By Kate Savage. Compiled on a summertime road trip with Mutt, with thanks to Wikipedia for filling in the gaps.
- Tapinoma sessile
Before we leave we buy a home. We mumble the news, we feel some shame. Inherited wealth; stolen land. But still: I harvest garlic, and I am happy.
Our tenants are Lauren, Easton, and one million sugar ants.
If you Google ‘sugar ant,’ this is what the internet algorithms will give you:
Three pages of this, and probably more. Human curiosity about this ant has one focus: Getting Rid.
So it takes me longer to learn another human word about them. The first other word I learn is ‘Tapinoma’: meaning humble.
The second word is from Lauren: mint.
“There I was eating my raisin bran, watching the show, and suddenly I’m tasting ants. Look down and my bowl is full of them.”
“Wait wait, do ants have a taste?”
“Yeah you’ve never noticed that? Like, a kind of artificial mint?”
Lauren smashed the nearest one and held it under my nose, and they were right: minty. Others smell coconut, bleu cheese, and turpentine in this crushed-ant bouquet. This is why they’re also called ‘odorous house ant’ and ‘stink ant.’
If they weren’t suckling our honey jar and raisin bran, they’d turn to animal husbandry. Sugar ants farm aphids and scale bugs to harvest their sugary piss. They caress the aphids with their antennae, and the aphid exudes a drop of ‘honeydew’ for the ant. In return the ants fight off aphid-eating ladybugs, and gather up aphid eggs when winter comes, storing them safely in the anthill and finding a good home for the young aphids in the spring.
But then also ants secrete a tranquilising chemical that keeps the aphids drugged and pliable, and sometimes they bite off aphid wings to keep them close to home. The point is that in any kind of home, words like love and cooperation never keep themselves clean.
Here are other truths about this home of theirs, the land I have title to but they overwhelm:
- They manage to have multiple queens without fighting for dominance.
- They spread food to each other through “trophallaxis,” which is a scientific term meaning “vomiting into your friend’s mouth” (as Marx said: to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability).
- They tolerate all other kinds of ants in the same vicinity. Instead of fighting, sugar ants do the ‘get there first and grab as much as you can before the mean ones come’ strategy.
And they’re just those low-humble things that are everywhere. Entomologists watch injured sugar ants carry on with their business, missing limbs but not missing a step; they watch queens with crushed abdomens still laying eggs. Sugar ants survive without food or water for months; they live through extreme heat and cold.
But they don’t survive their latest foray into the sink. Because even me — the one who relates to their feeding strategy of ‘it looked like you were done with that,’ ‘I thought you had forgotten you had that,’ ‘It was going bad,’ ‘I just took a sip’ — even I can’t be bothered to fish them out of the sink.
- Bos taurus
We buy the house and leave the same day, headed east.
We see cows. Filling up the range. 1.4 billion of them on this earth. They are half of the world’s meat.
Trace the genes of the cow and you come to their parents: a tiny tamed group of 80 created all of these others, in feedlots and CAFOs and Chick-fil-A billboards.They were domesticated 10,500 years ago from wild aurochs. The wild cattle-beasts of cave paintings died out — the last recorded one dying in Poland in 1627.
Their children became money. Cattle could be the earliest form of ‘wealth,’ in the modern sense — a fungible coin for trading and for marking status. Their name means ‘capital’ or ‘a principal sum of money,’ — but the word ‘capital’ itself derives from caput, ‘head,’ the heads of cattle who are kept as money. Money and cow: the two terms swirl into each other.
I say ‘cow,’ but that’s a little incorrect. ‘Cow’ technically means an adult female of the species. Since most males are castrated and eaten young, it’s not so far off to call all the beasts I see ‘cows.’ But in English there isn’t actually a singular noun for cattle. They exist only in the plural. The one exception is in Appalachian dialect, where they are also called ‘beef critter.’
But beef critters want to be around others of their kind. They feel extreme stress in isolation — sometimes large mirrors can calm them down.
What else do I know about cows? They sleep four hours a night. They can’t actually be tipped over by delinquents pushing them, despite the urban myth. They mount each other playfully, not in a show of dominance as other animals do.
They prefer to use their left eye to look at something new and unexpected, processing it with their right brain hemisphere. They look at familiar things with their right eye, using the left brain. I’m writing about cows with my left hand — can I pull out something new to say about this beast, the world’s money and meat?
Only old words: my Utah settler ancestors sending in cattle as their advanced guard, moving the opposite direction of this eastward drive I’m on now with Mutt. The colonizers wrote, aghast, that the Utes would kill the cows. “They did bid Defiens to the Mormans and Sade they would Eete Mormon Beefe wen they plesde.” If cattle are first-wealth, then cattle raiding is a first try at redistribution. At bidding Defiens to something.
And these old words: in the Mahabharata we’re told to treat cattle with the same respect you’d show your mother. But not even my right brain can compute billions of mothers slaughtered and ground down, mothers served in patties and steaks. No hand can write the capital sum of my own cell-meat built out of these other mothers.
- Antilocapra americana
It isn’t just cows. While Tasch is learning to drive stick-shift, I sit on the passenger side and watch herds of Wyoming pronghorn.
The name Antilocapra means “antelope goat,” but their closest living relatives are giraffes. Three other related genre of antelopish creatures lived here when humans first entered North America. But like most of the other big animals, they died off, and now we only have the pronghorn.
I see them stand and I see them trot, but they are built to run. They have light bones and hollow hair. They are the fastest land animal after the cheetah — and they have far more endurance than cheetahs.
Their speed and grace are so over-the-top, so superfluous for dealing with cougars and wolves, that some scholars think it’s just a leftover from a different past. It could be a vestigial structure from the time there were faster animals on this land, like the American cheetah (yes: an American cheetah! More megafauna that died off in the Pleistocene).
This might be why the pronghorn feels like a haunting. The pronghorn carries alongside itself all these absences, its old brothers and old predators. The hollows of its bones, the hollows of our ecosystems. The empty prairie.
Shouldn’t there be someone else here?
- Genus Cynomys
Cynomys is Greek for ‘dog mouse.’
On through the middle of the West we see the small faces peeking up from their holes.
Prairie dogs are varmints. They are target practice. I watch videos of people showing off the accuracy of their rifles by sending prairie dogs flying, spraying blood and innards. “Prairie dogs dig holes and carry diseases. Wherever they dwell, hunters are usually welcome.”
I won’t go further down this hole, I won’t read more comments about how this is practice for what we’ll do with Antifa, you pussy breast-milk drinkers go back to mama…
I’ll look for a different tunnel instead: this one divides into various rooms; a nursery, a sleeping space, winter chambers, a room to escape flooding, a room for listening for predators. This tunnel moves rainwater down into the soil, filling old aquifers. These tunnels balance out the compaction of overgrazing. The ones who live down in this hole, when they aren’t being shot, keep close contact through kissing each other.
This is probably something that everyone knows, but those barks — the thing that gives them the name of a dog — it’s a language. It has syntax, grammar. Dialects for different regions. When they warn of a predator, they’re explaining the kind of predator, its location, size, and speed.
Black-tailed and Mexican prairie dogs have a special call for really exciting moments: the contagious ‘jump-yip.’ Sure, there are videos sponsored by Freedom Munitions about endlessly murdering prairie dogs, but also some human named Sandy Nervig made this video about the jump-yip.
Journals for the Lewis and Clark expedition note the moment they “discovered a Village of an animal the French Call the Prairie Dog.” And here’s a note from an 1841 expedition through Texas:
“They are a wild, frolicsome, madcap set of fellows when undisturbed, uneasy and ever on the move, and appear to take especial delight in chattering away the time, and visiting from hole to hole to gossip and talk over each other’s affairs—at least so their actions would indicate. On several occasions I crept close to their villages, without being observed, to watch their movements. Directly in the centre of one of them I particularly noticed a very large dog, sitting in front of the door or entrance to his burrow, and by his own actions and those of his neighbors it really seemed as though he was the president, mayor, or chief—at all events, he was the ‘big dog’ of the place.”
[An interruption: since they’re matriarchal, I’d guess this ‘big dog’ was actually female. The author continues:]
“For at least an hour I secretly watched the operations in this community. During that time the large dog I have mentioned received at least a dozen visits from his fellow-dogs, which would stop and chat with him a few moments, and then run off to their domiciles. All this while he never left his post for a moment, and I thought I could discover a gravity in his deportment not discernible in those by which he was surrounded. Far is it from me to say that the visits he received were upon business, or had anything to do with the local government of the village; but it certainly appeared so. If any animal has a system of laws regulating the body politic, it is certainly the prairie dog.”
That’s the promise the animal holds — that if you stay quiet and curious you can find a whole village, an entire other form of person living an odd but recognizable life on the upside-down. These are fairies or hobbits made flesh.
- Ursus americanus
It’s the world’s most common bear species, but when Tasch and I saw the black bear mother and cub moving through the twilight, up in the hills of Pennsylvania, it felt like sighting a unicorn. Something almost impossible.
A cub and her mother, so small that Tasch thinks the real mother must be in the dark behind them.
This creature also makes the absent present, carries in its body and behavior the traces of the others that are gone. Larger, more aggressive bear species like the extinct short-faced bear and diminishing grizzly took up more open territory, leaving the black bear to hide in the undergrowth and thick forests. (A short-faced bear on all fours was six feet tall. They could stand 12 feet high.) Extinct smilodon (saber-toothed tigers), and the American lion — which was the largest cat ever to exist — might have hunted down the black bear.
The old fearsome beasts are gone, but the black bear still carries its fear of teeth and claws, and stays quiet. They already knew how to move carefully and look over their shoulders when a new beast with cars and guns showed up in their woods.
A black bear hide sits taxidermied in my father’s basement. It looks something like a black lab. Alive, he could learn little tasks — color and shape discrimination — as quickly as a dog, which is faster than chimpanzees.
Alive, their eyes are better than ours. Their ears are better than ours. Their sense of smell is seven times sharper than a dog’s.
Alive, but hibernating, their heart slows to eight beats a minute.
- Genus Corydalinae
We finally made it to the wedding. And then it was an open bar and a marching band, and I woke the next morning with my dress covered in mud and a horrific hangover.
While Sabrina, Lauren, and Tasch all went on a hike, I buried my face down into the plush of a reclined car seat and wondered how anyone ever had thought nature was a fun idea.
And that’s when I heard it. A shout. A calling.
“Is there an amateur entomologist around?”
I raced out of the car without thinking, sight blurry, still slurring my words — “Me! That’s me!”
No one had ever explicitly asked for the thing that I am, which is someone who’s not really an expert — someone who won’t ever be paid to have thoughts about insects, but who all the same has thoughts about insects.
It was my one shining moment.
They brought me to the creature living on their tent flap. Like a massive, antlered dragonfly, with wings along its back.
A dobsonfly resting on the edge of their tent.
Huge and otherworldly. Some dobsonflies have wingspans greater than 8 inches. And about the mandibles: they’re these incredible saber-teeth for the males, who use them to attract the ladies. But they’re so large that they no longer function to bite, whereas the females’ smaller mandibles can cause terrible pain.
Nearly all their lives are spent underwater, in their larval form. In that time they’re a massive
worm-grub-monster known as a Hellgrammite. They live this way for five years, feasting on other aquatic insects which they hunt down.
Then for one week they become an adult. Adult life’s so short they don’t eat anything.
But they do mate. This is their dance:
- Males compete with each other, using those long mandibles to try to flip each other over.
- Then a male approaches a female from the side, and brushes her with his antennae.
- She acts annoyed.
- Then she lets him get closer.
- He rests his head over her wings until she is ready.
- The male attaches his gooey spermatophore to the female’s abdomen.
- She curls her abdomen inward and eats half the spermatophore (so yes, actually some adults do eat something).
- The rest fertilizes her, so she can lay masses of eggs and new hellgrammites can hatch.
- Canis lupus familiaris
Then we got to Nashville, where I used to live, and where still lived that dog I loved and left along with all the others I loved and left in this place. That dog named Scrogg sob-whining and me crying, and then both of us eventually distracted, he’s running to the neighbor dog, I’m saying goodbye to my ex, we go our own ways.
- Incilius alvarius
In the monsoons of the Sonoran Desert, they come near every night, to dine on the porch. The insects gather to the artificial porchlight, and the massive Colorado River Toads pick them off one by one, nonchalant.
Their skin exudes DMT from little glands and warts along its head. Some dogs licking them wind up paralyzed and poisoned; some dogs get addicted. Racoons learn to pull the toad by the back leg and flip them over to feast on their belly, to stay away from the toxin-glands.
They drink water by sucking it in through their skin, through a special rehydration patch around their belly. This means their job is mostly to sit on something damp.
I’ve never smoked the sweat of a Colorado River Toad, but I read that if you do, you feel warm and euphoric, you hear and see things that aren’t there.
If you have a fishing license in Arizona you’re allowed to catch ten toads, but if they can prove you meant to feel warm and euphoric with any of those toads, they can send you to jail.
- Aphonopelma chalcodes
We see them on the sides of roads. We take to swerving through the roads, which are already dangerous with monsoon puddles, in order to not hit the tarantulas.
A teacher told Mutt when she was young: these legs are delicate as glass. I’m a little relieved to hear that during their moult — which happens 3-6 times a year — they can regenerate a lost leg.
They don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re 8-12 years old. Females can live up to 25, but males only last one season as an adult. So during this time of year they race across the desert to find somebody, even if it means crossing all the roads.
In this time of many tarantulas, we also see the wasps. Tarantula hawks, with their shiny blue-black bodies and orange wings. Their sting paralyzes spiders. The wasp drags the tarantula down into her nest, and lays a single egg on its belly. When the egg hatches, the wasp larva digs a hole in the tarantula, and feasts. “Voracious,” say the descriptions, but restrained enough to save the vital organs for last.
If the wasp larvae doesn’t properly pupate into an adult, the tarantulas can sometimes recover, bring their delicate bodies back to the surface.
- Geococcyx californianus
The tarantula hawk has a huge stinger. All the entomologists insist that they’re not belligerent animals; they’re shy even. But if they sting you, you are filled with unthinkable pain. One researcher called it “immediate, excruciating, unrelenting pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except scream.”
So nobody eats tarantula hawks, except for roadrunners.
Because they can eat any gross creature the desert hands them. They can fling it in the air, smash it against rocks, swallow the desert down. They also eat tarantulas, scorpions, black widows, baby rattlesnakes.
They belong to the cuckoo family — Geococcyx means earth-cuckoo. They are the fastest-running birds that can also fly (which makes them only half as fast as an ostrich).
They are the good spirits of the desert: in Hopi stories, they protect against evil spirits. In Mexican folklore, roadrunners bring babies (like storks do in other cultures). Frontier folklore says they’ll lead lost people to paths.
Also: look at them. They’re basically dinosaurs.
- Panthera onca
The first one to come to the Santa Rita mountains was “researched” by federal wildlife officials. They trapped and tranquilized the animal, put on a tracking collar, got ready for a steady flow of scientific information — and then the stressed-out jaguar got sick and died.
There was a whole government cover-up, and then an investigation, a prosecution, a trapper got some years on probation, and a judge is still keeping secret the name of the official to blame.
Now there are two in the mountains north of the border, and there’s a small, fleeting feeling the animal could be coming back. We whisper about them and hold a jelly-bean-sized bit of hope, amid the threat of a looming border wall.
- Corvus corax
Swedish stories call them the ghosts of murdered people; German myth calls them the souls of the damned; Danish stories warn that if they ever taste a king’s heart, they become malicious superpowers, “terrible animals” leading humans astray. Deep in our culture they are lodged as an ill omen, a mark of evil and death.
But it’s always this way: look to the witching animals, the dark-magic tricksters and you’re sure to find something interesting. The Good Decent people get dogs and horses, while the wicked ones get spiders, toads, newts — the whole massive underbelly of writhing life. And: ravens.
A few times a month I find myself gushing to others about how smart ravens are. We childless eco-types glom onto ravens like our honor-student child, who just landed a full scholarship. You won’t believe what they just did.
And we probably all know this, but just to make sure we’re on the same page: ravens are fucking brilliant. They have some of the largest brains of any bird species. They talk to each other about things that aren’t there — communicate about things too distant or past to see. It’s only bees, ants, us, and ravens who have been proven to do this.
One way it shows up is in juvenile solidarity. The adult breeding pairs are always shooing the single juveniles away from the good corpses. So one juvenile finds others to ‘recruit,’ and form a flock the following day, a child army to outnumber the adults and descend on the carcass.
If ravens can’t break open a carcass and get to the juicy stuff inside, they call in the wolves to do it for them. They know how to lie to each other. They secretly watch where other ravens hide their food so they can later steal it. They pretend to be hiding food to confuse fellow raven-thieves.
They devote time to fun: they slide down snow banks, they play tag games with wolves, otters, and dogs, they fly with each other in loop-de-loops, or hold onto each others’ talons in the air. They make their own toys from sticks to play with each other.
The adults don’t rush into their monogamous partnerships. They date for a good 2-3 years before bonding. They’re looking for the right qualities: aerial acrobatics, intelligence, and the ability to provide food. They show these things off for each other, consider their options, search out the right person. Which is really every parent’s hope for their honor student child.
- Mus musculus
A dead mouse on the ground, maybe killed by one of the cats in this camp. The camp and human rights clinic are empty now, raided too many times by Border Patrol. I come to feed the cats, and watch the mouse sink a bit further into the earth.
The house mouse has stuck close with us, moving everywhere humans do. This animal could be the most successful of all mammals. More likely to survive the catastrophe coming than we ourselves are. In the meantime, we breed them for science and afterwards juice them in a blender.
- Genus Nicrophorus
Flies visit the mouse, darting in between the ants. Then slow lumbering carrion beetles arrive.
3 Lessons on True Parental Love from Carrion Beetles (of the genus Nicrophorus, because those other carrion beetles just plop down eggs and head on out):
- Want to find a good mate for raising grubs? Look for the juiciest corpse around. (if the beetle there is already paired up, no problem, just chase off the mate and destroy all the eggs they already laid)
- Put away food for your babies! Slowly bury the corpse by digging underneath it, so the maggots can’t hog it all. It helps to carry around mites on your body that eat fly eggs. Let the mites reproduce in the same corpse to give your grubs their own supply.
- Once you’re all underground, stick around for your little ones! They need you to chew up the rotting corpse and vomit in their tiny mouths. (If the corpse is particularly large and promising, you can share this parental care with other beetle couples, creating a little grub nursery.)
- Solenopsis invicta
The ants will win, eating the mouse, the flies, the beetles. Like they ate the smilodon, dire wolf, and short-faced bear. Like they will eat each corner of our carefully-painted home. Their specific epithet — invicta — means unconquered.
The fire ants spread across the desert. They are ‘disturbance specialists,’ following along with each forest we fell. During the monsoon they can form rafts with their own bodies — they drown all the males and stay afloat for nearly two weeks. They can build 200 anthills in one acre. Their venom can send a human into fatal anaphylaxis.
The poet W. S. Merwin writes:
“The ants are waiting their turn. Their baggage trains are packed in the tunnels, their soldiers know no hesitations, their decisions are ready far in advance, and absolute. The discipline in each of their orders is flawless, their architecture is at once a portrait of their minds and a model of the universe with its conflicts in harmony. In their time we have almost ceased to exist. They scarcely notice us, they pause, they had forgotten that we were still here, a passing inconvenience.”