The Ants Go Marching…and marching…and marching

…until death do they part.
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Ants-300x240Us and Them

Ever since I wrote Corvus Rising, I’ve considered in great depth and detail how the other living beings on Earth are more like us than not. We humans are fond of viewing our species at the top of the evolutionary ladder that we invented to explain the differences in anatomy and intelligence between Us and Them.

Our species is evidently highly favored: the very Deity we invented created Us to have dominion over Them.

More and more, however, it is apparent that our world view of creation is all wrong.

In the case of the corvidae (crows, ravens, magpies, jays…) we now know that their brains are very nearly the same size as ours (proportional to their bodies) and that they are not only intelligent, but sentient as well. (The Gifts of the Crow, Mazluff, 2012)

 

And we know that they talk to each other, as shown by Michael Westerfield’s marvelous book, The Language of Crows, whose recordings of crows and ravens dialogs in a variety of situations tells us their speech is not just about looking for a mate to make little corvids with.

Then there’s that little pufferfish, whose connection to the Universe I share. Blows me away. We are all hooked into the same life-giving forces, by whatever deity you or I wish to call it. I like to call it Art.

Them Ants…

Ants are pretty cool; among my favorite books as a child was The City Under the Back Steps—a marvelous story of a couple of kids who magically get shrunk down to ant size.

Ant_Receives_Honeydew_from_AphidThe children are shown all around the colony by the ants, and were instructed (as I was) in many of the ways of all ants. For instance: the ants kept herds of aphids and milked them for the sugars the little buggers sucked out of the rosebush. They really do that.  (Read more about how ants milk aphids here…)

Natural science from a fictional children’s book: a marvelous way to learn.

I am a fan of ants, more or less. As long as they don’t invade my house or sting me.

I watched nervously one summer as a gigantic ant colony constructed a subterranean civilization around the size of Denver (relatively speaking, of course) in my backyard.

Ant-Farm

Click image for more info about ants & ant colonies

The problem with the humongous ant colony in my back yard: their sheer numbers so close to where I live.  They kept opening up exits and entrances all over the place, including right next to the porch and back steps. Made me nervous.

These are the kind of ants with the big jaws on their heads connected a sack of poison on the other end that is at least a third the size of their whole bodies.

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Black Garden Ant.

Ant bites are bad news. Painful bad news. Every time one injects me with its personal stash of formic acid, it’s worse than the time before. So I am looking a little askance at the city under my back steps. I don’t want them there, but there they are.

And I am outnumbered. Pathetically outnumbered.

My father used to pour gasoline down ant holes and light it. Horrifying. So are pesticides. I do believe the ants have a right to be alive and pursue their ant-like goals. Just not so close to my soft, living flesh.

I didn’t want to kill them. I just wanted them to move. I flooded them out with the garden hose, a slow trickle of water that filled up the vast network of caverns and passageways. Jillions of ants floated up and out; most found things to cling to and rode the current to edge of dry land where they disemarked.

As soon as I turned off the water, the ants went to work re-building what I had ruined. The next day, I filled the ant hole up again, and ants bubbled up again. When the flood stopped, the ants started building again. I marveled that none of them went belly up on the sidelines, waving their six little legs in the air, otherwise whining and bellyaching about unfair the universe is, or how hard their lives are.

We do that. The animals don’t. They get over it and get on with living.sad-bug-with-napsack-smaller

Why can’t we?

The end of the ant story: I kept watering the ant hole and they kept rebuilding. I admired the hell of them. No complaining, no retaliation. Just one foot in front of the other five, and with a pebble in each jaw, they rebuilt.

And I kept destroying. We went on like this for days, me alternately admiring them and destroying them; the ants just kept rebuilding.

Persistence is Everything

They finally moved. They got sick of it, evidently, of spending all their time rebuilding their colony after the continued disaster I brought them. So they moved, lock stock and nursery to the alley behind the house.

Beyond the reach of my hose…

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Banksy

 

 

 

First Crow, First Raven: Let Them Eat Corn

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The following tale is the fourth in the series of tongue-in-beak stories I made up concerning the ancient relationship our species has had with the corvids-a group of birds whose most familiar members are crows, ravens and magpies. Though I have been accused of anthropomorphizing these birds, I beg to differ. Perhaps they corvo-morphized us.

 

Let Them Eat Corn

As the populations of all three species grew, Raven, Crow and Human strode hand-in-wing into the future. While Humans grew smarter and smarter, Crow and Raven grew wiser and wiser. By and by, humans began to take on an air of superiority over the other animals and looked down upon Crow and Raven because the birds have tiny brains and lacked opposing thumbs.

“We are best,” they boasted. “We are smart too, smarter even than Raven. Look at all the stuff we can make. Whatever the gods did not give us, we can invent. We can out-fly, out-run, out-swim, out-dig, out-build and out-tool-make all the animals on Earth.”

“But look at the mess you’ve made!” Raven scoffed. “Much of the livable places on Earth have been despoiled by your inventions, to say nothing of your greed. You lay waste to everything you touch.”

Humans wasted a great deal, it was true, but there was no real complaint from Crow or Raven. And, there was another plague on, so carrion was everywhere. Life was good.

“I believe we have erred, Cousin.” Raven said after a gluttonous meal at the landfill on the outskirts of a great human settlement..

“How so, Cousin?” Crow opened an eye.

“Haven’t you noticed our human brethren are getting just a bit too big for their britches?” Raven said. “They’re all attitude these days. This tool—making thing you taught them—that was a big mistake. Remember I warned you: ‘No good deed goes unpunished’? But no, you had to be the do-gooder. First you taught them how to make fire.”

Raven had never told Crow that he was the one who brought fire to the humans. Best let bygones be bygones, Raven thought. And why spoil his perfect non-interfering image?

“Then you taught them to cook, and then to make leather,”he railed at Crow. “And then clothing. You taught them how to till the soil and plant seeds, and how to irrigate. You taught them where to find clay, and how to make pottery. You taught them to read and write, and then, then you moved on to architecture. You taught them how to build stable structures that withstand wind and earthquakes and keep raindrops from falling on their heads. And finally,” Raven stopped to inhale. “As I live and breathe I hope this is your final teaching moment: you taught them how to smelt ore. Give it a rest, OK? Give them a rest.”

“Well, excuse me, Cousin!” Crow was offended at the tone in Raven’s voice. “I was just trying to help. Remember how skinny and cold they were in the old days? I just couldn’t stand their misery. I had to do something.”

“Next time try minding your own business.” Raven said.

He and Crow had revisited this argument a million times. Raven thought Crow spent too much time dabbling in human affairs. “It’ll end up kicking you in the butt. And mine.” Raven predicted darkly. “Leave them be, I beg you.”

Crow found Raven’s complete lack of compassion hard to take. “I don’t know how you sleep at night, Cousin, after eating at their table the way we do and then bad-mouthing them as soon as your stomach is full. You refuse to lend a wing to help them when you so easily could. That’s what’s going to come around and kick you in the butt. Taking more than you give back.”

“Bad-mouthing?” Raven said with a great deal of irritation in his voice. “You want to hear bad-mouthing? Try listening to what these ‘poor skinny humans’ are saying.” Raven mocked.

“Here’s a good one for you: ‘Crow is the harbinger of death. Where Crow goes, Death follows. Beware of Crow.’ And they have begun to fear and hate you, and by extension me because they still can’t tell us apart. After thousands and thousands of years, they can’t tell you from me. The dopes.”

 

After a few minutes of silence, Raven said in a low voice that rose with each word: “You want to know what just slays me? We corvids supposedly bring death, yet do we we kill? Maybe an egg now and then, and we could argue for millennia about whether that is really killing…but otherwise—Nope. Not us. We are not killers. Humans, now that’s a whole other story. Humans kill. Just for the heck of it.” They kill us, they kill each other—they freaking kill everything!”

Raven towered over his cousin, glaring angrily. “Yet, you continue to mollycoddle them.”

“Well, disease kills too.” Crow said, still trying to be fair to the turncoat humans. “Look at what West Nile does to us. And humans, they get more diseases than we do. Their plagues, you know, those killed millions. Wiped whole villages off the map. Not once. Not twice, because here we go on plague number three. And that was just the bubonic.”

“Oh yeah!” Raven said sarcastically. “Let’s talk about the Black Plague!” His irritation erupted into outright anger as he spoke. “They cluelessly spread a disease across Europe, letting it wipe out a sizable chunk of their population, and who do they blame? Not the stupid little flea that started all this. Not the cats who the humans foolishly killed, who otherwise would’ve eaten the rats that carried the fleas that bit the humans and made them sick. Oh, no! They never blame themselves for being relentlessly myopic and stupid. But they heap all their guilt and blame on us. Us!“

Raven stomped up and down the branch as he ranted, shaking it so hard, Crow tightened his grip, lest he fall off.

“They act like we killed all those millions,” Raven seethed. “There’s a difference between killing and eating dead things, you know!”

“For truth,” Crow agreed, nodding. He hated when Raven went off like this. But he had learned over the years that sometimes it’s best to shut the beak up.

“‘Harbingers of death’,” Raven mocked. “You like that name, Cousin? After all you’ve done for them? I’ve told you over and over and over again. No good deed goes unpunished, Cousin. One day you will mark my words.”

Crow was depressed. He’d taught humans everything they knew. They were naked,and hungry. Shivering. Without the sense to come in out of the rain.  And now, they are fat. They walk the streets of glittering cities dressed in the finest fashions and they live in fabulous palaces.

“Well, I’ll show them!” Raven raged. “No more human flesh shall cross my beak. Until they start showing a little respect.”

 

For a while, Raven and Crow stopped eating the piles of dead humans resulting from their plagues and wars and the continuous epidemics caused by terrible plumbing. The one thing Crow knew absolutely nothing about.

During the boycott, Crow and Raven took to the cornfields, which provided them with a few of the necessary nutrients.

“It just doesn’t satisfy like meat.” Raven said, turning his beak in disgust. He didn’t care for corn as much as Crow did and he longed for the eight essential amino acids found in meat protein. Nonetheless, he refused to eat human flesh, at least where they could see him.

As it happened, Raven and Crow came upon a human in the cornfield. “Shhh!” Raven hissed, and stuck a wing out. “Wait. Watch.” After many minutes the human had not moved, so Crow and Raven moved closer, walking on the ground through the cornstalks toward the immobile human.

Raven flew up suddenly, right in front of the human’s face. It didn’t even flinch.

“Well, then,” Raven said. “It doesn’t seem to be alive.”

“But is it dead?” Crow asked as Raven leaped to the shoulder of the human. “Can we eat it?”

“That depends,” Raven said as he hopped over the straw hat to the other shoulder, “on your definition of dead, Cousin.”

Crow tilted his head to one side. “I don’t think it’s real human, though it’s wearing human clothing—it’s stuffed with straw.”

“It’s definitely not human, Raven said. “But it is a reasonable facsimile.”

“But what is a fake human doing in a cornfield?” Crow asked.

“Who knows?” Raven said, as he pecked at an ear of corn. “I stopped trying to figure these creatures out about a millennia ago. And you know, I sleep better for it.” He looked at Crow pointedly, a kernel of corn stuck to his beak.

Crow kept up the scrutiny of the fake human. “Wait!” he said, leaping up to stand on the hat. He peered downward over the brim of it’s hat.

“I know what this is!” he cried out, looking down at his cousin. “It’s art! It’s a sculptural piece.”

“In the middle of a cornfield?” Raven asked. “That is odd, don’t you think?”

“Tremendously,” Crow said. “But, on the other wing, it also could be quote unquote an installation. Meaning the cornfield is part of the Great Artpiece. You know, the Great Universal Narrative. Not that I get the association between the stuffed fake human and the cornfield, though.” He shrugged. “But modern art is sometimes like that.”

Crow and Raven polished off a few more ears of corn and took to the skies. While their stomachs hungered for flesh, Raven and Crow refused meat. At least that was the ideal; in practice, well, sometimes the instinct to survive is quite irresistable. Neither Crow nor Raven ever had their priorities so screwed up that eating ever took second place to politics.

“Looky there!” Crow said, his voice rising to the high-pitched squeal that meant only one thing: meat on the ground.

The two swooped down and perched on a rotting corpse of an animal that might’ve been a truffle-hunter once. Today it was food.

“The Food Chain is Always Right,” Raven said and buried his head in the dead flesh.

Crow nodded at the ancient corvid proverb and beaked himself another chunk.

Hand

 

First Crow, First Raven, First Human: Tan Me Hide and Teach Me to Sew

The following tale is the second in the series of tongue-in-beak stories I made up concerning the ancient relationship our species has had with the corvids-a group of birds whose most familiar members are crows, ravens and magpies. Though I have been accused of anthropomorphizing these birds, I beg to differ. Perhaps they corvo-morphized us.

df6c072e1fe5a5ce7fc590df721af24cFirst Crow and First Raven had gained a vast storehouse of learned experience in the eons they flew the skies of Earth, well before the first human took a bite of the first apple from the Tree of Knowledge. In the beginning, Raven especially got a big kick out of tricking these silly gullible creatures. They believed anything he said.
“Look! Over yonder, on the horizon! It is the Great Spirit!” Raven would call out and point with one wing. When the humans looked away, Raven swooped down upon them and stole their food. Time after time.

Crow and Raven grew quite fat; they lacked nothing due in large part not to Raven’s trickery, but also because humans were so astonishing wasteful.

“They wouldn’t have to work so hard at hunting and gathering if they didn’t waste so much food.” Crow beaked an eyeball from the severed head of a Big Hairy Beast and swallowed it in one gulp. “They leave so much on the ground for us, which I for one am dreadfully grateful, but if they were more efficient, their food would go further, and they would not have to struggle so to get more.”

“Don’t let them hear you say that!” Raven said, shushing Crow with his wings. He never could leave well enough alone, could not resist wanting to be helpful to these pitiful creatures.

“You see Cousin, in a perfect world, the amount of time we Corvid should spend obtaining food needs to be inversely proportional to the time humans do. That is my famous Inverse Proportionality Rule governing work. Remember? Let’s say they work twice as hard as they have to, which translates into us doing half the work we have. Eh, Cousin?”
Crow’s beady black eyes glazed over, and Raven knew his cousin was only barely listening. But he also needed to remind Crow that his interference in human affairs nearly always backfired. “In other words, dear Cousin,” he said, shaking Crow out of his daydreams of rescue and assistance, “the more they hunt and gather, the less we have to. If they start slacking off, we’ll have to find our own food. No, Cousin. Their wastefulness is our largesse. Think about it. And shut up, please. For the good of us all.”
Crow had always tried to be helpful to the foolish humans. For instance, after they’d hunted and killed the Big Hairy Beast, he had suggested they skin it.
“Why?” the Chieftain asked. “The skin is no good to eat. Too much fur. It is tough and hard to swallow. Even the dogs won’t eat it.”
“No, Crow said, shaking his head. “You must skin the Beast before you cook him so that you can use his fur to keep yourselves warm.”
The humans stared at Crow, slack-jawed. They hadn’t thought of that; the fire in the spit always burned most of the hair off. They ate the meat, and threw the burnt hide back into the fire.
Crow taught the humans how to carefully slice through the hide up the Big Hairy Beast’s big belly and down the underside of its limbs. The humans learned how to scrape the inside of the hide with a rock, and Crow showed them where to find the trees whose bark could boiled down to produce the preservative that would keep the hide from rotting or falling apart.
“You want the biggest pieces of hide you can get,” he told them. “Stitching a lot of small pieces together would be very labor-intensive.

“Stitching?” the Chieftain asked, scratching his aching head. “What is stitching?”
“You make needles from his bones, and laces from strips of his hide,” Crow instructed the humans exhaustively and in a day or so, they had managed to not only make a few bone needles, but to thread them as well with long thin strips of Big Hairy Beast hide.
“Now,” Crow said, nodding as the humans finished poking a line of holes through the edges of the hide, “you can attach pieces of hide together, just make sure the holes line up.” He picked up a threaded needle in his beak and jammed the pointy end into the holes through the two layers of hide. The humans broke into a surprised outcry when they saw him reach underneath the hide and pull the needle through. After poking the needle in one side and out the other a few more times, Crow stood back and said, “And that, my friends, is stitching.”
The humans were sore amazed, but were also clever and deft with their hands, and they stitched together every piece of hide they could find. Soon the whole tribe had fur cloaks, and Crow was very happy to see them all warm and toasty. To show their gratitude to Crow for bringing the gift of sewing, the humans gave him the head of the very same Big Hairy Beast whose hide they all wore.
Crow lugged the head back to the tree in short flights punctuated with a drop to the ground to rest a few moments; the meat was heavy and made it hard to fly very far. He dropped the hunk at the bottom of the tree Raven, who didn’t care as much for the company of humans as did his Cousin.
“Cousin,”Raven said after they’d feasted on Beast head, “I have to thank you for the tanning lessons you gave them.”
“Why, thank you! It is good to see the poor things fending off the cold,” Crow said, ever hopeful that compassion had awakened in his cousin’s heart.
“Yes, well that too, I reckon,” Raven replied as he picked small bits of flesh from his feathers. “But the stench of burning Big Hairy Beast hair made me gag.”
And so the great partnership of humans and Corvus continued. As the years went by, Crow and Raven taught the naked and ignorant humans everything they needed to know to survive on Earth.