04 February 2006


It isn't wise to stop by the side of just any anthill in Australia, but this one had no aggressive defenders. The visible ants were busy coming up from a narrow opening, each with a particle of sand in its mandibles. Each ant deposited its load on the rubbish pile and returned below.

They looked as same to me as we would to them. While I was watching the ants, some builders' labourers drove past, and a waste truck. Some of the ants that I watched working were slightly bigger than others, some slightly brighter coloured; each individual looking a bit different though not different enough to recognise if the same one emerged again on the busy worksite.

They acted, not as 'ants', but as individuals. They had personalities. I've often watched ants, but never noticed before how individualistic their actions could be, and possibly always are. I don't know. All I can say from having been fascinated is that these ants busy at my feet were like any nation of people. There were ants who ran with their rocks to the top of the rubbish hill and dropped them so that if they rolled off, they'd roll away from the central entrance in its depression. There were ants who emerged from the hole and dropped their rocks right at the entrance where they were likely to tumble in. These ants reminded me of people who open their doors and just turf their rubbish out, a common practice where not made illegal.

I'll be accused of anthropomorphism for saying this, but ants were around first, so whose ism is it anyway: It was utterly compelling seeing an ant emerge, watching the way it moved, and trying to predict what it would do.

There were ants who looked as if they knew they should have gone further, but dumped the load and quickly ducked back inside. There were ants who stopped partway up the rise, for all the world looking as if they were contemplating. And there were ants who worked in the most disgustingly virtuous way. No fist-pumping from them once their loads were off their jaws—only a work ethic that ants have a reputation for, but Mao Tse-tung thought he knew the masses, too. It is man's social being that determines his thinking, he wrote. Once the correct ideas characteristic of the advanced class are grasped by the masses, these ideas turn into a material force which changes society and changes the world.

Granted, ants aren't known for changing the world, or having great leaders. They've made great strides to change the world in a vast area underground just metres from where I sit. But they're still just ants. The more things change, the more they stay the same. As for their society, I couldn't tell one ant from another, so there was no way that I could say, 'That ant doesn't deserve to be supported by the toil of the rest of the masses.'

When I got home, I looked up 'lazy ants', and found that Eisuke Hasegawa marked the ants he studied. I wish I could have done that, but I only observed in ignorance and surprise.

Is it preposterous to consider the thoughts of an ant? Of course, workers have a difficulty thinking, as H. Rider Haggard remarked in his account of a year of his life as a progressive gentleman farmer, A Farmer's Year: Notable men are rare; there be very few in any age who can lift their heads and voices high enough above the raving crowd for the world to see and hear them, and great events occur only from time to time. But behind these Titans existed the dim multitudes of the people . . . of all these forgotten humble hordes there remains nothing but ourselves . . .

I could not tell whether busy ants and slack-arse ants are so as a matter of personality, age, health (factors Eisuke Hasegawa pondered) or indeed, whether that virtuous ant was a slackard in the last trip up from the bowels of the nest. I could not compare their queens, or even meet them.

The only thing I knew from watching these educators is that I'll never again think of ants as that body made up of individuals in the way that negates the individual. The fact that we don't know the who-ness of an ant is another mystery that we should want to explore, not negate the existence of. Workers unite, to be sure. And they do seem to be so much more efficient and cooperative than those creatures who have lips to sing the Internationale, but it was wonderful to see that they would fail, as masses, to spell We Love Our Dear Leader, or even We Suck, in some stadium display.

The masses are often surprising — individuals even more so.

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