“May I have your attention please,” I recently shouted at the ants running a stack of dirty plates on the off chance that they had ears. “The cafeteria will be closing in five minutes. Please feel free to ask for any last-minute assistance you may need.”
I heard a variation of this over the PA system every night at the Jones Store where I sold women’s shoes during college. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes knocking hard on the counter works to clear the ants. Sometimes it doesn’t. The lure of the chemical trails they’ve left for each other can be too compelling. A blessed few emit an alarm signal and scramble for the gap between the splashboard and the wall where they run through the cayenne pepper they purportedly dislike. I refuse to take more drastic measures.
I read that Jain monks hire somebody to walk in front of them to wave and sweep away midges lest they inhale a soul trapped into a body when transmigrating, maybe even a reincarnated relative’s soul. A Jain can’t intentionally kill anything. I can’t either, especially ants.
I read somewhere else that any individual ant you see is likely to be a worker. A sterile female worker. I am a sterile female worker. Being unable to kill complicates your life. For instance, it’s my job to wash dishes, which causes a daily apocalypse.
In part, I create the problem. Because it wastes water to wash dishes more than once a day, I let a sink-full build up until supper. My kitchen is an ant Promised Land.
When Lisa cut some of last season’s native grass away from the gas meter’s little glass window, she disturbed a colony. A corps of sterile female workers stamped over her clippers and up her arms, each one frantically carrying a white blob, a colony pupa to she knew not where. (I would have done the same thing with my niece and nephew. You don’t have to have given birth to feel responsible, invested.)
They quickly relocated to quarters behind the kitchen sink. This year’s workers particularly prize not-chicken and dumplings. For these leavings, they will slog through gravy pits and forage deep into ceramic caves that might suddenly fill with a torrent of hot tea or hot soapy water.
In the first phase of emergency evacuation, I blow individuals off dishes. They hit the window, splashboard and cabinets. Veterans have learned to hunker down like wing-walkers.
Next, I move on to water rescues. I put my finger under each one and lift them to the windowsill above the sink, then crack my finger on the wood. This sends them splaying onto the sill — sometimes with parts of their body pasted together that shouldn’t touch, head to back foot, antennae to thorax, head missing altogether — but there’s no way to lay them out. Either they struggle to their feet or they don’t. I’ve watched one twirling in circles, her antennae attached to the sill by a film of water. I resisted the temptation to leave the 99 for the one and tear her limbs off in the process.
Rather than directly kill them, I leave workers paralyzed, brain-damaged, scalded. Many drown, their lungs filled with biodegradable soap. I do this every day despite the fact that few of them do well after rescue.
A young hippie friend understands the futility. She calls them her little ant friends. Occasionally I get a flash of insight into how everyone but she and I feel. Lifting a plate off a lake of cereal milk with a hundred little black swimmers triggers something in my amygdalae. “That isn’t right,” it says.
The same thing happens when I’m in a Walmart. Too many trying to do too much. Sometimes I want to use the sprayer and get on with my work.
And yet I have a super magnifying glass. I’ve watched workers hoist bits many times their size over their heads and drag away fallen comrades who will most likely give the last full measure of devotion in the food midden. I’ve even watched what looked like two of them carefully passing a bead of liquid between their ant jaws. Whatever they did took them a long time.
Maybe I’m still doing penance for stomping every single ant that crawled up through the patio stones one afternoon when I was about 10. I didn’t do it because I hated them but because I could.
It wasn’t until I could see all the wet smears, all the little broken bodies, one not quite dead, its front half moving, it’s back half crushed, that I realized I hadn’t just ruined a perfectly good summer day; I had killed things that had done nothing to me.
And then at church camp, my Buddhist counselor masquerading as a Presbyterian taught us to collect a swarm of carpenter ant alephs in the hogan with a cup and an index card and turn them lose outside, instead of reaching for the can of spray that had been on our list of things to pack. We were not to harm one thing that week under her tutelage, not even each other’s feelings. We were to love others as we loved ourselves.
Ant biologist Deborah Gordon reminds herself, “I am irrelevant to the ants.” It helps me, and only just a little, to remind myself that I will most probably be destroyed finally from the inside out by things smaller even than ants, things not burdened by guilt, magnified views, or a sense of interconnectedness. What will seem to be callous disregard for their macrocosm will simply be their need to fix supper and wash dishes.
I’m not a Jain. I don’t believe ants could contain the souls of distant relatives. But I do feel related. I find them walking on my arms, my toes, the lenses of my glasses. Eating the same food, drinking the same fluoride-treated tap water, derived from the same primal stardust, the ants share my DNA, my isotopes and my fate. They’re family, so I’ll continue to do what I have to do.