A woman learns a lesson from ants
|Myra Renwick loved ants. Not in a gastronomical way, covered in chocolate or processed as escamoles, but by way of admiration and idolization.
It began when she was a young girl and received an ant farm from her father for her fourteenth birthday. Unlike most ant farms that are left in the closet until thrown out or resold at garage sales, Myra carefully read the instructions and grew her first ant colony. She was quickly enthralled with their every movement and spent hours watching their glass encased maze of tunnels.
Myra's late July birthday made her a Leo, but she was more meek than her regal sign and had few friends in school. Her parents owned a large house away from the city with an even larger yard. This condition made for fewer neighbors and oddly, no little girls near her to play with during the summer months.
She did have an older brother, Mark, but he had a bicycle which he road without fail to find his buddies and do their secret things, in which she was "Not Allowed!" The Renwick's had had a pool installed that spring, first on the block, and Myra had taken to swimming. Once her father showed her how to turn at the end of the pool she began doing laps. She even began to time herself when he suggested she join the swim team when she began high school in the fall.
After her birthday, Myra spent her time swimming, watching her ants and reading all she could about them. The set of encyclopedias that gathered dust in her brother's room was a inspired place for Myra to continue her quest for knowledge about her tiny charges. Explorations on her hands and knees in the yard found different kinds of ants than in her glass abode. This prompted further reading and a trip to the local library where her mother waited impatiently for Myra to find the Dewey Decimal System number for "Biology", 570-599, and then narrow it down to 595.796 which seemed to be set aside for "ants", naturally on the bottom shelf.
Like most summer romances this interest was probably doomed to be a short lived fling except for two things. The first was when Myra discovered that people who studied ants where called "myrmecologists", which was remarkably similar to her own name. The discovery helped fuel her studies for several weeks until the second occurrence at the end of summer, the death of her parents in a car crash one night coming home from a party at the country club.
With no living relatives except for her father's bachelor uncle, their wasn't much choice except to move to Chicago to live with him in the city. The arrangements were made in a hurry, the large house and all of its furnishings sold.
Myra had packed the glass ant farm but decided to carry it with her for the day long train trip at the last minute. She ignored the countryside rolling by and watched the ants never miss a step in their small lives. They took care of their young and the queen and found the food she dropped into the top of the world from time to time. Nothing changed their routine.
When Myra walked into her new room the first thing she did was find a spot near her bed and out of the sunlight for her ant farm. School had started earlier that week so she was the new girl, in a new city with a new life to discover. Mark was a senior that year and didn't make the best decisions in his attempt to make a new life for himself. Where some siblings would be united in their trials, Myra and Mark circled farther and farther from each other, both struggling to make sense of their losses.
Myra studied hard in school and as the new semester began in January she transferred to a private girls school. Her parents had left a rather large trust fund to their children so money was not a struggle. Their uncle was well off also but kept busy in his banking job and did little to provide a parental role in their lives except when Mark was arrested for the first time. Myra was not privy to the argument that grew out of that, but the result was a large apartment with three people living mostly separate lives. This lasted for the rest of the school year until Mark left for college in far off California in the middle of summer before Myra's fifteen birthday.
The remaining high school years were spent earning mostly A's, swimming on the swim team, and studying her ants and expanding her collection. A second ant farm with a different species made its debut on he next birthday. She also had places in the apartment building, at school and in several other places in the city where she had her "wild" ant farms.
When it came time to apply to colleges her choices were limited to those had graduate programs that dealt with ants, there were no considerations of joining any friends from high school since she really had no close ties. With her grades acceptance was easy and her trust fund made little trouble in her pursuit of knowledge of her beloved ants.
It didn't take Myra long to find her way into the Biology department and volunteer her time. At first it was just office work, small things until she found her way into the Ant Farm as myrmecology lab was called. It was there Myra found her kindred spirits and her life blossomed. The rest of her classes were all in preparation for grad school. She was able to travel to tropical forests during the summer to assist in the study and collection of ants that she had only read about in her books.
For Myra this was the happiest time of her life. Through the years of getting her degrees, culminating in one of the quickest PhDs her advisors had ever seen, she studied ants in the lab and in the field on all continents of the world except ... Antarctica. She quickly learned the anatomy of the many species, but it was there social system that fascinated her. How did the colony act as one unit? A single queen ant would mate with a short lived male and begin a colony all on her own. That meant all of the information was in the genes and the queen herself.
On trips in the field, Myra usually had a guide to help her. There was little small talk to pass the time, but she did find that she needed someone to watch her back because she would become so absorbed in her study of her tiny friends that she would ignore all other events, even dangerous ones. Snakes were a very common peril but her colleagues never let her forget the time in Guatemala she was stalked by a jaguar.
She never thought it was possible but the world of her tiny social insects was even more diverse than she had when she decided in high school to study ants as her life's journey. Ants communicated through complex chemical pheromones, and most had only the most primitive eyes. There diet was varied and even included the collection and protection of other species which they "farmed", including leaves, aphids and caterpillars. She collected castings of the underground tunnels by learning how to pour molten lead down abandoned colony and then digging out the fragile multilevel results.
After getting her Ph.D., Myra did some more research but it was time for her to find a job and stop being a student. She had published many papers on her research and contributed to her advisors work, but her people skills were lacking as was any sense of ambition in the cut throat world of find a position in academics, and that seemed the only place to continue her work on her beloved ants.
She found an assistant professorship in a large Texas college and tried to settle into the routine of a more practical nature. Teaching general biology classes and serving on various committees was the price she had to pay for continuing her study of ants.
The next two decades went much the same. She got tenure, taught her classes, and tried to encourage the next generation of myrmecologists. She developed her laboratory into one of the best in the country, if not the world. She wrote funding proposals and brought in money to do research and even brought in a huge multimillion dollar grant from a wealthy amateur.
Myra had settled into a comfortable routine that revolved around her ants. She didn't get to travel as much as when she was younger, but she had better tools to help her research in her lab and her students did most of the fieldwork these days. She continued to write a book, about ants of course, but seemed incapable of finishing it. She developed new ways of viewing her colonies. Plastic tubing instead of soil, fiber optic cameras and chemical analyzers to study their communication.
Her life was her work. She didn't feel the need to socialize or find a husband. Those desires felt risky since her teenage years. She was plain in appearance which saved her the task of rejecting any interested romantic attention. She had just a touch of jealousy regarding her subjects, they had a purpose behind every action. Tend to the queen, feed the young and protect the colony. There was no questioning of the right course of action, no loneliness, no thinking. In short she realized they had no choices to make and therefore no anguish over the results.
During the summer before her fiftieth birthday, she was putting the finishing touches on her book. Most of her grad students were in the field and she was trying something she had always wanted to do since her first weeks with her original ant farm so many miles and years ago. A colleague had discovered a way to mark ants with a nontoxic ink so individuals could be tracked inside and away the colony. Before this it had only been possible to track the queen since she was the only real individual that could be distinguished by her size or shape to her millions of daughters. She had quickly ordered a variety of colored pens and awaited there arrival.
It had been difficult to follow an individual ant for more than a minute or two, it really depended on how much interaction she had with her fellows, but now it would be easy. Worker ants tended the queen and eggs, feed the young and the soldiers and built and repaired the nest. Myra picked out the pink pen and then selected a worker to mark her thorax.
Most ants except for the queen, lived for months. Myra spent the summer proofreading her book and trying to come up with an introduction which tried to sum up her veiws on her favorite subject. She broke the tedium following her pink inked fellow through the huge glassed colony and out onto the surface. She was easy to pick out most of the time and Myra began to take notes on her travels.
Her fiftieth birthday came and went with little celebration or notice. The final proofs were due before the semester would start and writing the introduction had caused Myra to think about her life. One morning soon after her birthday she took a break from her paperwork to look for Pinky, it had been a day since she had seen her. She found her in the colony dump, her tiny body still for the first time.
A tear rolled down Myra's cheek as she thought about an ant's life as well as her own. It was perhaps time to explore her own species a bit more.