A.C. Snow

Lessons learned from Arthur the ant

From the front steps, where my wife and I sat savoring a piece of carrot cake, we watched a titmouse furiously stuffing bits of debris into a bluebird house.

“That reminds me of what the philosopher Alfred Korzybski once said about birds,” my wife commented, harking back to her college days. “He pointed out that birds have not changed their way of building nests since the creation, but that man has made amazing strides in architecture and other areas primarily because of the ability to talk and reason.”

“Birds communicate pretty well in their own way,” I said defensively. “And frankly, when I look at some of the architectural monstrosities around town, I’m not sure we’re far ahead of the birds when it comes to design.”

I glanced down to notice that a cake crumb half the size of a fingernail lying on the bottom step had suddenly moved. As if by magic, it moved again, inching its way to the step’s edge and tumbling over the precipice to the walk below.

“Behold the ant,” I said. “Its goal greatly exceeds its grasp.”

“And it apparently has killed itself as the result,” she added.

It did seem that the ambitious little trucker might have passed on to that great ant hill in the sky.

Then I saw a lone dot frantically zig-zagging its way down the walk toward the cake crumb and its crushed carrier.

I imagined I heard a predictable dialogue play out.

“Arthur! Are you all right?” a tiny voice shrilled.

How strange that ants and humans both have the prevailing compulsion to ask in times of trauma, “Are you all right?”

A housewife on her way down to the laundry room can tumble down a full flight of stairs and her inane husband will call out from above, “Honey, are you all right?”

On a Caribbean cruise, a seasick tourist can lunge for the rail, heave his insides overboard, and his wife will pat him gently on the back and ask, “Are you all right, dear?”

“Yeah, I’m all right, silly!” Arthur the ant replied irritably.

“How many times have I told you not to overload yourself, but to make two trips of it!” scolded his spouse or his significant other.

“Oh, get off my back!” Arthur snapped. “Go back to the Hill and get some of the guys to help me move this. There’s enough cake here to feed an army of ants!”

A few minutes later the cavalry hove into sight, a column of ants advancing straight toward the stalled Atlas and the hunk of goodness on his back. In a matter of seconds, Arthur and a platoon of comrades were moving the cake crumb briskly through the grass to some unannounced destination.

It’s interesting how we humans go about our daily lives so often ignoring the other cultures living among us in separate societies. Each culture has its own lifestyle, social and political rules and regulations.

The ant’s existence goes mostly unnoticed by us, until it makes its presence known in a negative manner.

Example: A friend of ours, married to a career military officer, had prepared a lavish dinner for her husband’s peers and superiors.

A free spirit, she was characteristically unintimidated by rank.

“I call them all General and nobody complains,” she once explained.

The dinner went well. But when Lynn went to the kitchen to fetch the lemon meringue pie she had made, she discovered it was crawling with ants.

Instead of panicking, she quickly slipped the pie into the fridge and waited five minutes or so. When she re-opened the refrigerator, all the ants had disappeared . She served the pie and graciously acknowledged her guests’ ensuing compliments.

Mark Twain paid homage to the ant when, in “What Is Man?” he wrote this tribute to the lowly speck of life:

“As a thinker and planner, the ant is the equal of any savage race of men; as a self-educated specialist in several arts, she is the superior of any savage race of men; and in one or two high mental qualities she is above the reach of any man, savage or civilized!”

This may be true. But it’s not easy to respect the sanctity of life when some of God’s creatures, including Arthur the ant, are complicating our human existence.

Snow: 919-836-5636; asnow@newsobserver.com