July 3, 2012 @ 11:57 pm
Nowhere is the particulate nature of cultural information more obvious than at a spiritual retreat. About every third sentence somebody says is a quote, and they recombine in strange ways sometimes. I was reading one chapter of a Loren Eiseley book during the down time after lunch and happened across that phrase, “the villainy of insects,” just after I’d watched a house fly being dismembered by ants.
It was crazy how the attack emerged without any seeming coordination between the individual ants. One had grabbed a wing and held on, rodeo-style, while the much bigger fly buzzed her around. Then she let go and left the seemingly dead fly doing a headstand and wandered off. Next time I looked up they were battling again, and then another ant had stumbled across them and latched onto the other wing, and they pulled against one another to stretch the fly out on its back. There they waited, leaning backwards, like a computer program waiting for input, blinking the cursor. It was kind of a stalemate. The fly couldn’t kick them away, and all they could do was hold on. Many seconds passed. Then another ant wandered by, pulled off a leg, dropped it, and went back for another, but couldn’t get it off, so now there were three ants pulling in different directions on this fly. A fourth came up with something already in its mouth, and crawled repeatedly over the fly, completely ineffectually because it didn’t drop the thing it was carrying. Then it wandered off, and the third ant let go, went back to the severed leg, and carried that off. This left the two wing-ants pulling the injured fly up vertically onto the wall and then across towards the window, with the fly, now upright, trying to hold onto the wood with its remaining legs. Wow.
I went back to the chapter, which was full of quotes from John Dewey and Herman Melville and others, along with recollections of what sounded like a strange and lonely childhood, all tied together in a meditation on teaching.
And then they did it again! Different fly, same tactic. Grab a wing and pull. Without a partner, this left the ant pulling backwards in circles, again like a computer program stuck in an infinite loop. There were at least five other ants scurrying around, but they didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the battle. I stood up and left at that point. Wow. Idiot-savant carnivorous ants, right under the vegan noses of our hosts at the Lama Foundation. Wasn’t expecting that.
I can post something like this and expect to interest the BEACON folks, those interested in the evolution/emergence of complex behaviors, at least. It was eerily reminiscent of Terry Soule’s hyenas vs. lions simulations. But I didn’t yell, “Hey guys, come watch this!” even to the other eco-academic folks who were also camped out in the library, communing with the books. Most of the talk here has been about the beauty and transcendence of nature, support and nurturing and aliveness. One of the year-round residents just set her computer down to run outside and (presumably) dance in the rain, the first they’ve had here in who knows how long. Based on some other interactions, and the fact that people keep coming up to me and asking me how I’m doing, whether I’m enjoying myself, as though they expect me to say “No, dear hippie-type person, indeed I am not. Please direct me to the nearest cockfight or bear-baiting, that I may wager upon it,” somehow I didn’t think they’d consider the behavior of the hungry ants to be beautiful. I’m not sure I would go so far as beautiful, myself, but it was pretty damned interesting.