A Lesson From the Ants

Lessons From My Dogs

They love their babies too: A lesson from the ants

Sasha looks over at me in bed and I tell her it’s going to be okay.

She has beautiful white teeth, yet tomorrow she must go under anesthesia for an abscessed molar. She is the sweetest dog I’ve ever known. She is also the most fearful dog I’ve ever owned and I always promised her she’d never have to have a dental. But I guess sometimes even the best intentioned promises are broken.

She raises her left paw, waving it into the air and scraping me lightly, wanting me to continue petting her. Which is what she always wants. I am stroking her and trying to read my book when a line from Peter Pan comes to me. It is Tinker Bell speaking to Peter: “You know that place between sleep and awake, the place where you can still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you. That’s where I’ll be waiting.” I think of Sasha under anesthesia tomorrow and me waiting for her on the other side of consciousness. Now in bed I turn to her. “Sasha, you know the place of all of us together in bed and how that feels? It’s a place of goodness, peace and love. And it’s the place where you can always reach me. It’s the place of the heart.” She raises her paw again, wanting not words but soft strokes. Beside her Olive and Chance dream.

 Despite three snowfalls in Virginia this March, it’s spring. There is something in the air, a change or tenor that has less to do with warming temperatures than it does with a subtle shift and softness. Within each dormant tree, there pulses vibrant energy, invisible to the eye but not to skin or soul. It speaks of life about to surge. I lie in bed in the predawn hours and, even with the windows closed, I can feel the cool new air so different from two months ago. Calling, calling..., “Get up, get up.” And as dusk falls across damp and darkening fields, there emanates from the stream that sound which I forget all winter long… until I hear it again and my heart sings. It is the chorus of the peepers. More than ample reward when I return home from a day hard worked.

If spring is symbolic of rebirth for humans, to the natural world it is a literal birth. New grass and leaves and flowers. Baby bunnies and possums and foxes. Plants and, in my house, hundreds of ants trying to thrive. They’re moving, building, making new life. It’s spring and they feel it as my dogs and I do too.

In Ted Andrews book Animal Speak ants are symbolic of industriousness, order and discipline...three things currently lacking around here. Most days I sit at the computer, tempted to jump up at the least distraction. Poking around in the fridge is my favourite activity next to eating what I’ve found. (Is it any wonder Sasha looks like a beach ball?) Some days I will do anything but hunker down with ant discipline and write.

Sometime in February I begin seeing ants colonizing in my potted houseplants. Anyone who also shares this problem or phenomenon, depending how you view it, will know that with the ants come conflicting emotions. I prefer not to kill the various stink bugs, lady bugs, spiders and ants who share this home with the dogs and me, but neither do I wish to feel overrun by insects, so I brush the huge ant families into a dust pan, gently tapping them off outside. Over the years, I’ve struggled with the delicate balance between what is acceptable and what is too much, going to great lengths to rescue one drowning ant in the dog’s water bowl, to feeling claustrophobic and sweeping up entire colonies to take outside. With this thinking, I’ve often thought how it is possible for the unthinkable to happen: the holocaust in Europe, genocide in Africa, how humans can execute thousands of nameless people collectively because they’re ‘different’ yet go to great lengths to help the individual once ‘known.’ The poor insect is so much different from humans that the majority of people don’t even consider mass genocide of insects in any way outside of the moral sphere.

 Sasha is trusting, sitting up beside Chance and Olive, looking out the window as we drive to the vets in the morning hour. She is wary, not of what awaits her at the vets like I am, but watching at every stoplight for pedestrians, watching for the humans who once harmed her. I carry her in, holding her in my arms and as she sits on my lap her quivering turns into uncontrolled shaking. I speak soothing words to calm her but still she trembles and shakes. I tell her we can meet at that place of the hearts, that I’ll connect my heart to her heart the whole time she is under. But without Chance and Olive who are waiting in the car, she is frightened. Yet of what she doesn’t know. With the help of communicators, friends and family I’ve put a healing grid around her and now I try to calm my own thoughts so she won’t pick up my worry. When the tech takes her into her arms and carries her back through the swinging door, I watch Sasha’s face looking back at me and I tell her “I’ll see you soon,” walking toward the door and swallowing back my tears.

  However hard I try to be careful, I know I must kill some ants when sweeping. Many emotions run through me at once. There is irritation over the amount of time I spend carrying individual stink bugs outside or dealing with the ant colonies. There is also the feeling of being inundated in my home, when a better place for bugs to live is outdoors. And there is sorrow when I take life in any form.

I had no idea how many ants we had until I watered the plants, hundreds on the sides of the terra cotta planters, striving to live. I begin to feel overwhelmed. Then I stop and simply watch with wonder Mother Nature working tirelessly. This is what I witness: When the ants’ nests are disturbed they rush about trying to protect and save their larvae. Swarming ants carrying white larvae or pupa to safety. Not wishing to drown, they rush out carrying their young. I think what I would do if my three dogs were drowning, how I would fight to save them with every last breath.

 The vet just called and Sasha must have six molars removed. I am stunned. From the outside her teeth looked perfect, but apparently they were loose. Apparently she has been going about her food with too much gusto. I am home thinking of Sasha under anesthesia. I’ve heard of dogs who aspirated, drowning in their own saliva, or dogs who never woke up again after going under. I stop that productive line of thought and switch to picturing Sasha alert and trotting out to me when I go to pick her up.

The day is overcast. Chance and Olive watch me throughout the day. The mood is somber, a little subdued. Without Sasha’s round body there’s a hollow feeling and Olive and Chance pick up on my unrest.

Maybe the ants don’t love their larvae. (‘Love your larvae’, it sounds like an ant pop song or a slogan for good ant parenting.)Maybe it’s just an instinct for survival. In assigning them tender feelings to their larvae, perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing them and in so doing taking from them what is best in them, their non-human, natural ant-like nature, which thrives on community in order to ensure survival and the continuation of the species.

Conversely, maybe our human love bonds are just survival instincts propelling our species ever onwards by procreation under the guise of love and romance. But if so, what then of this love for my dogs, which I am not alone in feeling? That is certainly not propagating our species forward. That is pure unconditional love, the caring for and well-being of another. Feeling this deep bond with my dogs, I try to extend it out to all creatures, including the ant families.

 My vet called and Sasha is waking up. She did well the vet says, and I can come pick her up after 5 o’clock. I take a deep breath. There is a kind of relief felt after worry that is closer to joy than happiness is. I set the phone back and sit. A line of ants is methodically marching from plant to plant the length of my living room. I’ve heard there’s a colony in California the length of the state. At this moment, instead of letting them bother me, the ants remind me of order and discipline. What a beautiful example. Maybe all of life is a balancing act. I can’t tell you not to kill the ants in your house if your house is out of balance. But I can suggest we revere all life. Each of us must trust our hearts to guide us down the right paths for ourselves.

I get in the car this time without Olive or Chance and drive to the vet. I wait while the receptionist discusses Sasha’s discharge instructions. Then a tech is walking back to get her and I wait again, feeling the feeling I often do when returning home to them from abroad. Then Sasha is walking out to see me just as I envisioned, bright-eyed and not at all woozy. She cries a little when she sees me, like she does when I come home after  a long day away. I squat down and kiss her all over her brown head.

Once back to Chance and Olive, the mood of our home changes—sacred gratitude has replaced unrest. I do mindless things while Sasha glues herself to me and Chance glues herself to Sasha sniffing her all over. The ants all over the sink are going to drown if I turn on the tap. I take a soft cloth and collect them leaving the cloth outside. I watch as they feel their way around. Back inside I sit down on an arm chair and Sasha hops up into my lap. I look to the spot the ants once lived. And…there they are, hustling along in their straight line formation, walking, running. I see a few babies—the others must be underneath the earth. I kiss Sasha softly on the side of her swollen face and tell her, “They love their babies too.”

And so one finds life pooling again, beginning anew in the shallow tides after the tsunamis of life have passed.


Sasha comes home to us and our family is once again complete.