Ants in the Time of COVID-19

Aesop’s grasshopper was a dancer, a prancer, a bit of a party boy. The ant was serious, determined, a bit of a worrier. The ant toed the line, worked hard, would never go hungry. The grasshopper trilled through summer, hopping through tall grass over the rivers of ants going about their gathering business.

It was probably from one of those huge cushy-cover children’s books of Aesop’s Fables that I first heard the tale. Again, in second or third grade, probably from either a teacher or in Sunday School. I always felt conflicted by the story of these two. I did not understand why the grasshopper was the fool, why they couldn’t both learn from each other, meet in the middle. Are we only right if we are the ants? What about the spontaneous joy of grasshopper, the sun on our faces, the music we hear around us? Yet, born in October, I do understand the value of a well-stocked larder to meet the lean times and changing seasons.

Grasshoppers, the ones in the lengthy brush of my childhood backyard, frightened me. They leapt out of nowhere, could have gotten tangled in my long hair, they spit brown juice, they crunched if you crushed one. 

On some summer mornings, after breakfast, Mom used to wander over for coffee with Mrs. Mulcahey, two doors up. I wandered along. I have always loved to sit in the kitchen with the women. My sister Valerie and brother Michael were outdoors with the four older Mulcahey boys, the youngest in a high chair between my mother and his. The three backyards between the Mulcaheys’ house and ours were all adjoined. It was our own park. A small “woods” for exploring filled the small hill between the Mulcaheys and the last neighbor on the block at the corner.

The grass in back grew waist high, full of grasshoppers. When walking through, they jettisoned back and forth in the afternoon light. The air in August is thick with insect song. Mrs. Mulcahey had the habit of skimming the top cream off the Marble Farms milk for her coffee. That fascinated me. Mom always ordered homogenized milk. I imagine the homogenized was a bit more expensive, and when raising five boys, every penny counts. 

All of a sudden, the side door burst open and the troop of Mulcahey/Popoff children arrived, all excited and panting, Patrick carrying a milk bottle proudly in his hand. The bottle had the broken head of my brother’s toy golf club stuck in the top, the line along the head of the plastic driver split like a small smile. The bottle was all green and brown, everybody was giggling as Patrick held it up like a trophy to the moms, stopping one of them in mid-sentence.

Then it became clear Patrick was brandishing a half-gallon of live grasshoppers and some sprigs of grass, that all of them had conspired in the yard to collect as many as possible, along with contriving a mechanism to deposit them without losses. Clever, that. The moms started screaming, then scolding the children back out the door. I cowered in the corner. The kids ran back into the summer air to release their captives, the prank successful, the mothers sufficiently reclaiming their composure for a laugh, a sip of coffee, and a “Now, where was I?”

March is when the ants start to wake, hungry and focused. The long lines, single file, each one a part of the chain for survival. Each has a part in the collective. One year, in the 90s, I hung a candy cane on my desk lamp, which arched over the built-in desk under a 90-inch picture window facing south from my attic apartment, and then forgot about it. The apartment was so high up, I had a view of the flight pattern of most of the birds nesting on the block. I could track the moon across the sky year-round. 

I realized one day there was a parade of ants walking along the white window sill, which did not make sense for several reasons; for one thing, we were three floors up in a Victorian era house, and the desk was in the opposite direction of the kitchen area. 

The next day, I saw the same line of ants. I could not figure why they were heading toward the computer, the stereo; what could possibly be the attraction? But, again, I went back to whatever I was doing. The third day, while rummaging around my desk, I saw a hook of cellophane hanging on the study lamp, a dusting a white and red sugar in the bottom. Slack-jawed, I understood the industry of ants.

Since this March began, I have been watching for a spring invasion. I have had less trouble in the past couple of years, with a really good, unobtrusive trap that seems to have warded them away so far. I am hoping shared memory of the collective conscience of ants alerts them to the danger of my cupboards. 

Two days ago, while in the half-bath on my first floor, a solitary brown ant, no bigger than a hyphen, was hurrying up the wall. It was at least 35 feet from the outdoors. I was trying to compute how far I would have to walk to equal the relative distance that ant had walked. I tried to capture it to take it outdoors but the ant dropped to the floor in my clumsiness. I went about doing whatever I was doing.

Yesterday, while sitting in my living room, watching the daily update from the governor, a small movement on a piece of paper on the t.v. tray next to my chair caught my eye. A single ant was making its way toward the corner, and who knows where from there. I am certain it was that same ant, just walking for survival. This time I was able to  release it to the greater world, which is somewhat out of reach for me.

My cupboards and freezer are full, having always stockpiled essentials like an ant prepping for winter. But, while sequestered, I am listening to more music than I have in a long time. I am dancing with reckless abandon every day. It may seem like grasshopper behavior in the time of crisis, but I am, after all, a Libra. Seeking balance is a lifelong quest.

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