Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise

My friend once told me a story of an ant farm of his. For a while they went around digging, eating and digging some more. You know, typical ant stuff. Then they started to die, one after another. Bacteria in the dirt of a closed container – or some such.

Finally there was one ant left. It carried the corpses of the others to a particular chamber they’d all dug previously and stacked them. Then it went back about its business until it too died and got no burial but the trash bin.

In a short section of his pseudo-memoir “Walden,” American Romantic Henry David Thoreau described a battle he witnessed between black ants and red ants. It’s written as a mock epic with allusions to Homer’s “Illiad” and ironic comparisons to the Revolutionary War. His intent was to belittle mankind, but the effect was just the opposite – to the benefit of the ant.

“You admire it?”

“I admire its purity.”

But really, I do. There’s a poignancy in an ant doing its duty to the last, a significance to the battles waged all around us, even if they go unnoticed. There’s a tragedy to see half an ant stubbornly dragging itself along, for that matter. Because there’s something human in them.

Obviously we aren’t closely related to ants in any physical or emotional way, and they have very little individual intelligence. But what other organism farms, performs animal husbandry, practices division of labor or makes use of disinfectant?

Jane Goodall gets giddy because she saw some chimps making tools. Ants move mealy bugs under leaves when it rains.

Ants are super-organisms, and lucky we are several million years ago they stuck with pheromones and never switched to a system of writing or else they’d be busy colonizing Alpha Centauri, and we’d be a burp on the geologic time scale.

Actually, ants are almost nothing like us. But we look at our feet and see ourselves; we look to the sky and find familiar shapes.

“Oh, darling, doesn’t that random configuration of condensed water vapor look just like a bunny?”

“It certainly does, honey.”

We look higher and do the same to God; he’s told us so.

“Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself.”

Of course we did, Lord. We think everything is.

There’s nothing remotely royal about a queen ant, but we call her that. Nothing about ant competition can be called warfare or those engaged in it soldiers, but we like to. We like to see the poetry in it, even if we have to invent the lyrics.

Everything that makes war significant, ants lack. When an individual receives a certain smell, it starts to attack, feeling no fear, understanding no risk and apparently conceiving no individual self. If men could be called into battle in such a way, what would they sacrifice?

An ant that buries its comrades doesn’t feel sad and doesn’t even have comrades. But it isn’t hard to put ourselves in their place, lamenting the departed as we continue fulfilling our duty to the last. That’s what we would do, or what we’d like to think, anyhow. We project our humanity and ideals out all around us, to anything we can. Call it a pathetic fallacy.

“Go to the ant, you sluggard.” Why? Because it can embody and support what we believe in; because it isn’t human. Because in misrepresenting them, they represent something we need, without all that messy human contradiction.

We think ants behave as we do. They don’t. They never will. But, we need them to, and probably always will.

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