Thursday, May 14, 2009

The ants go marching...

I was walking through my favorite cemetery last evening and came upon an interesting sight. I had stopped to commune with a large tree. Running my hands along its bark, I noticed a steady flow of ants traveling up and down the tree's length. I focused in to get a closer look and noticed that one ant was hauling behind him what appeared to be the corpse of a fellow ant. And behind them, was another ant who helped steady the remains should there be any wavering, a formic pallbearer of sorts. The irony of my beholding this in a cemetery notwithstanding, I found the event both curious and macabre. I wondered how many creatures, besides humans and ants, have a formal procedure for dealing with the dead.

Of particular interest was the way the lead ant would communicate with any other ant that crossed its path coming down the tree as it was moving their late comrade up. There was a quick brush of feelers and I can only imagine what was said. Perhaps, "Get out of the way, Doc Brown needs to have this body by eight o'clock" or simply, "Jimmy's dead." Regardless, it all took place rather quickly and, within minutes, the ants were way up the tree, and out of my sight line.

I was reminded of the great Robert Frost's poem Departmental:

An ant on the tablecloth
Ran into a dormant moth
Of many times his size.
He showed not the least surprise.
His business wasn't with such.
He gave it scarcely a touch,
And was off on his duty run.
Yet if he encountered one
Of the hive's enquiry squad
Whose work is to find out God
And the nature of time and space,
He would put him onto the case.
Ants are a curious race;
One crossing with hurried tread
The body of one of their dead
Isn't given a moment's arrest-
Seems not even impressed.
But he no doubt reports to any
With whom he crosses antennae,
And they no doubt report
To the higher-up at court.
Then word goes forth in Formic:
"Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
Our selfless forager Jerry.
Will the special Janizary
Whose office it is to bury
The dead of the commissary
Go bring him home to his people.
Lay him in state on a sepal.
Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
This is the word of your Queen."
And presently on the scene
Appears a solemn mortician;
And taking formal position,
With feelers calmly atwiddle,
Seizes the dead by the middle,
And heaving him high in air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands round to stare.
It is nobody else's affair
It couldn't be called ungentle
But how thoroughly departmental.

tall penguin

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