When I was little, probably in second or third grade, my brothers and I would ride our bikes around and around and around our Madison city block, counting laps and presumably burning off summer energy. Being an ardent, near-obsessed animal lover even then, I would keep my eyes on the sidewalk and swerve around, trying to avoid the dusty caramel ant mounds that popped up in between the pavement cracks. At least one time I let my young sense of, what … guilt? obligation? melancholy? mortality? take over and I walked around the block, picking up the dead ants we’d accidentally run over. Being dramatic, the process wasn’t complete until I’d personally apologized to each tiny corpse, and then buried then in mass in the back garden. I am sure I even put flowers on their little grave.
When I hear other people talking about burning ants as kids, or shooting squirrels, or experimenting with their new-found god-like human powers in other violent ways, I think about little me and the ants. Maybe I was a weirdo, but at least I was a compassionate one. In the end, those ants kick-started my young grave-digging career — I laid many more cat- or road- or dog-killed animals to rest with a violet or dandelion bouquet. It also started at least half of my actual career — studying and working to protect and conserve and understand various wild animals and their ecosystems.
Why I am wistfully talking about ants? Well, because I just watched yet another example of stellar, creative science storytelling — Stanford biologist Deborah M. Gordon’s animated explanation of how ant colonies work. Check it out:
Back in my kid days, we had Zoo Books, class field trips to local marshes, and a little zoo down the street I spend countless afternoons wandering. Today the depth and diversity of interesting, free science education mediums is dizzying, and I’m proud to be part of that community.
I want to believe if we take the time to notice things — if we understand them better — if we teach our children how incredible say, ants and their complex kingdoms are, maybe they won’t be temped to burn or squash or hunt them down for no reason. I’m not saying anyone needs to be burying dead bugs in the backyard, but it would awesome if everyone looked down more, forgave their watermelon-thieving ways, and at least tried to step more gently.