Ants have recently invaded my house.
They are tiny, visible only in a certain light. At first I’d see one or two on the kitchen counter near the sink where we normally prepare food. I assumed they’d arrived well fed before they began reconnoitering around the counter, as they evidenced no interest in any of the crumbs that accumulated around the toaster. They didn’t even go near the can where we store fat left over from cooking meats. I had always assumed that was one of their favorite delicacies. Every day two or three would appear and, as I dispatched them, I thought that was the end of it.
One evening I took a break from watching TV and went into the kitchen. I had been watching the Republican convention. In the kitchen a large swarm of ants had gathered around something that I couldn’t identify. When I opened the dishwasher nearby, more were darting frantically everywhere inside the unit. I knew this was a task for professionals. I called a pest control company.
I’ve always been fascinated by ants and the stories I’d read about how versatile they are. They behave in ways similar to our own, like gathering in great numbers to forward their agenda. They also swim, fly, build bridges, do battle, farm, harvest and dig tunnels of remarkable lengths. One ant starts digging a hefty distance from another ant that also starts tunneling and sure enough, they meet smack in the middle. One exception to our behavior may be that with ants, gender discrimination is not an issue. They have no glass ceiling. The life of the entire colony revolves around one female, the queen. She keeps a colony focused and on task. In this regard at least, Democrats may behave more like ants than Republicans.
Returning to the television I could not help but imagine similarities between the large swarms of ants in my kitchen and the convention. At the convention I saw droves of individuals swarming about. Just how to tell what their individual functions might be, except for the sounds delegates make, is difficult. Delegates either cheer or boo and hiss. This indicates affirmation or censure of some individual member of the assembly who has not gotten with the program. As I understand ants, this could never happen. Once in the swarm, each ant is very clear as to its function. No ant would insinuate itself into the colony to criticize its deliberations as I saw one of the speakers do at the Republican convention. An ant in sheep’s clothing is unheard of.
Social groups are plagued regularly with loose canons that do not go along with the program and otherwise try to sabotage the group effort. Ants assemble teams in a matter of minutes. All are committed members that function as smoothly in the system as a well-oiled machine. The ants on my counter return every day, determined and good to go. This suggests to me that ants don’t have law and order problems. Apparently ants have no perverse members on the team or even criminals to slow things down or hold them back. Sadly, our organizations, political ones especially, are loaded with both.
Ants have limited intelligence. They are skilled at what they do, however. They do not think abstractly. The concern about just who in the colony or in another anthill is full of it, or who is crooked or a liar would never became a part of the collective communication. Ants know who they are and also who the others are. They are confident of their identity and don’t need to step on others to prove it.
You and I are as social as ants, and while we’re at our best in a community, we can survive on our own. Ants on their own are doomed to die. I’ve read about survivalists who build their yurts deep in the woods. They stock up on guns, blankets, canned goods and lots of coffee (constant vigilance, staying awake aids their survival) and they do fine. They retain, like the termites that have quit society, a prickly relationship to their kin. Solitary termites have a decidedly “buzz off” attitude as do survivalists.
As ants congregate into colonies, they get smarter. One or two ants are not that swift. Add a couple more and they develop problem-solving attitudes that are remarkably effective. I have friends who have served on committees and boards and they often report just the opposite; the committees never accomplish a thing.
Ants could care less who wins the presidential election with perhaps this caveat: if Republicans win – traditionally staunch defenders of big corporations like the chemical industry – ants will not be happy campers. The good old days at campsites, picnic grounds, including my kitchen will be over. Chemicals did in almost all our insects before Rachel Carson got on the industry’s case. Who’d be left to lobby for ants against big business now?
Maybe I’m just making mountains out of anthills.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.