In New York City, the insects I encountered most frequently were cockroaches. In L.A. it was ants. My respect for each is naturally profound, but it differs according to their specific forms of social organization – their sense of community as it were and their response to the hazards with which they have to contend.
Cockroaches display a far greater sense of individualism. When confronted by a threat, they evidence a measured consideration of possible response and outcome; which way to run, whether to run at all etc. Ants on the other hand tend to move without pause, in all directions at once. It’s a distinction that becomes especially apparent when they’re assaulted by their own versions of weather.
Cockroaches and ants have both latched onto the human urban life style; understandably, both are to be found where the food is at. When they’re discovered by their human benefactors helping themselves to it, they’re invariably subject to incomprehensibly intractable forces of destruction that even an insectoid Albert E. would be at a loss to explain.
In order to get a sense of the realities they encounter, it’s necessary to consider scale:
If an ant crawls onto our arm we invariably flick it off without a moment’s pause. Picturing the victim in terms of a small dog however, with purpose, sense of self, sense of danger, sense of mortality and so on slows this knee jerk response significantly. If we imagine we’ve smeared out a Cocker Spaniel or a Chihuahua in such a cold dismissive way, the idea gets a little harder to reconcile. If we then place ourselves alongside the event in our normal dog to human size relationship, the instant, unpredictable carnage is almost impossible to contemplate – especially if the scenario involves hundreds of Cocker Spaniels at once.
Ants are approximately one thousand times smaller than we are. A kitchen sink therefore, which is a good place to witness ant weather, is the human geographical equivalent of a six hundred and sixty foot deep canyon. The ants nevertheless run up and down these sheer walls at around twenty-five miles an hour, a speed they maintain almost consistently. Given that the rim of the sink is probably thirty-six inches from ground level, they’ve already run three thousand vertical feet to get there. They’re there at all on account of wide ranging individual scouts who discovered the food, then conveyed its location via a complex system of communication relays. The result was a column of hundreds running back and forth within minutes, most of which had left from a home base sometimes as much as five to ten ant-miles distant – also covered at the same relentless speed.
Unlike normal climactic vicissitudes to which all life forms are subject, ant weather rains down from a clear sky with specific deadly precision. It’s a sudden, implacable, aerial bombardment with their name on it, and on account of it, many, many Cocker Spaniels will die.
Setting a coffee cup down on the counter in order to ponder its options, a human being creates an event equivalent to a three hundred and fifty foot diameter, thousand pound flat rock suddenly and unpredictably pounding to earth out of nowhere at about sixty miles an hour. Such a sudden eruption of geographical violence is impossible to strategize against. For those not actually pulverized by it, the sound and concussion results in an overwhelming sense of disorientation. Running without pause in all directions at once, is the only possible result. An equal number of Harvard PhDs, or Mensa folks on a picnic would exhibit the same behavior.
For those actually in the sink, the human response is simple: the faucet instantly takes care of the food source and countless hapless hungry diners along with it. There are no Noah ants in this scenario. Destruction is total.
After deluge comes sponge. A seven hundred square foot, water soaked aerial bulldozer, ramming down with the force of many thousand foot-pounds, pushing and smearing hundreds around the rim of the canyon and back along the line of entry into a soggy pile of limbs and mangled torsos. And following sponge, paper towel – “Sweeping down the plain, right behind the rain,” gathering up the dead, half dead and living alike and crushing them to a paste.
The column nevertheless continues to emerge from the crack in the countertop. There is clearly confusion among its ranks and its pace has slowed. This operation may have been underway for hours, functioning flawlessly back and forth, but now the forward contingent has unaccountably disappeared without trace. And as more unsuspecting individuals stumble out into the light, the yellow peril descends over and again to obliterate them. Feedback is impossible under such conditions. Victims just keep stumbling into oblivion.
Having stemmed the tide, the ‘weather’ now moves to stop the flow altogether.
“Ant Chalk” is sold only in Chinatown. The warning label reads:
“KEEP AWAY FROM CHILDREN AND THE OLD MAN.”
Whether this implies that ant killing is a wife’s prerogative or simply only for the sturdy and mature is unclear, but stuff that’s risky to humans is most assuredly deadly to something one-thousandth their size. A line drawn with ant chalk is an impenetrable toxic barrier that will leave hundreds dead on either side of it. A surreal white avalanche of greasy powder that descends from above to delineate a path that chokes to death within minutes all ants that come close. Just enough time, however, for those contaminated, to spread the poison back along the line.
The point of entry is thus secured. All that remains of the weather is one last flurry of paper to tidy up the aftermath. Then all is calm. Hundreds of busy life forms have disappeared without trace. Order is restored.
The instrument of weather sits back with its coffee, a job well done. So much for ants it thinks– if it thinks about them at all. Insect automatons, robot workers, in an itty-bitty totalitarian world, mindlessly going about their allotted tasks; eating for no other reason than to make more ants. They act the same, they look the same, they’re not like us at all. It’s questionable though whether as many miniaturized naked Frenchmen scrambling around on all fours would suggest more individual personality. Electron scanning microscopy in fact reveals differences in ant physiognomy that belies the idea of sameness entirely. They’re as different looking as we are.
The matter however is moot. Regardless of individual distinction it’s their significance as a group that points up the irony. The fact is, they’re actually bigger than we are. Pound for planetary pound they outweigh us. The ants of the world weigh four times as much as the reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds combined. In the South Eastern United States alone there are an estimated 2.5 billion tons of fire ants. E.O. Wilson calculated that the ant biomass in a rain forest is 10% of its total weight.
As much as we may dismiss them, we cannot do without them. They are the clean up squad, the movers and enrichers of the earth. If ants disappeared from the planet, humans would most likely follow soon after. If humans disappeared, ants would hardly blink. In which event, tomorrow’s ant weather forecast might read:
“Beginning cloudy, later sunny, no chance of sponge.”
Malcolm Mc Neill’s first project out of art school was a seven-year collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs. His two books about the experience were published at the end of last year.
His most recent exhibition of paintings was in August 2013 in New York.