I don’t remember where we were or which trip we were on, but I have a distinct memory of standing in a gift shop, cradling a tiny basket in the palm of my hand. It appeared the perfect nest for an egg, preferably a small one, and not necessarily one that needed sitting on. This creation was meant to provide a holding place, from which a delicacy could be displayed while resting in safety. The handwork was exquisite, as an artist had obviously taken great care to weave and bend pine needles into a round shape, tucking the ends, wrapping the pieces together until innumerable strands were drawn into one secure whole. My eye sensed instinctively that this was an example of an ancient art; the price tag on the bottom confirmed my assumption that hours of artistic precision were responsible for its existence.
Minimal research has since confirmed those initial impressions, tracing this art back as far as 9,000 years and to Seminole and Lakota Native Americans; I’ve also beheld variations in Nicaragua and Zimbabwe. Truly, a universal and painstaking art in which human hands and resourceful spirits living in harmony with the earth transform the leaves of the tree and grass of the field into creations of beauty.
As fascinating as these creations continue to be for me, my attention has recently been claimed by other practitioners of a similar, and perhaps more ancient, pine needle art: ants. The discovery began last summer in the midst of daily walks along the roads and across the fields of our rural community in north Idaho. Tired of walking on pavement, we struck off across a field, following a path established by deer, moose and elk. A short way into the field, sitting on the right hand side of the track, is a mound roughly the size of half a basketball that captured our attention immediately and needed no research to be identified. Both repulsed and fascinated, I watched the busy creatures scramble across the surface of dirt, needles and grass; disappearing into holes, reemerging into the light, dragging grasses, adjusting needles, and moving. Always moving. The ants disappeared as the seasons turned and cold settled in, presumably descending into the elaborate corridors of the mansion they’ve created underground. Eventually even the mound blended into the landscape of snow drifts and frosted grass towers.
With the return of warmth and sun, I’ve begun to identify neighboring settlements, but certainly not because they’ve sprung up with daffodil shoots and rhubarb knobs. I trust the sightings have everything to do with my vision and attention, nothing to do with new creations. As I walk and watch, I’ve identified well more than a dozen, enough that I lose count on any given day, never managing to see them all on the same walk. They range dramatically in size, many of them much larger than the first one I observed, at least a couple of them the size of beach balls. All of them swarm with a mass of scurrying bodies busy with their work, focused on the task at hand. More often than not, I can’t identify the details of those tasks. While I’ve seen them carrying needles and grasses 5 to 10 times their length, often they simply appear to be moving, climbing on and over each other, headed in or out and very, very busy.
There’s more that I don’t know about these creatures than I do. It’s not clear to me if north Idaho is simply a welcoming habitat for them, or if their proximity to our wastewater lagoon has significance. Part of their bodies is red, and therefore this doesn’t appear to be the same race as the ones that insist on setting up residence in our kitchen. One of my Internet searches yielded an up close and intimate look at every species known to reside in the US, but so far I’ve resisted getting cozy enough with these neighbors to examine their every feature and learn their names. What I have observed in myself is that, while I remain both fascinated and repulsed, I’m also feeling surprisingly protective of them. As we drove into the community one day, I realized that the top had been torn off the largest of the mounds, the remnants of the roof scattered about like mere pieces of dirt, needles and grass. I have no idea if this act of destruction was launched by man or beast (I suppose woman might also have been responsible, but I’m confident it was not what we like to call an act of God). I’ve been spellbound as I’ve watched how focused and determined the colony is with the work of filling in the crater and rebuilding. Always a frenzied mass of movement, the dome has nearly regrown the 3 or 4 inches it lost in the assault, perhaps as recently as 6 weeks ago. Even though I can only occasionally see a particular ant busy with a particular task, they obviously are proficient at accomplishing mysterious amounts.
The more I observe and ponder these societies, the more I marvel at the ways they work and the things they achieve. In order to do what they do, they have to possess an epic view of the big picture, a willingness to take the baby steps required to reach it, and a stubborn tenacity to keep at it even when there is no reward and the end is nowhere in sight (if there even is an end). Perhaps more significant than any of that is their dependence on each other and the necessity that they work together in order to get things done – and their apparent willingness to go with that rather than fight against it. Cooperation and collaboration are visible everywhere as the mounds writhe and pulse with productivity. Perhaps the real artistry here is less rooted in the ways in which they work with pine needles and more in the ways they work with each other.
The longer I look at this incessantly squirming mass of industrious insects, the more I begin to wonder if they set up shop where they did because they have things to teach those of us who live in their midst. Even as I say that, I know they were here long before us; it’s just that we prefer to work from the assumption that everything begins, ends and revolves around us.
We’ve got the ants surrounded by two hundred parcels of land, sixty houses, thirty of them occupied year round. That we own property in the same place and belong to the same homeowners’ association are about the only things we all have in common. Some of us have invested everything we have in the property and house located here; for others of us this is but one of countless places where we divide our time and attention, loaning it to the kids for skiing and boating weekends, spending summers, holidays or occasional weeks on site. We’re drawn together by proximity, a marina, private air strip, roads, water and sewer system, restrictive covenants and conflict.
The year round residents are an eclectic assortment of home owners who have come from a wide variety of places and with a vast array of backgrounds, mindsets and inclinations. Many have come here to get away from something else: work, the rat race, politics and policies that have become untenable, and other personal pressures I know nothing about. Others have been drawn here by the natural beauty that revolves around a lake alive with kokanee salmon, eagle and osprey nests, breathtaking sunsets and every form of boating opportunity imaginable. While some travel back and forth to the work that has yet to release them, others delight in the freedom to establish schedules and rhythms that bear no resemblance to the grind and pressure of long careers and heavy responsibility. Newly arrived neighbors emphatically declared, we’re not looking for work – we’re looking for lives! People find those lives in a wide variety of places, everything from playing darts to flying planes; volunteering with the fire department, rescue squad or on community committees; working in a shop, wandering in the woods, meeting at the shooting range or tending to the growth of a garden. Some plan trips to town with military precision, coming home with supplies to last weeks at a time, only resorting to a return trip under duress and with another carefully scripted shopping list; others wind their way along the lake road more days than not, eager to meet with friends, take in a show, sign up for a class, shop till they drop.
I suspect it’s fair to say that conflict began soon after the first homeowners took up residence. While many get along, and sometimes form fast friendships, there are others who simply cannot be in the same place at the same time. All too often that seems to be the way of people placed in proximity to each other and expected to play nice. The specific tensions I referred to above, for the most part, predate our presence in the community. Stories vary on the moment and dynamics at work when the first match was struck and the fire was lit, but few would disagree that we now have a substantial bonfire in our midst, with a generous bed of coals to carry us from one crisis to another. Accusations of deceit and control abound, as do charges of bullying and stalling. Individuals are verbally attacked in public settings, and occasionally law enforcement steps in and says, back off. There have been successful and unsuccessful attempts to recall board members. Law suits have been filed, investigated, processed and ruled upon.
Perhaps it’s about who I’ve listened to and where I’ve had contact, but to my ears there are clear good guys and bad, people hard at work attempting to serve the greater good and those whose work appears to be undercutting, blocking and distorting. What I haven’t found, in the midst of all of that, are people actively working to resolve the tension, put out the fire or encourage cooperation. Obsession with each other and polarizing attitudes abound on both sides of the divide, while community wide teamwork has been placed on the endangered species list.
What can we learn from our ancestors, the ants? What do they know about collaboration that we do not? Maybe our cause would be helped if we had a queen nag issuing orders and tapping her toe underground, but I’d like to think it’s possible for us to establish a norm of cooperation without resorting to blindly following orders. Rumor has it that we are a more highly developed species than ants, and yet, all too often they demonstrate a higher degree of civilization than we do. How hard is it to accept the truth that we need each other, and to find ways to work together that respect all and allow us to accomplish even the most basic of tasks, to say nothing of great things?
As I’ve watched the mounds and pondered the ways of our ants, I’ve heard echoes of a plea from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in which he implores the members of a new community to be of one mind. For Paul and those of us who place ourselves in a Christian tradition, that mind is the one we see in Jesus’ life and example, a mind of service and kindness, concern for the wellbeing of others and willingness to put their needs at least on a par with our own, if not ahead of. Whether or not we define it that way, is it possible for us to share one perspective, a common concern, an attitude and priority that bind us together rather than drive wedges and force us apart? What would it look like for us to share a vision of a community built on mutual respect and cooperation? How hard would it be for us to set our differences aside long enough to find the common threads that tie us together, the hopes and dreams we have for our children, the joy we find in beauty, the peace we long to come home to?
Many years ago, a student in a class I taught on Fear did a project that began with participating in a class on basket weaving. Her premise was that when women gather to weave baskets, quilt or share in other projects, they also talk with each other about their lives. Perhaps this kind of together time could be a place in which people share, explore and gain the upper hand on their fears. I wonder if a similar experiment could help our community. What if we gathered up a bag or two of the ever plentiful pine needles and found an artist willing to teach us the ancient art of weaving them together, helping us create beauty with the materials that flourish around us? The first step would be recruitment, which would work hard to attract the most estranged. Whether or not they chose to join in, others of us could start with who we have and sit down to listen and learn. I have no doubt we’d begin by laughing at ourselves and our initial attempts to make our fingers twist needles together and then bend, weave and mold them into shape. Once the art became more familiar, I expect we could talk and weave at the same time, swapping stories about grandchildren and travel, sharing recipes and book titles, even set up a table on the side for excess zucchini and homemade muffins. Along the way, we might surface creative solutions to pesky problems like woodpeckers attacking our siding, deer eating our tulips and ants in the kitchen. Before we run out of needles, we might even discover a surprisingly lengthy list of things about which we are of one mind.
The ants would be proud.