Thursday, June 19, 2008

Antsy


On my urban hikes, which used to be called taking a walk, I have an opportunity to see things that won't make the evening news but may be more interesting than the evening news. Today I walked for an hour and was reminded of one of Tacoma's anomalies: sometimes sidewalks just disappear. There must be some kind of gray municipal legal area in which neither the city nor the landowners are primarily responsible for putting in sidewalks. So you might be traveling by foot on a sidewalk for several blocks, and although the neighborhood doesn't change architecturally or topographically, the sidewalk will stop, and in its place might be weeds, rocks, dirt, or a wee path. I have come to cherish Tacoma's anomalies, another of which is that Alder Street turns into Pine Street, which turns into Cedar street. It's as if someone deduced that after a few blocks, a street will get the urge to have its name changed.

I've also seen many ants, chiefly tiny brown ones which appear to locate the seam between sidewalk-segments, burrow down, and leave conical piles of dirt they've displaced. I don't know the proper name of these ants, and I don't know what they eat. I grew up observing red ants, which would build massive teeming hills so thick with ants that they stank: fabulous to observe. The ants seem to prefer to eat other insects--or any kind of protein, really. Also, there were black ants, which grew wings and flew during one of their phases. We also had the ants that came inside and looked for something sweet. But these tiny brown ants I hadn't seen before.

Then today I saw a small nest of black ants, smaller than the kind I saw in California. The nest was right next to the sidewalk, and hundreds of ants were traveling on a two-lane ant-highway, which ran parallel to the sidewalk. I think these ants are called "workers" or "soldiers," the former if they're getting food or debris for the queen, the latter if they're occupying foreign ant territory (and perhaps drilling for oil). However, there was also a smaller stream of commuting ants that crossed the sidewalk between the next and a patch of grass. Someone had written on the sidewalk, in chalk, "Ant Crossing." I found this notation to be charming.

Apparently, an ant's life-cycle is something like 6-10 weeks, although the entomologists seem to hedge their bets and suggest that some workers can live for years, and queens can life up to 15 years. I need to find out the species of ants I've been looking at. I also wonder how these ants decided where to place a nest or underground network before sidewalks existed. That is, before geometic patterns of concrete existed, what were the criteria for selecting a nest-site, and why are sidewalks so appealing to ant-ontology now?

All of this reminds me that when I was an undergraduate, I hung out for a while with an entomology major. Her name was Paulina, a name I quite liked, but she preferred to go by "Mouse," which was her nickname. I don't think I ever learned how she got that nickname. She smoked Marlboros, if memory serves, and she was, pardon the pun, quite antsy--amped up, fidgety. But also humorous. I do hope she was able to become a professional entomologist, if indeed that was her dream.
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