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From: Vol.03 N.01 – How Humans Engage with Earth

Ant Familias

by Meera Atkinson

When I first arrived I let men spray poisons and I lived alone.

Something called time did something like pass and just as I became ready for

company, the toxins wore thin and evaporated.


The surfaces

once again became organic

trailing with smells, with food, with my five fingers of I didn’t even know what.


Over the years, as the wood rotted and the water leaked and the cracks appeared, ants

built pheromone freeways extending all the way from their somewhere nests into my

kitchen and life. I watched them and tried not to harm them.


An ant expert who keeps ants in a Tupperware container in a lab said she doesn’t have

empathy for ants because they “don’t get discouraged or care”, but I do:

have empathy, get discouraged, care.


The queen, an ovary machine, sits in the nest laying eggs.

Virgin queens of formicidae fly outside my field of vision; whole cities are

constructed, communist colonies flourish, attended by workers, soldiers and drones.

The commensal, parasitic, mimetic swarm rises, the kingdom.

Animalia, arthropoda, insecta, hymenoptera, apocrita, vespoidea.

The morphology: elbowed antennae, exoskeleton.

They have no lungs you know.

Lungless, oxygen passes through spiracles.

All but blind, their eyes of tiny lenses — three atop the head — do not, I’m told,

see me bent down in study.


The expert calls them “incompetent”, marvels

at how “mindless individuals collectively can do so much”, yet even she cannot deny

the intrigue and pathos of one ant carrying the carcass of a larger ant on its back,

laboriously transporting the corpse, to eat, to mourn, to mystery.


What emerges from this emergence and who are we to say?


King Solomon instructed, “Look to the ants, consider her ways and be wise”.

Work together, yes?

See what hive mind holy order takes shape when we forget ourselves.

See what great works create when we are small, become ourselves.

Ants have no corporations, no stock markets, no matchstick factories crammed with

brown bodies earning less in a month than what I ate for lunch.

They’re working with the tide, working with the weather, working with the light, with

the drop of juice from a peach.


The problem was that I was killing them. I tried not to, but

the numbers overwhelmed me. They

found the bin so I moved it. I left no food out and washed the dishes,

but still they came in scattered fews or marching columns or frantic dozens and an

inadvertent plate would land on one, or

I’d notice too late the bodies swimming in a tiny pool of sink water.

I rescued those I could, in elaborate operations of relocations balanced on the flashing

silver of a clean butter knife, but the casualities were many and I grieved every one.

For their own good,

to stem the kamikaze flow,

I summoned a handyman to block up the cracks

they filed in and out of.


Widely held to be the most successful species on the planet,

with territories everywhere but Antarctica, ants

farm fight garden have generals organize wars keep livestock and

slaves nurse young engineer tunnel build design have no boss:

they do all this nearly blind and brainless, drawing diagrams, routes, fortuitous

architecture, information loops.

Traffic, signals,

neighborhoods of pheromones,

look closely at the ants,

at the antness in the whole and

you come to the crucial question: where is the thought?

Where is/the thought?

Where is it ever?


“Buried in the system” says some boffin. “Ants as authors” says another. A Princeton

biologist has an “ant map” of evolutionary errors. The death of the author! “Does the

painting materialize on its own”? Who makes a society?: “Everybody and nobody”,

neurons firing off each other in bodies firing off each other. Finally, a mathematician

weighs in: “No cell in your 100 billion cells in your brain is having a thought, but

together they are.”

Thank you. That is helpful.

The cell that alone is as mindless as an ant makes thought only in concert with the

other cells; the cellular ensemble makes sensation, motivation.


Together the cells are getting dressed to go to work, making love, deciding what to

cook for dinner, perpetrating genocide, adopting a child, writing a novel, playing a

cello, paying the phone bill, meditating, posting a photo to social media, heading to



The ants that individually respond mindlessly to a chemical united build a nest. And

then there are equations outside of math. Each ant, like a cell, unable to think,

together make thoughts in action, make vibrating scents/sense, make super circuitries

like the Internet, deep in the earth, in my kitchen walls.


“Who conducts?” someone asks.

Wrong question.

“What is consciousness?” asks another. Listen: they exist.

Six legs attached to mesosoma, with a hooked claw at the end of each leg; nuptial

flight; larvae; pupa; sound; touch; pheromonian orchestra conducted with antennae.

“A crushed ant emits an alarm pheromone that sends nearby ants into an attack frenzy

and attracts more ants from further away.”


Thriving in biomass, mutualistic presence making sounds by stridulation. “Some ant

species use ‘propaganda pheromones’ to confuse enemy ants, causing them to fight

among themselves.” What, then, is the right question, or are there already too many

questions for such obvious answers?


So the handyman comes to plug up holes and cracks.

Stomps in heavy-limbed and hard-done-by, all

resentful niceness like cheap cologne splashed over a stench,

talks to his apprentice like shit.


The apprentice takes it, wears it, hovers covered in the shame, holds in his pain, his

anger, his accent, because he might not feel he has the option to say “I quit” in his

language, and the handyman looks at me exasperated and says, “So, you want the

cracks plugged up. It’s an old window. Why bother?”

Because of the ants, I say; I want them to stop getting in so I don’t accidently kill

them. He starts filling up holes and cracks and then he turns to me, his face a pall of

contempt and spits, “Why don’t you just use some spray? They’re only ants!”


I don’t have the time and energy to explain, cause often cells outside me form a

thought I cannot change; I look him in his wide sure eye and say: because I like them.


He shakes his head and sighs, goes back to his work.

“Buried in the system”, I think — my cells, collectively, think.


“Who conducts?”

I have the answer, I long to tell him.

I have the answer: they want to live.



some of the ideas and quotes in this piece were inspired by/sourced from a Radiolab podcast titled “Emergence” (Season 1, Episode 3), accessed November 27, 2013.

Published: January 2016
Meera Atkinson

is a Sydney-based writer, poet and scholar. Her work has appeared in over sixty publications, including Best Australian Stories 2007, Best Australian Poems 2010, and Griffith REVIEW. Meera has a PhD from the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University and is co-editor of Traumatic Affect (2013), an international volume of academic essays exploring the nexus of trauma and affect.

An Australian and international
journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics.

Plumwood Mountain Journal is created on the unceded lands of the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation. We pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to elders past, present and future. We also acknowledge all traditional custodians of the lands this journal reaches.