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Eulogy for Ants

June 6, 2010

The 16 Ants project officially concluded on April 27 with the death of the Last Ant.  She survived less than a day alone.  Now that its over, I am writing one final entry to sum up the experience. What can I say about the ants who spent 75 days with me?

The ants were industrious, but without much direction.  They would often work at cross-purposes, one ant closing off an opening that another had just built, another ant tunneling through an area that was recently filled in.  If several ants were excavating the same tunnel, they would often get in each others way, slowing down the very process they were working so hard to complete.   Not to mention the constant moving about of dead ants from one place to another.

Although the ant’s individual tunneling strategies seemed to be independent of the whole, the rest of the time they were in a group.  They are definitely social creatures – when not working they would always rest in close proximity to each other.   They spent a lot of time grooming one another, in a manner that seemed to be very kind and gentle.

What I reflect on the most is the experience of feeling responsible for the ants – and yet having very little ability to change their situation.   They were doomed from the start, since they had no queen, no manner of reproduction, and no ability to survive in the wild.  All that I could  do is try not to hasten their demise – and even this with some consideration that I may only have been prolonging their suffering…if ants can be said to suffer.  In the end, I can only assume that they have some kind of biological imperative to try to stay alive, if not a psychological will to live, and so would have wanted to continue on.

The futility of their existence bothered me much more than it bothered them, of course.  Although they had to realize that they were no longer in  a proper colony and that they were missing their queen, they did keep on working.  Toward the end, the few remaining ants closed off almost all of the tunnels, showing that they were adapting their environment based on the dwindling population.  Without sufficient numbers to defend their territory, the inhabited area was made smaller and smaller.

I can’t speculate on the emotional life of ants.  The Last Ant had to have known she was alone, but there is now way to know what this knowledge might have meant to her.   If I could have found a way to comfort her, I would have, as silly as it seems.  And I have to admit that I was relieved that she didn’t live long, even though I have no objective reason to believe that she was suffering.  I suppose this is true of any death – our understanding of it occurs only in the context of our own emotional lives.  The dead are gone.

Goodbye, Ants.

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