This piece is a guest contribution by Natalia Piland.
Joy, Loss, Ants
I’ve been grieving a lot lately. Life seems to be a series of losses, things not quite turning out how you wanted. That can be transformative. But sometimes, like when someone you’ve just met shares their hopes for the future with you only to not have one the next day, or like when someone you’ve been spending quite a bit of time with reveals they see no future with you, the grieving feels more static state rather than transitory, no matter how well you know it’ll pass. In the meantime, there also seems to be a lot of ants.
Three ant-related incidents come to mind right now. First, I was surveying people before a meeting and when I rang the doorbell a woman answered the door crying. Freak accident really, she had stepped on her parakeet on the way to the door and killed it. At the meeting, I drifted off, thinking about how this was the second death of the week for me and how fragile life was. In a literature class in college, we read a short story by Rodrigo Rey Rosa where the main character holds a canary and thinks how little strength it would take to crush it. The boy I’d been dating that month raised his hand and said only a psychopath would think that. He had clearly never held a bird in hand and I refrained from telling him that’s all I think about when I have one in mine, which, as a field ornithologist, is relatively often.
I tuned back into the meeting to find an ant cavaliering on the crisp sharp edges of this man’s white button-down, its skinny legs focused on the up, down, while the man’s sweat coalesced into soft pools underneath it.
Another instance was this morning, during field work. No birds were falling, so we took out a roll of Ritz™ crackers and a can of tuna while we waited for any, any, bird to fall into our net. Getting the right amount of tuna on a cracker without a fork and without spilling is an art I have not yet mastered. Ants came to claim my tuna, and I watched two ants put on a formidable tug of war. One ant was way bigger and redder than the other, which was small and black, but both whirled their back four appendages like windmills in a way that didn’t seem to touch the floor and frankly surprised me that it got them anywhere. To be fair, at first it didn’t. Both ants recruited backup, and two against two continued in a dead lock. It wasn’t until the smaller ant was joined by four more of its kind that they were able to dislodge the piece of tuna from the original red ant’s grasp. The second red ant seemed to grasp tighter and finally went on top of the piece of tuna as though sitting on it could keep it from being scored by the smaller, but united, front.
I’m not trying to tell a story with a moral, but if that’s what you need this to be, then feel free to insert one here.
Finally, yesterday I was boarded by what felt like a million Solenopsis ants twice. Both times we were putting up nets in the darkness, and I’m guessing I placed a net-pole right into their nest, but all I know is that many little feet were suddenly up and over and into my clothing and lining my face. Like fire, the stings spread and I wanted to throw the poles and nets to the floor, but I tried to stoically move everything away while keeping the nets intact. I have spent the last two days picking dead ants from my clothing and itching the welts until my skin comes off. I can’t help but think that maybe this is how I deal with every wound.
Opening it up over and over again until a new, stronger layer of skin grows over it.
Natalia Piland is a PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago. She works to better understand the way birds react to cities, and how humans interact with nature. In her spare time, she rewatches Sailor Moon and urges the UC administration to recognize Graduate Students United.
Image credit: Claudio Gonzáles