The Ants | The New Engagement

The Ants

By Cris Harris

Splitting wood on a cold Iowa February afternoon, the light gone silver in the clouds, ground frozen to the density of stale bread, the maul (a twelve-pound wedge of iron welded to an unwrapped pipe) sucks heat from the bones of my hands. I stand in the middle of a pile, oak, birch, and maple, none of it big logs with straight grain. These are the leavings from other splitters, the logs picked up and tossed aside for another day when knots and forks and twisted grain can no longer be avoided. This is the day. I am the splitter. And I love to split wood. Coat, sweatshirt, gloves in a pile by the coffee thermos (long empty), I am down to boots, jeans, and an undershirt. The air stings at 20 degrees. Sweat chills on my back, under the brim of my hat.

Splitting wood, I can use all my strength, can raise the maul a foot, let it drop toward the ground, step back with my left leg, pulling the maul around in a full circle over my head and then step forward with my right leg, bending the knee to bring the maul and my whole body to the level of the chopping block. I don’t aim for the log, but for the heart of the block itself, and I grunt at the impact. Sometimes, I yelp. Sometimes the maul rips through the frozen, twisted logs, blasting them open to reveal pitchy hearts. More often not. The maul bounces off the surface. The log tumbles to one side. The maul sticks in the log and I have to use a sledge to drive it further. The maul takes a sliver off one side of the log and throws the log ten feet away for me to fetch. I am using all my strength, all my anger, all my desire to break a thing. I swear a steady stream, like muddy water trickling from my mouth. I ache in my fingers, my wrists, my forearms, my shoulders, my back, my legs. When the log splits, the crack of it echoes out for an instant, and for an instant longer, I hear the iron of the maul ring a little victory cry. I reach for another log, eight inches across, blemished with fungus on the bark. It leaps in my hand, lighter than I expected. I am still wondering at that lightness when I swing back and around and down. The log explodes. Shattered fragments fly to either side of the maul, the largest tumbling end over end through the air to land in the bushes across the driveway. On the block, a shining black mass of ants. They are still clinging to one another in postures of helplessness. Oval eggs the color of clotted cream have spilled around their glossy bodies. Dust is still clogging the air when they begin to move in the weak light as the sun dips below the clouds. Each ant is about an inch in length, carpenters, chewing tunnels through rotten wood, eking out a spot for a colony, surrounding their queen and young sisters in a ball to protect them from the extremes of temperature the winter brings. My sweat is icy on my skin while I watch them, while the light fades all around.

***

In this moment, I go from angry adolescent to fascinated child, a transformation that I still experience when I turn over a rock, or lift up a log to find a tiny alien civilization scrambling in patterns, paths and dances I can almost, but not quite, see. They pick up eggs and young instars in their mandibles to run for safety. Lean in close and their antennas, brushing, waving, tapping gently, become visible. Their language is tactile and olfactory—they smell and feel the signifiers. They are sisters, all of them, and form a fierce Amazonian sorority to protect their mother, the queen. Each individual is capable of extraordinary feats of strength, persistence, and resolve. I watched them for hours as a child, and when no-one is watching me, I still do. And when I can, I watch the whole hive, the whole nest, the whole hill if they are hill builders, and try to see it as most contemporary evolutionary biologists see it, as a super organism, one mind and body distributed over millions of members.

For a few obsessive weeks in my sophomore year of college, I played the primitive Maxis game SimAnt between writing papers for a demanding Latin American Civilizations class. In the class, I was often struggling to keep straight the sprawling histories of indigenous populations and their interactions with conquistadores and colonists and voices of outrage. Faced with another chapter of Drinking, Homicide and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages I frequently clicked on the icon with the ant crawling diagonally across the square, and turned my attention to something more manageable. In the game, dominated by shaky graphics and confusing control palettes, the goal is to conquer a suburban backyard, outcompete the rival red ants, and ultimately colonize the actual house. When the house is condemned, you have achieved victory. What’s weird about the game is that your control of the ant, at least on my 1990 Mac Plus with external 20 meg hard-drive the size of a desk drawer, was limited—the ant could be steered in a general direction, but wandered frenetically, spasmodically from the path you wanted. Plus, you could only control one ant at time, though just as in life, that ant could recruit several followers to go to a food source or start an attack on a rival colony. And as in real life, each of those recruits could in turn recruit followers- 6-10 if I remember correctly-- to go back to the food source, so the numbers skyrocketed geometrically. It was like the intelligence of the hive, if the player was the intelligence anyway, could inhabit one member of the hive and direct it from that individual perspective. All the other ants, devoid of your direct control kept following their basic program, searching out food and enemies, feeding the queen, tending to her young, and getting ready to rear new queens and males eager for their mating flights. When your ant met an untimely death (red ant attack, spider, lawn mower, electrical outlet) the screen would return to the original hive, where a pupa split open spasmodically and your new ant, shiny and fresh, emerged to run again.

Not long after I got bored with the game I came across it unexpectedly. At my work-study job in the University of Chicago’s Computer Science Department (I was a decidedly low-tech courier and tender of the coffee machine) I walked past the offices of the AI group. In the empty room, a bank of computers were playing SimAnt simultaneously, with the sound muted. On six or seven machines, ant’s eyed views of a grassy landscape jerked with the movements of the avatar ant. No one was around. A few minutes later, I ran into one of the grad students, a lanky red-head Phd candidate to whom I always felt superior, lowly undergrad though I was. I asked him what the deal was, and he explained that the computers were playing the game themselves as part of a research project on neural nets. Something about the AI program learning the basic alogorithms that governed the simulated ant.

“They seem to be getting a general idea, but even some of the most basic skills, like laying a pheromone trail, are escaping them.”

“Yea,” I said, “that’s what they want you to think, isn’t it?”

He didn’t laugh, though lots of the AI guys were quick to joke about Skynet and HAL and what happens when the machines wake up. When I closed up for work that day, the ants were still running around on all the screens in the darkened office.

***

I was six when my older brother put a garden snail the size of a walnut on top of an anthill to see what would happen. Thoreau arranged such contests too, and wrote about them using constant reference to the Homeric hymns, but my brother’s intentions were more purely experimental. It wasn’t a meditation on the base nature of war, astonishingly recognizable at the scale of twigs and sand grains. He just wanted to see what would happen. We were at a camp on the Oregon coast, and though we were blocks from the dunes and surf, the soil was mostly sand, and the anthill, beneath the sparse branches of a shore pine, seemed erected entirely of brown pine needles and grains of quartz. It rose to a height of about two feet, a modest version of the six-foot monster anthills we found deep in the woods. The snail, its shell a streaked swirl of yellow and green, had a curious mien, pushing itself into the air, tasting the breeze with glistening feelers. Though I’m told snails have eyes, I could see nothing that would function that way. My brother held it between thumb and forefinger, rushed in quickly and dropped it atop the hill. The snail pulled itself back into its shell, and nothing much happened. Standing bent over, with our hands on our knees, we divided our glances between our feet—brushing off the ants that ran over our toes every few seconds—and the snail, which was beginning to open the hard cartilaginous hatch that covered the opening in its shell and ooze itself out a little. It took a long time for the ants to start swarming over it, but when one closed its mandibles into the snail’s wet skin, it pulled back into the shell with an all but audible snap. Bored, my brother was poking at the hill with a long stick. The snail stayed closed. From somewhere, my brother produced a lighter and a scrap of paper, and lit a tiny fire on top of the hill. We’d seen this before, but it was always exciting to observe the frenzy, the foaming, and the rapid extinguishing of the flame. If we’d had a gallon of gasoline, we’d have set flaming ditches, erected burning wicker ants, anything to combine violence, flame, and the observation of natural defenses, but all we had was this snail, stubbornly refusing to be eaten by a ravening horde of ants.

“They fought with more pertinacity than bulldogs,” Thoreau says. When a lone red ant enters the fray he describes her as “some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus. He saw this unequal combat from afar — for the blacks were nearly twice the size of the red — he drew near with rapid pace till he stood on his guard within half an inch of the combatants; then, watching his opportunity, he sprang upon the black warrior, and commenced his operations near the root of his right fore leg.” He goes on to imagine that the rival ants “had their respective musical bands stationed” nearby, “playing their national airs the while, to excite the slow and cheer the dying combatants.” I hadn’t yet read Walden at that age. Nor did I have the patience to wait much longer. We got our pocket knives and went to work digging the snail out of his shell, half mutilating him to mush to make him vulnerable. We bent forward to watch again. Thoreau, watching the ants rip each other apart, writes “ I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference.”

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