Thursday, August 23, 2007
Witnessing the struggle
Via Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to the heat and the drought, the woods are eerily still these days. I never see a turtle or a toad. Most of the deer have wandered from the parched trails and the dry creek to the river about a mile away. The squirrels and chipmunks are around, but they're too busy looking for food to keep up their usual chatter. The cicadas do make their racket, but the normal birdsong of dawn is missing. No point in getting up early if there's no worm to get--and there isn't. The earthworms are buried deep below the dusty ground. The mosquitoes and gnats are scarce, too. Even the spiders seem to be getting less industrious.
The ants are the only bug community that seems busy as ever. As I ambled along this morning (did I mention that it's hot?), I saw a line of ants moving across the trail, most of them carrying a load as big as themselves. I knelt down to see what they were carrying and realized each of them had the carcass of a dead ant. Most of the corpses were curled up tidily, as they had been murdered in their sleep, and maybe they had. I don't know much about ant behavior, but this looked like the result of a nest raid.
It made me a little sad for some reason, and reminded me of the "battle of the ants" from Walden. Even in high school I thought Thoreau was a pompous pain in the ass, but I liked the ant war passage. It lurks in the back of my mind every time I see an ant. Of course, it has a particular resonance these days.
" I took up the chip on which the three I have particularly described were struggling, carried it into my house, and placed it under a tumbler on my window-sill, in order to see the issue. Holding a microscope to the first-mentioned red ant, I saw that, though he was assiduously gnawing at the near fore leg of his enemy, having severed his remaining feeler, his own breast was all torn away, exposing what vitals he had there to the jaws of the black warrior, whose breastplate was apparently too thick for him to pierce; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer's eyes shone with ferocity such as war only could excite. They struggled half an hour longer under the tumbler, and when I looked again the black soldier had severed the heads of his foes from their bodies, and the still living heads were hanging on either side of him like ghastly trophies at his saddle-bow, still apparently as firmly fastened as ever, and he was endeavoring with feeble struggles, being without feelers and with only the remnant of a leg, and I know not how many other wounds, to divest himself of them; which at length, after half an hour more, he accomplished. I raised the glass, and he went off over the window-sill in that crippled state. Whether he finally survived that combat, and spent the remainder of his days in some Hotel des Invalides, I do not know; but I thought that his industry would not be worth much thereafter. I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door."
From "Brute Neighbors," Chapter 12 of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Click here for the full text.