Keep the Peace by Peace: Ode to Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
The book was a struggle, but I felt duty bound to stay put in my yard chair and honor the author’s effort to finish the thing. Consequently, even a trail of ants, Fallbrook’s ever-present organic waste abatement crews, distracted me from the chore of reading. I watched the good little refuse engineers tidily toting to their nest the remnants of a mourning dove egg, probably dropped from its cedar nest by a murderous Blue Jay. I’d heard a ruckus the day before and ducked inside to avoid its calamitous end. But damn if fate didn’t catch up with me! At least the ants were swift and effective. Perhaps too effective.

I remembered the gift my father sent to my kiddo when she was small enough to still handle insects as though they were playthings. It had been a surprise, a special grandfatherly treat. And, according to the accompanying literature, we all — yes, children and adults alike — were in for hours of entomological fun as we played audience to the life’s work of the inhabitants of Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm.

Actually, said inhabitants of the green petrochemical-based farm were shipped separately, which meant a wait for all that fun we knew was coming our way. In the meantime, we filled the bottom couple inches of the farm with the lily-white synthetic sand provided, and eagerly anticipated the ants’ Herculean feats, their mind-bending commitment to earthmoving, their fastidious exercise of home economics — all the requisite behaviors of a proper ant.

The estimated day of arrival drew near, and we tacked the ant poster that came with the farm to my daughter’s wall. Together, we reviewed Milton’s ageless discourse on the wondrous world of ants. With a couple of honored bugologists in the family, I thought this might prove a prophetic science experience for the kid, soon to graduate from daycare to real school.

At long last, our ants arrived — as expected, only soldier-workers of ambiguous gender. Queens were prohibited from travel. In we poured our new housemates to their escape-proof quarters, while I considered the years of effort I’d previously expended to keep the little bastards out of our home. Nonetheless, we gave them a welcoming honey-water spritz and set them in a place of honor at the dining room table.

Thankfully, Uncle Milton had adequately forewarned us, so we were not surprised when a few ants died the first day or two. This was to be expected. What was a bit disconcerting was the ants’ method of disposing of their dead: They broke down their brethren and, piece by piece, added their teeny black body parts to the white synthetic hills. And, to my maternal dismay, the ants continued dropping like, well, flies. Every day, we awoke to a grislier scene of death and dismemberment as the lily mounds became speckled with the black grains of dissected ant bodies.

In fear for my daughter’s psyche, and not a little grossed out, I poured through Uncle Milton’s brochure, a desperate review in search of advice I might have missed, critical guidance for keeping ants alive and well, but to no avail. The ants continued their unthinking hill building and their dying, only to be recycled as pepper to the sand’s salt by their surviving peers.

As the ant population rapidly dwindled and the hills darkened, I wondered about the significance of the ants’ unnatural existence on my table. Even when confronted with increasing mortality, the soldiers just plodded along, following the mandate of their biology — until the sad day when but one ant remained alive.

A lousy way to start the morning, I groped my way to the kitchen for day-old coffee and the eye dropper of honey-water, and returned to find the sole survivor atop the tallest hill peering skyward. I was grateful that the poor thing was too brainless to experience the bitter isolation of such utter aloneness, too rudimentary to beseech some great ant god in the artificial green sky to end this brutal abandonment. Unwilling to expose my daughter to such angst, I shattered the plastic and dumped the last ant outside in the garbage — to eat himself to a happy end.

I was certain then, as I am now, that we are not intended to keep ant farms on our dining room tables. Any more than we are intended to live in petrochemical plastic and perpetuate our soulless behaviors into our own extinction — our reckless Wall Street finanigans, our natural resource guzzling, our political demolition derbies, our hate-mortared border walls.

But, hey, it was just a bunch of ants, you might say? Yes, and if we don’t do any better than Uncle Milton’s ants, the species in my yard is likely to outlast us all, tidily toting our remnants back to their nests.

Love, K-B

©2010 Kit-Bacon Gressitt