may 23, 2020 — carpenter ants, covid and me

black ants

Photo by Syed Rajeeb on Pexels.com

When asked how I’m holding up “in these strange times,” I probably answer a little too quickly and honestly, “I’m doing alright, all things considered.” Which is often followed by, “Yeah, but you’re—alone,” eyebrows skew, head tips with heartfelt concern. I can’t even imagine how hard that must be now. At least I have {my kids, my spouse, a job…}” Voice trials into a long sigh. I shrug, nod in agreement to keep things simple, suspect that their concern might speak more of their state of affairs than mine. I may be a lot of things lately: scared, unsure, awestruck, sad, amused, lonely, downright pissed off sometimes—just wear the fucking mask, you ignorant fucks—but I’m hardly alone.

Do I tell them about the carpenter ants that live in my bathroom? That I rescue any ant that I find frantically, futilely scrambling-sliding-scrambling up the slippery sides of my tub, by dangling a length of toilet paper for it to cling onto, then I airlift it to the spider plant or peace lily perched on the windowsill? That tears spring from my eyes every damned time I see one struggling, knowing it’s not long for this world? The first time that happened, I was startled—what strange force compels me to perform teary last rights as those tiny limbs go sluggish and its segmented body curls into itself? Surely it’s not simply because I’ve been literally alone for ten weeks and counting (is anyone counting?), that I gently pinch the ant between folds of TP and lower it into a plant with a blessing. (I once flushed a barely moving ant down the toilet and immediately regretted the careless act; surely, even to a lowly ant, to be surrounded by green leaves and moist dirt is a far more peaceful place to die than succumbing to the turbulent rush of toilet water). 

It’s not an infestation or anything—just a random ant now and then. But what do I know about ants and infestations? I live in a charming, borderline-decrepit, one-hundred-and-twenty-year old house that’s been reincarnated into various configurations over the years; nowadays it’s a triplex. God knows there’s more than just four humans contained within these walls; to report errant ants might warrant an over-the-top extermination that results in burning down the house. I’d hate for that to happen. So I watch for signs of infestation, and keep plucking errant ants from the tub.

But the bigger question is: why do I care so much about something so small and seemingly insignificant? Is this how it happens? I wonder. That I’m losing my mind in self-isolation? Maybe it’s best not to admit any of this publicly. When my landlords (who are also related to me) learn that I’m not using the ant traps they bought for me, or the mouse traps they left under the sink for the mouse that appears in winter, for that matter, I imagine a family conference where I am suspiciously absent, before they kindly ask me to pack my things and go live with one of my sisters. I anticipate someone else reading this will say, “You have to kill! all! the ants! or your whole house will! collapse!” or “You don’t have to use Raid—there are organic ways to kill! all! the ants!” As writers, it’s a risk we always take, that someone will miss the point of what we’re trying to say. But someone else might say, “oh my god, I so get it…thank you for writing the thing that I have such a hard time expressing.” It’s why I keep at it—to find better ways to say what I’m trying to say, to examine if what I believe is truly what I believe, if for no other reason than to know that I’m not losing my mind—that ants matter to one other person, even if that other person turns out to be me. It’s for that person, whomever they may be, that I keep trying. Oh, and for the ants.

You won’t readily find good news about carpenter ants if you Google them, which yes, I did because 1. I have ridiculous amounts of time on my hands these days, 2. I am truly curious—are ants as wicked as we’ve been lead to believe? and 3. for real—have I lost my everlasting mind because I don’t want to intentionally mass murder crawly things with more than four legs?

Number one is a given for many of us lately, I won’t belabor the point. Number two took a bit more work. Loads of negatively-biased assertions from endless pest control companies populated my Google search, hammering the point over and over again, in graphic detail, that ants of any kind are a threat to humanity and must be eliminated at all cost: seek and destroy before they seek and destroy us. We accept this as gospel truth in part because repetition is a simple yet highly effective way to get any message across. So is fear. 

To learn anything objective about the carpenter ant (who coincidentally, I might point out, shares the same trade as a certain savior of a certain religion whose commandments include thou shall not kill, and passionately lauds all creatures great and small; not that any of that means anything, just a thought I had while researching carpenter ants) you have to be persistent and industrious, channeling deep to get to the facts—not unlike the way a carpenter ant channels into wood, one could say. Did you know that carpenter ants are indigenous to many forested parts of the world? That they excavate intricate tunnels in wood worthy of the name galleries. Their appearance isn’t a personal attack — to a carpenter ant, wood is wood. Like anyone, they just want a place to live; when you see them scurry like mad to escape your wrath, you can’t help but know on some deep level that they, like us, are capable of something akin to what we might call anxiety or even terror, as any creature, great or small would in the looming shadow of a fast-approaching shoe heel. 

Curiously, one pest control company contradicts itself about the very creature it’s hired to assassinate. From their website: Let’s set the record straight: Carpenter ants (Camponotus pennsylvanicus) are not “evil” or “bad.” They play a positive role in forested environments, nesting in both living and dead trees, as well as rotting logs and stumps…carpenter ants have a significant role in starting the degradation process in dead trees. By tunneling through wood to excavate nest galleries, the dead wood is opened to fungi, bacteria and other wood-destroying organisms to begin decomposition and natural recycling of materials.

Their galleries and passageways have a smooth, sandpapered appearance…carpenter ants also are a vital link in the forest food web. They play a key role as predators of forest defoliators and other insects — and in turn, are prey for fish, reptiles and birds such as the pileated woodpecker.

All of that is captivating but this line is what stopped me cold: When houses are built in and near forests or natural areas, carpenter ants may become a threat—wait a minute. This story sounds suspiciously familiar, an unintentional parable—who encroached on whose land here? And for the love of God and all creatures great and small—after extolling the virtues of these tiny critters, how can XYZ Pest-ridders possibly go on to make a living slaughtering whole communities of these environmental do-gooders? I mean, I get it—we don’t know what we don’t know, right? But once we know, we can’t go back to not knowing, y’know? At the crossroads of not knowing to knowing, what we do from that point on becomes a conscious choice. I’m gonna be working through this thought for a while…bear with me…

Validation, if not an outright answer, to my third concern arose serendipitously as I rooted around the internet for more facts about the carpenter ant. I came upon an essay titled On Smushing Bugs, where author-cartoonist, Tim Kreider ponders my very dilemma. He writes: “A bug may be a small, unimportant thing, but maybe killing or saving one isn’t. Every time I smush a bug, I can feel myself smushing something else, too — an impulse toward mercy, a little throb of remorse. Maybe it would feel better to decide that killing even a bug matters. Does evading tiny, insignificant lives lead to callousness about larger, more important ones, like a karmic broken-window theory? People running for cover on the ground must look ant-like from a bomber or a drone. As flies to wanton boys.”

Indeed, it seems the farther removed from our own existence another being is, the easier it is to not think of that being as something worthy of existing. I’m still in the process of processing so many connections to other facets of life—something about the worth of an ant’s life and the current state of the world, but I’m gonna need more time…I haven’t yet made up my mind about the lost mind part, but at least I now know I’m not alone in my odd compulsion to rescue ants from the tub (and turtles from a highway and implementing my Operation Spider Relocation program, and one day hope to start Prosthetics for Footless Pigeons of Chicago nonprofit—another essay for another time). And probably explains, at least in part, why I’m no longer a homeowner and am alone in a pandemic.

Maybe carpenter ants are too weird to relate to; I continue to ruminate my state of aloneness and others’ concerns as it relates to current affairs. Maybe I should tell them that the early morning tree hugging man and I have taken our relationship to the next level—that I saw him again the other day, hugging that same tree in the same park in the same early hour of the morning as the first time I saw him, a few weeks ago. This time, bandana masks hanging around our necks, from a good twenty feet apart, we make eye contact, smile. I flash my dead mother’s signature peace sign, he gives a little wave, then hops on his bike. I continue walking with my dog in the opposite direction, gliding my hands along rough bark, drawing a branch down to my face to take a deep inhale of lilac essence. I stop to wrap my arms around the waist of a tree, and I swear, I feel its spirit move through me, and I know I am not alone. But all of that sounds weird, too.

Do I tell others that I stopped drinking at the beginning of the year and when I did, I felt a stirring in the nucleus of all thirty trillion of my cells, a collective whole-body sigh, like the heavy loneliness that has occupied me for too long finally drifted up and away from my body and for the first time in maybe ever in my life, I never felt so light, a quiet foreshadowing: keep going, woman, this superpower is going to come in handy very soon, just you wait and see. That when I was drinking, even when I was around people, I was unbearably alone, but at the same time, it was the only way I knew, to stave off the acute loneliness that was gnawing at me from the inside out. Kind of like a carpenter ant, I guess you could say, but another part of me says, no, it was not at all like a carpenter ant—they break down old to encourage new life; drinking eroded me from the inside, out, leaving nothing but a barren wasteland inside. That now, even in the middle of a fucking pandemic, I’m constructing a net of support, through family, online communities (who knew thousands of strangers online could be a source of so much empathy, encouragement and even joy?). Like a spider—yeah, that’s it…(okay, another essay for another time…) I may be alone but I’m far from lonely—don’t you see the difference? I want to say, but I already anticipate the bewildered, “Shit…sorry I said anything” look in their eyes.

Right now, when someone asks, “How are you holding up in these strange times?” I find it easier to say, “I’m doing alright, all things considered,” and leave it at that. It’s still true. Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell the more complicated story, about the difference between alone and lonely. For now, I will continue to rescue ants, I will continue to wear the fucking mask, I will continue to allow myself grace for things I did not know at the time, and  continue to always, keep working to know more, and in turn do better, the next time. 

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