Ants

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Maybe this is an evolutionary advantage ants have over humans: though we in the US have a giant standing over us with intent to kill, most of us placidly go about feeding our children, tapping co-workers for information, following our chemical trails without looking up.

Leah Halper

Issue #70, October 2004


fire antsWhen I stand benignly over the ants in my kitchen, they continue their placid tramp toward the raisins. I think of them then as public-spirited matrons, aunts indeed to all the little larvae that must be fed. (Unlike humans, ants have historically assigned their females to the public sphere while drones stay home serving the queen.) But when I've stood over the ants with intent to kill, they've always sensed it and become agitated, quick, cagey. Their strategic gifts are apparent as they feint and weave. Maybe this is an evolutionary advantage ants have over humans: though we in the US have a giant standing over us with intent to kill, most of us placidly go about feeding our children, tapping co-workers for information, following our chemical trails without looking up.

But the killer giant is real: no longer am I merely indignant that the Bush Administration is willing for us to die — and it's well documented, guaranteed, that many thousands more of us will suffer and perish thanks to revised air and water pollution standards. (I won't even mention the two wars in four years.) I now have crossed over to the paranoid conviction that our leaders are trying to kill us. The prospect of radioactive zippers made this clear. Since 2001 the Bush Administration has been trying to get radioactive waste metals from the nuclear industry allowed into the recycling stream. Once they're in, they'll mix with other metals used in zippers, spoons, appliances, toys, cars — anything metal can have recycled content. As I write, in summer of 2004, hearings on the topic have ended and the EPA is working on a ruling.

I'm afraid the ruling will be affirmative. Everyday goods containing toxins are already all over the room — my room and yours. Radioactive zippers are a glowing detail in the rush towards environmental catastrophe that began with industrialization. For forty years the environmental movement has tried to impede the scope and pace of this rush. Since G. W. Bush took power in 2001, however, the catastrophe has accelerated beyond any hope I can sustain: protections for land, water, species, and air are being stripped away, and toxins are pouring forth to enshroud us all. This two-step has been largely implemented away from public debate, through executive abuses of power, sympathetic governors, and industry Judases. Attitudes about nature as backdrop, commodity, enemy have been dug out and re-animated as if they were not ancient corpses moldering and corrupt.

The timing of the Bush Administration catastrophe roughly corresponds to the period in which I've been a homeowner plagued (I thought first) and blessed (I see now) with ants. Despite the enormity of the catastrophe, however, and despite my knowledge of history, my upbringing as an environmentalist, and my putative commitment to nonviolence, it took four years for me to associate my war upon ants with the Bush Administration's environmental devastation. The methodical stripping and gassing of the environment — law by law, industry by industry, toxin by toxin — make me urgently aspire to embody devastation's opposite. It seemed necessary to start by making peace at home, with ants.

My story about ants begins with the cockroaches who greeted me when I moved to Gilroy, a small California town, in 1990. Nothing discouraged them, and they were driving me mad. Finally my Gilroy landlord came and sprayed something horrible that I'm sure is still in my bloodstream. (After many attempts, the California legislature has passed a bill to determine just what's in our blood. They will start by testing a few pregnant women, those bellwethers of the future, and then unless the chemical lobby gets the funding cut, they will expand to test others.) The spray didn't work. Recalling H.R. Haldeman's formative years as an advertising executive for bug spray, I forswore bug spray. Non-toxic efforts must be twice as canny to effect results, however. And when I left that apartment, I was not at all canny. I moved into a small house, and for three years battled roaches who'd stowed away. I used every non-toxic weapon imaginable, including a wooden clog. None worked. Exercising inexorable insect logic, roaches react to death by geometrically reproducing in great Darwinian spurts.

You have to accept them.

I couldn't accept them. It's the culture. It's the valuing of one species over another. It was my own absence of wholeness, my certainty, my rigidity.

So I moved.

wormWhen I bid on a house, I was determined to leave the roaches behind. Food was easy: I brought none. To finish my stores, I forced down some strange meals those last few weeks. I checked with an electrician who said that appliances thrive in cold, and I placed every appliance in the freezer overnight. I packed boxes quickly, then took them outside. But as I cannily outwitted roaches, a thought struck me: what if my new house already had roaches? I was so sick of skittery night kitchens and beady lurkers in the dishtowels that I felt this was, in realtors' terms, a potential deal breaker. In the written back-and-forth with sellers who had conditionally accepted my bid, I asked: were there roaches?

The answer came back no: just some ants occasionally. Ants! After the ordeal of roaches, I could endure a few clean, industrious ants. But the realtors communicated further over murmuring cell phones, and it was held out to me that I'd deeply offended the sellers. They were so upset by my question that it might become the deal-breaker, my realtor told me resentfully.

I immediately violated real estate's cardinal rule — that there be no contact between seller and buyer without a soothing, avaricious, potent realtor present. I knocked on the sellers' door and asked what was wrong. When I'd inquired about roaches, they said, they'd assumed I asked because they were Mexican-American and thought them unsanitary. I cried. They cried. I told them about my roaches. They told me about their vacation in Colorado. We complained about our realtors. I got the house. I outwitted the roaches. I forgot about ants.

butterfliesBefore bloodshed erupts, and there is a certain amount of violence endemic to this story, I should say that I have always distinguished among insects. I leave spiders alone or, when webs are everywhere, I relocate them, usually successfully. Infrequently one starts up the drinking glass towards me but almost always survives a fling. I admit that legs have been severed, but I've broken far more glasses than spiders. I find them new homes outside. I welcome wasps and their nests, and I'm joyful when I see bees in my garden, which has been planted for their pleasure. Butterflies and bugs are also welcome. I tenderly replace earthworms. Snails I relocate none too nicely, but even flies get shooed several times towards an open door before I resort to a swatter. I come by a respect for insect life honestly: my father, whose eccentricities are, granted, legion, gently blows ants away from his toaster and jam, exclaiming between puffs that breakfast's not worth murder. (If he leaves the room my mother, the executioner, moves in rapidly with a spray bottle of window cleaner.) Here is a man who baby-talks black widows as he moves them beyond my mother's reach. I have always felt that I manifest a felicitous combination of his compassion and her boundaries.

So I thought I could coexist with the ants. They are intelligent, fascinating insects, highly beneficial in any ecosystem. They aren't roaches. And they live outdoors, not in my cupboards. Nonetheless I was taken aback first by their sheer numbers, then by their dauntlessness. I have ants in huge boiling masses around my yard, especially under anything I leave in place for more than a day — a flowerpot, a rock, a piece of fallen laundry. They are no casual kibitzers who come round for picnics and leave at sundown to rest underground in their colonies. These are crack-troop ants who march better than any human army, whose offense far outshines my defense. They don't rest, and they are relentless communitarians. My ants see no distinction between outside and inside, day and night, mine and theirs. They are everywhere — scouting the bathroom, valiantly trekking towards me over my bedspread, exiting my potted plants. They use my house as a freeway, a short cut, a Plan B in case of rain. If they encounter a speck of nutriment they fan out to quest for more. They find the freezer and die there, piles of leggy little curled-up bodies, cold-burned to crisp. They swarm my cast iron skillets. They overrun the cat food. These ants put the explorers of the Golden Era to shame; they are unified, indomitable, and always victorious. (They are also slave bosses, capturing and milking aphids.) I have ants who prove communism works with the right species. These ants would be more successful exporting ideology than Bolsheviks ever were.

Most provokingly, for a revisionist historian, I have ants who were here first. Few historians today have any kind words for Manifest Destiny. We're sickened by the argument that First Peoples weren't using land productively, so industrious Europeans had the right to murder them and steal it. When you're a left-wing revisionist, you'd choke before you'd argue that the last arrival has most right to land. So I can't believe what I turned into that first year.

The ants came in hordes, and I discouraged them patiently until the day I opened my breakfast cereal, poured it groggily, added milk, and excavated a spoonful of scrambling ants. I became hysterical, vindictive. I searched out nests and poured boiling water on them. I vacuumed ants. I stepped on them. No matter — -the ants came anyway. In desperation, regressing to H.R. Haldeman, I even had a friend bring over some vile poison and spray it near an outdoor entry point. Survivors found another entrance. They always do. And no matter how much I mopped the floor, there was always a crumb in the cupboard they'd find, or drip of honey on the counter.

My first year in the house was also the first of the Bush Administration, and I was angry. Bush immediately froze all late Clinton-era regulations protecting the environment, stood alone in rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, and hired his first set of industry lobbyists to serve in regulatory positions even as he cut agency budgets. Bush officials abandoned efforts to decrease arsenic in drinking water, failed to honor protections for the endangered desert tortoise, began logging in national forests (a practice that has since expanded with diabolical slyness), and crafted in secret an energy policy with helpful input from the energy companies (which practice is now before the Supreme Court, one of the many tests of executive privilege this administration has provided.) That year, too, standards for storage of some nuclear wastes were weakened, I believe as part of a larger effort, involving also radioactive zippers, to convince us to relax about a little radioactivity.

The ants bore the brunt. As I wiped and squashed and drowned them that year, I told myself the same things that war-mongers and lay-to-wasters have long told themselves. You can see the very same justifications in media coverage of the Iraq war. I said that the ants were a threat, and I couldn't stand the repulsive sight of them; that I had more right to my house than they did. I said they provoked me by coming into my kitchen, that they were insignificant given my need for sanitation. The ends justified the means, I told myself, and besides I was just mopping up — the operation was nearly over. Against mounting odds, I insisted that I would prevail.

There are 6,000 species of ants, but the species that periodically reclaims my house is the brown ant. It looks black most of the time, crawling around my white sinks, but sure enough it lightens when the sun backlights it — lightens like Marilyn Monroe at the beach, and its little spike hairs illuminate so beautifully that brown ants look almost golden, distinctly furry, and gallantly medieval. In bright light I have to look twice to be sure this is not some exotic species crawling up my molasses jar. The insect book says they are common, a laughable understatement at my house.

The second year I stayed calmer, partly because 9-11 had occurred, and the president seemed far more ominous than the ants. Also I was practicing meditation, and my compassion was growing. Still, when my mother gave me a recipe for ant bait, boric acid stirred into jam, I mixed up a batch. Ants came joyously to the windowsill above my kitchen sink. They carried away the sweet poison even as it fermented and deepened in color. Washing dishes, essential in an anty household, became interesting, then unpleasant as the jam banquet went on and on. The recipe said to give it two weeks so the boric acid could wipe out the nest. After some period significantly longer than that, the ants were still fit and festive, and I threw out the jam in disgust. Party being over, the ants left immediately.

I considered. I read some books to know my enemy. The scientific puzzle — especially to scientists who compete for funding — is that ants work magnificently together for survival, gathering food and enhancing the environment. And they do it without threat, force, or leadership. Everyone follows. I looked with new respect at the marching column, each member so motivated and helpful. They made me wonder at my privatized, individualistic life. Maybe theirs is a better way. This was the year in which human DNA was found to resemble that of bananas, and to nearly replicate the DNA of monkeys. How much DNA did I have in common with ants? And weren't our functions — to eat and improve the environment — similar?

That second year I shook off mortgage shock and began wondering about my neighborhood's history. I learned that the park next door was once a wetland, and suddenly the periodic floodings of the park's creek and pond made sense. In the late 1950s part of the wetland was drained for my subdivision, and part became the park. The Spanish called the area Las Animas, the spirits or souls, doubtless because that's what the Ohlone name for it meant. When someone told me that the pleasant-smelling volunteer in my yard was mugwort, I saluted this species, prized by the Ohlone, that has managed despite many upsets to foster continuous generations in this spot. There are other survivors: craw dads splash in the creek, a hundred frogs pipe and spout after a heavy rainfall, and egrets and cormorants come quietly at dusk. This was my first prolonged contact with a wetland, and I loved the seasonal flora and fauna. Why, I wondered, couldn't I love the ants? They were no uglier than craw dads, and useful in the ecosystem. Here I was wanting to obliterate the one native to our wetlands that inconvenienced me. I reminded myself of the inane woman I once overheard in a garden shop. What poison could she buy, she asked the clerk anxiously, that would kill weeds but not harm her flowers?

The Bush Administration too has turned its attention to wetlands. Its proposal is to remove twenty percent of the country's surviving swamps, ponds and marshes from federal protection. There's also an effort to redefine what's covered, so up to sixty percent of currently protected lands may be excluded. By 2002 the two-step was clear: dissolve protections for species and lands, then make polluting easier. That year the Bush Administration reversed the invoice for Superfund clean-ups, letting polluting corporations virtually off the hook and billing taxpayers instead. National parks suddenly were opened here and there to snowmobiles, drilling, mining. Air conditioning efficiency standards were eased. EPA officials, to their credit, began resigning.

My third year was Biblical. All at the same time, I had ants, heat rash, poison oak, insomnia, fleas, and a sick fascination with the news. Most every body part suppurated. I began losing interest in fighting ants. For one thing, suffering made me more compassionate, just as Buddhists believe it can. There was an element of truce by exhaustion. I lost my taste for killing offensives and began wondering what it would be like to share the land. And confronting myself daily in the news was awful: I was only killing ants, while the Bush Administration was killing many species, directly or through neglect. But I thought about the web of life and my responsibility to keep it whole. Ants don't threaten my life or livelihood. They don't even threaten my foodstuffs if I take precautions. I remembered a children's book in which a human household is judiciously observed by the animal community. The humans are deemed virtuous because they leave elegant garbage. I began leaving a little garbage attractive to ants outside. I battened down my kitchen and ants venturing inside seemed stumped. They wandered and caucused and wandered more. I still went after ants on counters, and ants in the sink met some watery ends. But I faced reality: ants aren't fazed by death. Their core purpose — survival for the majority — is only reaffirmed. They embody Joe Hill's jussive: don't mourn, organize. They'll tap a dead ant a few times for information — Hmmm, what have we here? Poor sot. But they move on.

Facing reality at home was easier than facing devastation in the world. This was 2003, and the two-step was frenetic as the Bush Administration fought to remove whole mountain tops so ores could be scooped out like ice cream. Grazing restrictions were weakened, and the chastened federal employees still working for EPA began dancing to the new regime's tune. They made a sweetheart deal with polluting factory farms. They accepted faulty data so the Savannah River looked cleaner overnight. The EPA sidestepped cleaning up mercury in the Great Lakes region, and opted out of regulating traveling ships that dump invasive species with their ballast water. They bowed to a White House ban on even looking at perchlorate, rocket fuel used by the Department of Defense that is ruining the Colorado River. (A different plume of the stuff is making its way towards my drinking water, the leavings of a company active hereabouts in the 1950s. The DOD has been asked for but has not produced a plan to address nationwide perchlorate pollution.) Loathsome atrazine, a weed killer, was left on the market, and makers of it and other pesticides were helpfully given immunity from damages. Habitats for several animals on the Endangered Species list were reduced by the Fish and Wildlife Service, following industry pressure. That year the EPA reinterpreted Clean Air Act requirements so companies will save money but spend lives, and the Forest Service logged Alaska's Tongass National Park, then sold the timber at a loss. Not surprisingly, Park Service employees started to follow EPA workers out the door. But this year, too, the courts began to block some of the outrages. Lawsuits — expensive, slow, limited — are our only hope. But given the number, ferocity, and variety of attacks upon the environment, there aren't enough groups to sue.

This year many more are trying, but environmental catastrophe hasn't been ruled unconstitutional. Au contraire — rules are changing to make logging easier, and nuclear power plant safety is being left up to contractors. The EPA issued mercury standards resembling what interested industries proposed. A whistle blower on federal mining practices was demoted, the courts told the Forest Service to stop hiding important documents on its decision-making, and bison are being killed at Yellowstone because they bother livestock ranchers. Some scientists are so alarmed at " Bush science" that they are signing petitions and denouncing data. More than half of US residents now breathe smoggy air, partly because of Clean Air Act non-enforcement. The Energy Department wants to drill for national gas on federal lands. The Fish and Wildlife Service manipulated data so protection for panthers could be scotched. And this morning's paper informs me that industry dumped 4.79 billion pounds of 650 awful poisons into our environment in 2002, a five percent increase. Mercury and lead are up ten and three percent respectively. It's as if decades of regulation never happened.

As we do our grisly march through slavery, genocide, and butchery for profit my students often ask, does anyone learn from history? Of course, I say. But getting people to pay attention is difficult. We poor sots are distracted, preoccupied. Public events, past and present, sweep by: so fast, so many, so removed. And making change — abolishing slavery, learning to live in peace, correcting our effects upon nature — is even tougher. Only when personal events can be linked to political realities do people stop, see, struggle, turn, and change. They can no longer live with an old pattern, and they see with powerful urgency the need to change.

Ants have shown me a need to change. And they have shown me a way, by helping me live where I've landed. Over and over I've seen how sensitive ants are to their environment. Every time weather changes they come in or go out, find a new food source or use a different path. Like other modern, weatherproofed US citizens, I race around juggling too much no matter what nature is doing. Yet even when I am too wired to notice, the air, moisture, and temperature influence my moods and behaviors. The ants always appreciate how each day differs and when the seasons turn. Noticing the environment they're noticing has been an important step towards putting nature in my sights, and learning to advocate for it.

This year, without making a conscious decision, I've been sweeping ants carefully into dustpans and removing them to the back yard. Often I sit and watch them reorient. What light steps ants take, the ultimate green footprints. Even when they die their bodies become humus. They make me curious about my own impact. Human intelligence has provided several websites that help consumers figure and reduce their environmental footprints, I've discovered. So I'm lightening.

Maybe enough humans, especially the genus unitedstatus affluenzas , will rise to the challenge of saving the planet and its passengers. Some days I'm hopeful. In dealing with the threat the Bush Administration poses, though, human intelligence by itself is deficient. What I admire most about the ants, what I recommend to and covet for my own species, is their anima, their spirit. Ants are so industrious, cooperative, practical. They're flexible and inquiring. They respond appropriately to danger. They change strategies but not goals. They're creative: if an obstacle isn't nourishing, it can and will be skirted. What used to be my nightmare is now a great comfort: ants can be diverted in their quest for survival, but nothing stops them.

Leah Halper is grateful to Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Justice, and the Sierra Club for their website information on the Bush Administration's environmental activities.

Copyright © 2004 by Leah Halper. Archaic graphics from clip archives. All rights reserved.

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