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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 7.1 (2005) 103-111

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The Nuptial flight of the Ants:

Or, On the Nature of Motherly Love

My daughters and I are digging in the beds of our yard, planting snapdragons and petunias, the soil winnowing cool and dark through our fingers, sun on our necks. It's February in Houston, the time here when air is so clear I want to fill myself with it. Clapping her hands together to shake off the dirt, my baby, Sabine, toddles off beneath the sweetgum tree and begins gathering its spiked balls, the tree's seeds that fleck the ground. With Mary Martha, I keep digging holes and filling them with the annuals, wondering how far into summer's oppressive heat they'll last. I'm in a sort of trance of sun and air and earth when I hear Sabine wailing and turn to see her standing helpless, arms out to her sides. I know it's the fire ants again and I lunge toward her, tearing off her shoes, swiping at stray ants still threading her legs, rolling them between my fingers until they burst.

Ellie, the oldest, had poked a stick into this mound of earth that looks like a pile of sifted brown sugar beneath the sweetgum tree so that she could see the ants roiling up, pouring over the sides of the collapsed wall. But when they did, they headed for Sabine. Once Sabine's free of the little pests, the girls and I stand there together looking down on them. From a distance, the movements of ants have always seemed frantic, chaotic. But squatting over them like this, watching individual ants caress each other's antennae and then move on, they seem prepared for such destruction, seem already to be putting things in order again. As we watch, another sort of movement reveals itself, one I've never noticed before: lodged within the avalanched dirt are small bundles that the ants are gathering up and carrying deeper into the nest—ridged opalescent packets, like swaddled babies—the colony's pupae.

I go around for days afterward unable to shake this image of ant altruism, though I'm uncertain why this is so. Part of me wants to believe it's a [End Page 103] herald of some sort, but depicted in an iconography that I don't quite understand. Maybe, I think, if these minute creatures, so far removed from our human complications, are capable of such tenderness toward their young, are willing to endanger their own lives for the good of their progeny, they're a sign—though not of divinity, necessarily. But at least of something smaller. Goodness, perhaps. I'd settle for that, I suppose.

All that spring, as the snapdragons and petunias straggled toward the sun, I read about ants. With the little ones strapped into their bike trailer and Ellie wavering on her pink Huffy next to me, I'd pedal to the public library and sit cross-legged between the stacks, reading encyclopedia entries and scholarly manuals while the girls looked at picture books and ate crackers. When they grew impatient and began tussling in the aisles or clambering on my bent back, I'd gather what I had found together, check out what I could, and ride home.

In the beginning, I was mainly interested in the fire ants that had colonized my backyard, a species, I learned, called Solenopsis geminata. Their Latin name reminded me of jewels for some reason: colored crystals with light refracting through. They are, of course, nothing of the sort. Fire ants originated in South America, a "tramp species" that radiated outward from there the way archaeologists say our ancestors dispersed from the Great Rift Valley in East Africa millions of years ago. From Olduvai Gorge, the species that became us evolved and spread into the Middle East and Asia and Europe, and finally across the Bering Strait into the New World.

One night, sitting up in bed long after...


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