I remember a summer’s day; call it one in the height of the heat of the summer of ’76 if you want to put yourself in the moment. A summer that had some ants scurrying about a paving flag and me eyeing them with curiosity. All witlessly going about their programmed routines, and unable to witness the bliss of sunshine. A summer’s day? A boy? Some ants? Where’s this going to go? Well for my part, my wits provided no thoughts of bringing a magnifying glass to bear a death ray down on these critters/scurriers. This you should expect for a boy of 9, and in such a time; a rite of stereotypical passage; naively experiencing and experimenting with his awakening malevolence. Consider ME a benevolent child I dare you; no don’t—because I wasn’t. I exercised my power that afternoon, and callously performed an uncaring dance on that flag, likely squashed half of their number. I committed mass murder, just to see what it felt like, and to observe the aftermath.
Save for the rending of a fly shortly after, I never repeated any acts of ill will nature against nature. Not through guilt, merely little interest—I took more from creation than from destruction. Paradoxically, this was in the form of model-making, and those which I made were small-scale replicas of WWII bombers. Enola Gay being one metaphorical ant-squishing uber example. My empathy epiphany didn’t actually arrive till many years later; it was such a relief when it did. By 17 I was worryingly unworried I’d been short-changed with values, and handed the vulture’s share of conscience when it was being apportioned.
The relief washed over me, as did a wave over an oiled bird on a beach. Walking along Hythe’s shingle beach I saw but a neck and beak above the small waves that slow-clapped the shore. In sure distress it was, half washed up, and totally encased in crude; I’d say minutes from drowning. Between the breakwaters there was me, in rude health, and this imperilled cormorant. For the first time I’m sure, the collective of cells in my frontal lobe combined to create empathy—I felt for this bird and I was going to help it—I cared after all.
Down the shingle I trudged, crossed the waterline—trainers, feet, trousers up to the shin, all soaked—to bravely pluck this creature from its mire. I walked with it up to the sea wall and rested it amongst some sunshine and seaweed, feeling sure it didn’t have the energy to totter off. I made my own way away though, up the eroded steps, onto the promenade and into the nearest phone box. With hands full of sludge and pecks/bites I sullied the Yellow Pages in search of the RSPB, found their number then made a similar mess of the dial and handset when I called it. Somebody would be there within the hour to rescue it I was informed. As sticky as I was, I didn’t stick around but went home comforted that I may have saved a life.
There’s a pent up sense in me still, that I must atone for those murders of all those decades ago. I release house spiders, relocate snails, feed foxes and feral cats. I’m incorrectly principled I’m convinced, but the acts feel right to me. Come autumn, I even go as far as going far away, and scattering the tree seeds I gather from these parts onto wasteland I spot in other parts—the thinking being I’m creating new havens for, and bringing life, of the wild kind, to otherwise barren terrain.
Before I go a bit about ants…and life in general…
Like those neurons I mentioned—ants I now know form a collective; one alone, yes, is practically witless, adhering to a narrow set of commands that determine its actions. Put dozens, nay thousands of them together though and they become a shapeshifter with purpose. Exquisitely efficient, free from internal strife. They’re able to attack the biggest survival problems and make value judgements that benefit them as a single entity, a group, a colony. Their secret of course is complexity. Without any real design, complexity breeds its own motive, and its own utility. As it has done with this universe we inhabit: this and all of us in it are here, as the by products of simple agents following simple sets of rules.