Before heading west toward the desert, I perched for a few days in the rainforests near Kuranda, where a cluster of green ants attempted to make my car into one of their homes. Colonies of green ants maintain multiple nests of up to half a million ants. Watching them on my car, and in the nearby forest, I became enamoured. I knew that my car would not become a nest, because broad green leaves are needed for that – but the ants were determined! Whenever I hovered too close, they all paused to look up at me, antennas waving. These green “weaver” ants have larger eyes and better vision than most ant species. Thankfully, they seldom ventured inside my tent, or the car, and never bit me.
I think they viewed me as part of their car, and maybe the least trustable part!
I suppose that most people would have sprayed or hosed them off. I just assumed they would soon leave. On the morning of my departure, after a day and night of heavy rains, they were still all over the car. So, I took some leafy branches and carefully swept the front grill, the side panels, and the roof. I removed hundreds of them, driving away before they could climb back on. But, even with my best efforts, a few hundred still remained, holding to the numerous grooves, corners, and seams of the car as I wound down the mountain.
A few hours later, when I stopped to fuel up, ants were still all over the vehicle! I found one cluster of about 200, their arms and legs interlocked to provide sufficient holding power in a wide groove of the lower front fender. Others huddled in smaller grooves all over the car. After pulling back onto the road, three ants appeared on the windscreen, moving slowly across the glass. As the wind-speed around them increased, they pressed their bodies flat to the glass, creeping earnestly toward a safer place. So, I braked and stopped, and after resuming normal locomotion, they scuttled off the glass. I was so impressed with their determination and strength!
As I tracked northwest toward the Gulf of Carpentaria, through hot, flat, savannah country, there were ant mounds everywhere across the landscape. Two days later, after many stops and two overnight camps, the Kuranda ants were still with me. Their numbers were less, but those remaining were as committed as ever – they never appeared to intentionally disembark from the car! I regularly poured water into cracks and grooves on the car’s surface, so they could drink. Their food was the insect flesh that smashed onto the front grill.
After a star-bright night at Karumba, on the Cape, the ants were now greatly diminished in number. Seeing several on the roof, I thought, “If you’re still travelling with me, you’re coming inside!” I caught two ants, and placed them in the car. I tried for the others, but they weren’t having it.
Driving on, one of the two ants travelling inside appeared beside me, on the laptop cover sitting on the cooler box upon the passenger seat. Not running around like the other ants, she just sat there, calmly, meditatively – almost for the whole day’s drive! As the hours passed, I became quite affected by this ant’s contemplative presence – which relaxed and deeply touched me. She was thousands of kilometres from her community, and one of the last survivors of their “voyage”. She let me touch my finger to her feelers, and she sipped water from my hand. She related directly with me, and seemed completely accepting of her situation. Her vulnerability was palpable, and she was more present than any ant I have ever encountered. Her life was nearly over, and I think she knew and accepted it. There was no anxiety or fear in her.
As we drove south together, she faced out the window into a landscape covered by ant towers, mile after mile. There must have been thousands of billions of ants all around us in the savannah and desert. Could she feel them out there? Hear them? What was she perceiving and sensing?
That evening, after looking everywhere, I couldn’t find her. Sitting down to eat several oranges, I sensed some movement on the side of the cooler box, and there she was, climbing back onto the lid! I started crying. She was still with me… I was elated! But I was also sad for her. The evening was hot, and without a breeze. I placed a drop of water on the plastic, and some soaked muesli flakes. She looked up at me, then went directly to the muesli, nibbling silently. As I readied for bed, she settled on the cooler box, and together we sat for a long while before sleeping.
The next morning, she passed away. I cried again. She was such a strong and clear person, straight, pure, conscious, and deep in feeling-contemplation. She came from a profound society, highly communicative, intricately intelligent, extrasensory, living life in service to the culture. Her brief company and presence served me deeply, leaving me more aware of my own vulnerability, and grateful. And, I loved her.
In her culture, the dead are buried. So, I buried her body in the red desert, on the saddle of a high ridge overlooking a meteorite crater, thousands of kilometres from her coastal home – the little ant who touched me as much as any camel, horse, human, or tree. I felt guided to this location – everything about it seemed “right”.
I have always liked ants, but now I see them through the lens of feeling and intelligence that she exemplified.
I called her “Tna”.
And what she was doing travelling with me, I shall never know…