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Volume 16, Issue 1: Pictura


Nathan Wilson

Ants are not for everyone. I have never eaten a large one, only the small and fast brown ones that I could find around the campfire years ago. At first I was surprised at their tartness. Something scratching away at my tongue, then it would pop against the roof of my mouth and things went sour. I could not think about it. The activity required mental apathy.

I knew a girl once whose mother had sent her brother outside to eat ants. She had apparently grown weary of his softness. He had not been allowed back inside until he had filled a quota of black driveway ants, a breed I have not tried. She seemed to think that it worked. The mother that is. The girl I once knew wasn't so sure.
It is hard to avoid picturing ourselves as ants. At least our productive selves. For some people the image is very difficult. It's hard to picture the man smoking outside the video store as an ant. Do ants slouch? The mailman is easy. Of course someone provided us with the image of grasshoppers for the non-ant people. I struggle with the image. Lazy people are larger, maybe. But do they have long legs and leap? I have never squeezed a lazy man between my finger and thumb, but perhaps if I did, like the unfortunate grasshoppers of my childhood, he would urp and burble tobacco juice into my hand. It did not bother me then. There was once a grasshopper I knew whose jumping legs had been removed, though I have since been forgiven. He might serve as a mental mascot for the unproductive, if only he'd been smaller. As it turns out, he eventually found himself on an anthill. I remember watching a pack of much smaller productivity take him to pieces so as to better fit him indoors. The ants had not minded the tobacco juice either.
I have watched shows on ants. Driver ants in Africa that are fast enough to sneak up on chickens and strip them to the bone while they hop and peck in panic. Drunks occasionally go missing. Whole jungles are quiet where the Driver ants drive. Anything gets eaten. They are all female. Well, not all. The males live lonely lives, at least for a while. They are called sausage flies, and they are, I believe, the biggest ants around. They don't look like ants. They look like bloated sausage-shaped flies. Ants are always proverbial, and these males, in proverbial fashion are lured in foolishness to the highway of females while they are in transit. Fat, bloated ants, nothing more than sacks of sperm and stubby wings. He is grabbed and pinned painfully, his wings are snipped off by the ever helpful females, and then he is on the highway. He is much too slow his own self. He is carted. Seduced and harvested. Stored in some prison cell, perhaps with cable, productive only in that he has sperm. A spectacular achievement.
There are ants in South America, and perhaps elsewhere, that prune and maintain trees. They do not have nests. They all inhabit the tree. Unnecessary leaves and branches are removed and the tree becomes fruitful. There, somehow, is a collective consciousness among these, and most ants. Or at least we do not see the creative conflicts. We only see the process, without discussion, and the final result. The tree is fruitful. The grass around its base is evenly trimmed and kept short. The tree becomes nutritionally attractive to some animal or other foolish enough not to have recognized the manicured lawn around the trunk, and, as it approaches, the collective ant consciousness kicks in. Someone gets on the internal bulletin board, and organizes trans-species communication. The ants, all screaming, "Stay off the grass," in unison, inhospitably leap off leaf tips and branches everywhere and begin negotiations. I do not know if they are boys or girls, or what they do to grasshoppers.
There have been times when I have wished I could step into an ant adventure. They are not the times when I see one working with no thought of self. I do not see an ant dragging a stick four times its length toward the hill, and wonder to myself what it would be like to be him, and think what poetry there must be in his life. But I ought to, and there is. For all I know he is leading the good life. He is dragging an integral twig to his enormous family's stack of integral twigs. He has only diligence and sacrifice. He probably does not even know that he is sacrificing. Even worse, none of the other ants do. They might if half the ants were grasshoppers. Then he would stand out. I have never seen a grasshopper drag a twig. No, the little worker ant never inspired blue collar dreams as I ate and slept my way through adolescence. And when I grew older, married and began dragging my own twigs home, when I stood beside my barbeque and watched the familiar twig-waddle of the burdened ant across my patio, I simply saw a better version of myself. Faster and much stronger, among other things. It has always been the soldier ant that inspired me. And not the Army ants of wherever that link arms and float rivers, and clean the floors beneath third-world refrigerators, but the little brown ones that I used to eat. The brown ones that are probably twig draggers in normal circumstances, but have been called up by their queens to go chew another little brown ant's legs off. They are not professional soldiers. These are the minutemen of our own War for Independence. Only they are fighting over a sidewalk crack. But perhaps that's an additional similarity.
I have watched several ant wars. All of them, at least that I have witnessed first hand between my feet, have been waged by little brown ants on more little brown ants. All of these wars have taken place in and around sidewalk cracks. This is not to say that they limit themselves to such theaters and fronts. It is to say, if they ever do it in the grass, I would never notice. But maybe they do only fight over sidewalks. Perhaps it is our society and structures that have first separated the collective ant empire of the Palouse, or my neighborhood, and then planted the seeds of bitterness and resentment. Our artificial boundaries may be the cause of the bloodshed. It would seem only natural that ants would use sidewalks as we use rivers. We on this side say to those on that side, "Stay." They do not stay; several of them sneak through the cracks at night, or in the early morning light, and work very hard in our colony at jobs we think are beneath us. They are paid in twigs, or aphid excretion, and they sneak back, only to return again. This is insulting to our society. They are insinuating something about our work ethic. They are calling us grasshoppers and sausage flies. We begin watching the cracks and carting them back. We don't need their contributions. But they do not stop. Eventually, too many of them come. We cannot watch all the cracks. Some ant's leg is bitten. The Israelis retaliate. France surrenders.
I squat and watch. The battle is raging in the very first ant war I have ever witnessed. It is several years ago, outside my sister's apartment. There are thousands of ants locked in death's embrace. There are bodies everywhere, but there are ants sorting them even as the battle rages. Carcasses are being dragged by little brown ants back toward both sides of the sidewalk. The crack itself is where the fighting is hottest. Ants stacked dozens high wade into each other, rear back, flail and click tiny mandibles. Other ants run quickly along the crack on either side, and identify and engage any enemy that might crawl out of the crack. I do not know how they recognize each other. But I do not know how ants do anything. I wonder, at least at that time, the time of my first ant war, what epics could be written. What songs could be sung about brave ant deeds? Was there one brown ant, lowly of birth, limping from childhood, but pressed into service, who willingly stood in the gap for the North side of the sidewalk while the eggs were evacuated? Did he stand and kill ant after ant on the dyke while the Spanish Catholics chaffed? And if he had, would the others care? Would he be given a comfortable government postion outside the Queen's chamber if he had any legs left? Or was he merely angry on his own account, insulted at the lack of honor paid him, humiliated at the theft of his concubine? Ants do not have concubines, though things may have been different once. This first ant war brought me a thirst for big books about little things, histories of the unimportant. If only Herodotus could have had ant's eyes, and sat by their fires, heard their motivations and described what they did to the skulls of their enemies. But Thucydides, he I would leave elsewhere. Let him and his followers fear, honor, interest migratory bird patterns. He would never capture the soul of an ant war that boiled on the corner of 6th and Hayes.
I heard that there were ants that killed people in New Zealand, or thereabouts. Bulldog ants. They have stingers in addition to their mandibles. But then I found out that the deaths were mainly due to allergies, and the Bulldog ants lost their luster. They monkey around in stone and concrete, urban ants, and like New Yorkers, don't like you to look them in the eye on the sidewalk. They are not lazy. No ant is lazy unless you count the sausage fly. But they are bitter about something. They do not know how to be lazy, and that might be what they resent, this irrepressible urge to push gravel around. Even the ants I simply called "red ants" in my childhood, though their abdomens were black, could seem cheerful, if touchy. This fall I interrupted a herd of their aphids grazing in a willow tree and they dropped off all over my arm and shirt. They seemed aware that it was an accident, and let me go with a warning. But Bulldog ants, as I have watched, always have an eye cocked for a passing flip-flopped foot that they can attack with both their ends at once. Their fathers or collective father, (who knows?) seems to have given them a work ethic and a hatred for life. There are currently people collecting them in vacuums and pureeing them into vaccinations for the large percentage of people they can kill with a sting. A modern variation of eating the ant that bites you.
I cannot say that I still enjoy ant wars. I have learned too much about Russia. I have seen images of the battle for Stalingrad. On one side, the little brown ants of Germany, on the other of Russia. On one side the bloated Queen Fuhrer. On the other, Stalin. Between them a sidewalk crack and more dead ants than I care to count. The legs bitten off any ant that dares retreat. I still stop to watch every war I find raging through a crack. They last for hours, sometimes more than a day. I will see one on my way home from work, stop, assess the strategic situation and check the shifts in postion in the morning on my way back. I will say a prayer that the righteous colony will prevail. That all apostate brown ants will repent and find a more joyful twig dragging. I do not like to think that these wars and sagas are amoral, that they are as morally meaningless as Stalingrad, though that battle did affect others with cleaner lines drawn.
But what I truly wish for is that some day, as I walk to work, I will look down and see little brown ants, that I know to be tart, waging a war with grasshoppers, wading through tobacco spit and gnawing off legs. But I know I will not see it. Grasshoppers, like the man in front of the video store, have no fight.

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