Lessons from an ant, Side A
TAKE HEED: It’s totally, mildly okay to skip to the end of this entry if your attention span can’t take it (and your inner child, weak), since there is an über-groovy video at the end with impressive stopping power. Should aforementioned video pique your fancy, you can always start over and try to make sense of the word thingies below. That said, as you were…
Unfortunately, I know far too much about insects than is practical or even remotely cool.
Unfortunately, because absorbing said insect knowledge was not my fault. Quite a while back, it was forced upon me during journalism grad school—when I was late to a meeting with a professor because an exterminator had overstayed his appointment at my house. Upon arriving at the meeting (which was, of course, to determine the topic of my semester-long assignment) and giving my excuse, my professor soon became enamored of the scintillating topic of insect ethics—more specifically, why we kill insects and look down upon them so. There was no thwarting her decision. I was fucked.
For the next semester I talked to no less than 13 entomolgists, many on multiple occasions (oh, what an eclectic and nerdy lot). In doing so, I devoted far too many brain cells to learning about our arthrodpod brethren. It was suicide, in tiny, six- and eight-legged increments. And enough weirdness to fill a moderately interesting 27-page feature article. In fact, here’s the introduction to my article (don’t worry, this part’s not too terribly painful; I won’t subject you to the rest). Please recall that I wrote this some time ago—so temper all judgment accordingly:
When Worlds Collide
At twelve years old I chose a cockroach over my Dad.
It was to be a father-son, handyman bonding experience. Lugging his toolbox in the crook of my arm, I felt undaunted as we headed for the busted air conditioning unit. The cloying heat of a Georgia summer had finally invaded our house, and, spurning Mom’s pleas to call the repairman, Dad and I were on a virile quest to fix the unit ourselves.
“I’m thinking our problem might just be a blown fuse,” Dad asserted.
“Yeah, probably is,” I agreed confidently. I had no idea.
Wedged beneath a small stucco alcove behind the house, the a/c ventilator and fuse box were covered by a thin, filmy spider web. With a few swipes Dad cleared the surface, and I hurled the toolbox onto the unit. A metallic clang resonated through the ventilator, and Dad smiled heartily at me.
The cockroach pounced.
Dad shrieked when the cockroach ambushed his neck and crawled down his collar. Several spasmodic heaves later, Dad somehow had the cockroach on his inner elbow, flung it to the ground, and atomized the creature with three successive stomps. Startled, I jumped back and tried to make sense of the outburst.
My Dad had murdered an insect!
“Why’d you kill it? Why!” I screamed.
Recovering from the minor trauma, my father looked at me quizzically. “What?” he asked.
I screamed again at him, my rage mounting. “You killed it!”
“Zac, it-it was on me!” Dad was flummoxed. “It crawled into my shirt! What else could I do?”
“You didn’t have to kill it! It was outside—you had no right!” I retorted.
Dad held his ground. “For crying out loud, Zac, it’s a cockroach!”
I pouted for a good thirty minutes. The bonding moment had screeched to a halt.
I don’t recall whether the new fuse fixed our air conditioning problem. I do recall the vivid image of a splattered cockroach.
Why? Well, I was twelve, a fledgling adolescent with a short fuse of my own, especially towards my parents. I also had an overdeveloped sense of compassion and a simple appreciation of vitality—regardless of size, appearance, usefulness or intellect.
I’m twenty-four now. This past September I stumbled sleepily into the kitchen one night for a glass of water. After adjusting my eyes to the light, they settled upon a cockroach loitering about the countertop. I searched frantically for an instrument of destruction and found only a skillet. Result: unscrupulously flattened cockroach, skillet in the dishwasher, slaked thirst, no remorse.
Looking back now, the metamorphosis of my sentiments towards cockroaches is striking. This transformation of insect treatment is not unusual, I’m sure. Life experiences changed and evolved my values and priorities; accordingly, my perception of insects degenerated from fellow creatures to pests.
Why? At which age was my judgment most sound?
So there you go. Yep, there that is.
From the ashes of my agonizing research, however, I was actually able to sift out a few nuggets of awesomeness that bear repeating. This next video is not one of them.
But it is all about ants. And it’s insanely fascinating:
The structure these ants hollow out is epic. Damn, damn epic. In creating this city, these ants actually perform a vital service to the planet by aerating and moving many, many tons of soil. (If you replaced “ants” with “humans” in that last sentence, you’d be a goddamn liar.) In fact, aerating soil is one of the main reasons ants exist. It’s called harmony, and it’s a very tough concept for most humans to understand.
See, insects are the living engines of the Earth. Humans, not so much. That’s a cold, hard fact. And after four months of research, I learned to appreciate insects far more than I ever thought I could (or would want to).
But then, that’s what a decent journalist does (which I’m not, not at all)—he/she makes coherent, interesting sense of complex or banal or (what insects are to some) disgusting topics (read John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, and you’ll see what I mean). You have to believe in what you’re writing about, lest ye immerse yourself in a torturous subject and perish by self-flagellation—and your work be unconvincing and uninspired.
Here endeth the first installment of crazy awesome stuff about insects.