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Wandering and wondering with ants

Bill Meredith

"Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." Proverbs 6:6-8.

(October, 2015) My wife regularly reminds me that the routine tasks of un-assisted living are taking a lot longer than they used to. To some extent, I expected this; reading speed diminishes when you doze off in the middle of a paragraph, and balancing the checkbook takes longer when you can’t remember where you left the folder the last time you used it. Luckily, things like that have built-in reminders; if you forget to do them, something will remind you before too long. But when you get to things that only need to be done occasionally, it’s easy to forget to start on them, and first thing you know, the whole summer is over and they still aren’t done. Things like pruning trees, trimming shrubbery, and weeding flower beds are important, but they aren’t urgent; you can put them on your mental to-do list, but when the intended day arrives it will rain, or company will come, or a friend will call with a last-minute emergency request for a substitute in a golfing foursome, and next thing you know, summer has passed. So you decide to just let things wait until next year.

That happened last year on the west side of our house. That area started as a lawn, and the only trees there were a few mature ones along the old fence that bounded our property… a wild cherry, a willow and a couple of maples. We put in some flowerbeds and planted a few of small ornamental trees… apple, redbud, flowering cherry, dogwood… and, near the house, a few shrub junipers and a Weigela bush. But then Mother Nature decided we needed help. She ordered passing birds to drop hackberry and wild grape seeds; winds were directed to bring seeds from locust, Tree of Heaven and box-elder; and squirrels were instructed not only to bring acorns and butternuts, but to plant them for us.

At the time, that all seemed very nice, and we appreciated the free service; but it turned out that nature was a much better dendrologist than I was. Of the trees I planted, only three survived, while the ones nature planted grew like weeds all over the place. We hardly noticed at first, but years slipped by and in a surprisingly short time the trees formed a canopy that completely blocked the sunlight. The grass of the former lawn and even most of the weeds in the flower beds died. Now, the only thing that will grow at ground level is pokeweed. So, by the time the 2015 growing season started, the forces of ecological succession had converted our patch of open lawn to a forest.

When all of this started, I had a regular schedule for pruning things. Early each spring I checked for snow damage and removed all broken branches. After leaves were out and blooming was finished, I cut off water sprouts and shaped the growing plants; and that was repeated in the fall. It was a good system, and it worked well for a while; but there were two problems. As the trees got bigger, trimming required a ladder and took longer; and at the same time, I was getting slower and less stable, especially when more than six inches above the ground. So it became more common that I would not get around to some areas, and sometimes I forgot the whole lot of them, as I did last fall.

My wife never developed much interest in the part of our lawn that isn’t visible from the road, though she did actually walk around to the back and side yards once or twice each year before she had her hip replacement. Now, she never goes back there, so I don’t think she even noticed the encroaching forest until about a month ago. Then one morning she happened to look out of the bathroom window and discovered that her view was blocked by a 15-foot high combination of Weigela and pokeweeds. A pair of catbirds had nested in the Weigela, and that kept her interested until the young ones fledged; but then she began applying her unique version of subtle hints that things needed to change.

It took a lot of deep breaths to get started, and an hour or so to find my pruning tools, but finally I began. A few years ago it would have taken half a day. I finished it three days later… but, after all, there was no need to rush, and plenty of things to look at and think about during rest periods. The Weigela stalks were longer than the 15 feet that Wikipedia says they can reach, and the pokeweeds were so big and full of juicy purple berries that I considered sending them to the Guinness Book of World Records. My wife even got caught up in the excitement; the next morning she could actually see out the bathroom window, and there were a doe and twin fawns eating acorns under the biggest oak tree.

One of the lessons you learn from working at my age is that you have to plan for regular rest stops. It helps if you set a lawn chair in a shady place and bring along a cup of coffee; then, if you stay awake and think, you begin to understand just how important your task is in comparison to other creatures who share the world with us. There was an anthill near the Weigela bush, and when I sat down about 15 feet from it I saw an ant struggling with a piece of leaf. The leaf was too big to carry; the ant was dragging it, walking backwards as she went. The ground was cluttered with small pebbles, clods of dirt and sticks, and she had to climb over them. It looked like grueling work, much harder than what I had just been doing, and I expected to see her stop and rest; but she never did. It took 20 minutes for her to go 12 feet (I measured it later), and then she disappeared into the anthill. I lost sight of her then, but I knew what would happen. She would deposit the leaf in a fungus garden that was tended by her younger sisters, and go out foraging again. There would be no breaks for rest; the routine would be followed all day, every day, for the rest of the summer except when it was raining.

I am not the first person to sit and watch an ant at work. Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper dates back to the sixth Century B. C. The Book of Proverbs is believed to be the first written reference to ants; the line quoted above has been drilled into the memory of schoolboys ever since (I have always wondered if the writer of Proverbs knew worker ants are females, or if that was just the result of translating the phrase from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English). 2,300 years ago, Plato sat and watched ants (though he probably hadn’t been pruning shrubbery); he admired them for their work ethic. He even believed that men who were particularly industrious had evolved from ants, and that they would be reincarnated as ants when they died. Ed Wilson, presently the world’s authority on ants, believes if the weight of all living things could be measured, ants would make up as much as 20% of the earth’s biomass. When I think of the sixth extinction of life that scientists predict will happen within the next century, I wonder if ants may be more likely to survive than humans.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith