands on knees, a stance both rooted and removed at a godlike distance.

Yet another time, I came across a full-scale war in progress in the middle of a blacktopped road, involving black ants from the east side of the road and red ants from the west. It was a horrific battle, complete with wheeling phalanxes, hand-to-hand combat and medics bearing away the bodies of the wounded and the dead. Atop a pebble the size of a pea, two ants reared on their hind legs and grappled like wrestlers. Recruits raced from the mountain misery on the roadsides, to replace the fallen.

Again, I assumed my stand above them and observed. There could be no real justification for such global combat, I reasoned. On the east side of the road, the woods stretched away for miles. Ditto the west side. Surely there was a sufficiency of territory and food for both ant clans. This must, I thought, be how God feels, watching human warfare: puzzled, adding up the plenitude of resources, perhaps inventing the world tragicomic, while He gazed.

Since childhood I have been observing a colony of harvester ants, just up the road from my house. This is a veritable Rome of ant colonies, with four huge boulevards a full four inches wide extending from the main mound to the four points of the compass. These are neatly bisected by smaller avenues that angle off at 45 degrees, which are in turn divided in half by smaller streets. Of course, one must kneel in the dirt and put one’s eye at ground level to perceive this, but I am an inveterate traveler and have endured worse in my pursuit of the world’s wonders. These ant highways and byways can extend, I understand, for up to 50 to 60 kilometers!

The division of labor is apparently effortless. Some ants exist to make the avenues ever smoother, and scurry about lugging what to a human would be the equivalent of telephone poles and pickup trucks. Others are true harvesters, coming in from outlying areas bearing single seeds of wild grass that tower in front of them like huge bouquets. They disappear into the maw of their mound, which is large enough for me to slide my hand into it (I never have), while at the same time still another class of workers exits the portal with empty seed husks and deposits them on the mound, which is fully six inches deep in them, with a circumference of three feet!

Observing their orderly kingdom, I always wish for a fiber optic camera that I could slide down their entrance, like a gastroenterologist performing a colonoscopy. I imagine the sprawling network of hallways and chambers beneath the ground, the nurseries for eggs and pupae with their nursemaid caste and the granaries, where yet another class of workers inserts the cleaned seeds like sailors loading torpedoes.

Scientists have excavated an ant nest in Brazil, after pouring six tons of cement and eight thousand liters of water into it, to preserve its structure in petrified form! I have read that ants make up to one third of the animal biomass on Earth. Like humans, they have organized civilizations, organize to accomplish specific tasks, have created architecture, are sometimes farmers, tend their young, and wage war.

 I wonder if, down the labyrinthine corridors of the ants’ world, perhaps at the very end, in a chamber tucked into bedrock or under a root, there is a scriptorium where a sister ant bends over her parchment of dried leaf, scribbling away about the curious habits of humankind, describing our odd child-rearing practices, our food gathering and our wars? And if she, too, is bemused and troubled by the latter?

(It is now possible to leave comments anonymously. Just go to the "comments" line in red and click on it, and you will see an "anonymous" option. Sorry for having taken so long to get this in place." SS

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