Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Ant Farm: She's Come Undone

Got an email today advertising an ant farm. (I also get emails for bed rails; marketing has missed my age bracket by a gap each way.) I have an ant farm story I tell in bars. It's better with hand gestures and under the influence of alcohol, but this attempt might almost get there.

When my kids were smaller, they received the makings for an ant farm as a gift. You mail a form, and in six weeks time a tube of live ants appears in your mailbox. This tube is to be placed into your freezer, where, in fifteen minutes, the cold will slow the ants. This is essential because your next step is to get the ants into the narrow opening at the top of their farm, which is comprised of two sheets of clear plastic held about a half inch apart; would they thrash about, they'd never make it in to rural bliss.

Before depositing the ants, the farm is to be filled with sand. You've seen the pictures; the ants will work to make interesting tunnels through this sand. They get to work on this right away, even making separate rooms, just as the instructions said they would.

"There's the kitchen!" I'd tell my kids, pointing to a small area where the ants had carried some of the bread I gave them. You're supposed to give them bread, as well as some drops of water to build some humidity. The proportion of the two I couldn't get quite right, however; the section of bread was always a little too big, even for the more industrious of the ants, and the water would puddle too much over here, with none over there.

As time passed, the balance of their little world, cheerily woven through with tunnels this way and that, was tipping. The bread in the kitchen became moldy, but of course I couldn't reach in to replace it; the ants over here were looking dry, but as I added water, it traveled elsewhere.

Let's take a moment to look at how farm renovations were accomplished. These are ants, after all, small creatures; and though they can lift a weight equivalent to a human lifting a car, their bathroom, for example, was made one grain of sand at a time.

Eventually, the ants saw the need to accommodate their changing society.

They needed to build a cemetery.

In the way that I knew the kitchen was a kitchen, by seeing the ants carry the bread there, I knew the cemetery by its first visitor: an ant carrying his friend. Subsequent visitors would carry a grain of sand to bury this first casualty.

"Isn't that touching!" I'd tell the kids.

Then another one died and was laid to rest as was the first. We watched this as well. The next one, too.

By now, the ant farm's wavy tunnels had fallen in on themselves for need of sand to bury the dead. In fact, the whole farm was now a long, 70-degree arc of a hill stretching up to the burial ground, where small bodies lay firmly packed. Those who remained spent their time making the long trek, a friend on their backs. No longer did they bother trying to break apart the too large piece of moldy bread; they knew their time would come.

"You're right, honey; those ants aren't moving. How about we read some books?" I'd say to the kids.

When the last living ant stumbled up the long hill with the last of the dead, the work of burial left solely on his shoulders, I, like the miniature society, came undone. I quietly covered the whole thing and carried it outside. Drips of water spilled out as I hoisted the shrouded farm above my head to throw it into the dumpster.

"The ant farm? I'm not sure where it is right now, dear," I said to the kids, happy that it was the God's truth.

5 comments:

  1. Heehee, cute. If I were drunk when hearing that tale I'd probably cry. Then I would tell you about the mice, whose stinky aquarium I accidentally left outside overnight during winter (I meant to clean it that sunny afternoon, really!) so that in the morning I found them curled together, frozen to death. Mea culpa, mea culpa!

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  2. I beat you in the PETA department... We put some crickets in with our giant hissing cockroach, and in the morning, somehow, they were found with the lower halves of their bodies stuck in a rotting slice of apple. The upper halves were reaching out, as if for help. C-roach nearby looking guilty.

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  3. HA! Parenting. Who knew it would involve such horrors?

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  4. OH WOW. This definitely did "get there", for me anyway. I have no similar tale to share, aside from one when I was a kid and had two pet birds, Sonny and Cher.

    One day I came home from school to find Sonny dead and covered in blood, with Cher pecking at him violently. My parents told me that Sonny must have died and Cher was pecking at him to get him to wake up. I believed this story ABSOLUTELY until I was retelling it a few years ago, and finally realized that may not have been the full truth. It took me until my LATE 30's to realize I had believed the bird version of the 'farm upstate to chase rabbits' story my whole life!

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  5. And then, in your late 30s, Sonny *did* die, and your parents had to tell you that Cher was on her fifth husband, and...

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