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May 25

Non-Fiction Friday: The Earth Dwellers

Most who walk out their front door in the morning can be oblivious. Those who have the luxury of a well manicured yard can look out over that sea of green and let that evolved sense of serenity, however faint, wash over them before they get in the car and drive to work. Though my lawn is rarely so well-tended, even when it is I have no such sense of peace. I know better. I know that within paces of where I stand countless thousands of battles and atrocities play themselves out continually. Tales of horror and valor the likes of which no Greek drama can match are the order of the day, every day. Empires rise and fall. Creatures are born, live, fuck, suffer and die in ways unimaginable to the average person. It is a world that exists below our radar, outside our scale of experience but one as fascinating as anything we Homo sapiens have wrought in our short time here on this earth.

The first time I read The Earth Dwellers I was transported back to high school, sitting in study hall, reading chapter twelve of Walden. An epic battle between two armies strewn about Thoreau’s wood yard at Walden pond was witnessed and appreciated by an outsider, an alien observer. It was a clash of empires every bit as brutal and intense as any battle fought by the Romans or the Spartans or the Mongols of ages past. There was no mercy. There was no retreat, no surrender. Thoreau was enthralled. Sure he was no detached observer. He related what he saw to his experiences as a human with the knowledge of human history.

 In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had dispatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus. He saw this unequal combat from afar–for the blacks were nearly twice the size of the red–he drew near with rapid pace till be stood on his guard within half an inch of the combatants; then, watching his opportunity, he sprang upon the black warrior, and commenced his operations near the root of his right foreleg, leaving the foe to select among his own members; and so there were three united for life, as if a new kind of attraction had been invented which put all other locks and cements to shame.

In The Earth Dwellers, Erich Hoyt takes us down to that level. He brings us up close to the tiny Darwinian machines, the semi autonomous extensions of the colony, the super organism. It is from their perspective that we watch life and death unfold. We follow the leaf cutters through their world, watching as they practice an agriculture predating our own by millions and millions of years. We get the same sense of dread that so many species in the jungle feel at the sound of a colony of army ants, a force of nature in its own right, scouring the jungle floor, cleansing it of any and all animal life too slow to get out of the way.

Hoyt also brings us just a little bit closer to some of the scientists who study this world. We get to commune for a time with E.O. Wilson as we make our pilgrimage in lockstep with him through the rainforest, the cathedral in which the biologist can stand in awe:

to worship and gape in wonder at the full flowering of evolution, the place where life is more diverse than anywhere else on earth.

It is Wilson who brings us back to the uncomfortable reality that we face. As we venture into the world to satisfy our need to understand we become more keenly aware of our impact on these hidden and fascinating worlds. In Wilson’s estimation we are losing roughly 70 species to extinction every single day. In many cases biologists are capable of doing little more than collecting enough for a species’ obituary.

If you read this book you may just find yourself staring at a strange reflection. In it you will meet creatures who raise livestock, grow crops, build empires, make war, commit genocide, make slaves of their neighbors, protect their families against all odds and sometimes sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the colony. They can be gentle and caring and cruel and violent much like we can. Don’t think for a moment that I regret knowing what lies beyond the sidewalk. I have spent hours watching pastoral ants tend to their domesticated aphids on a pine tree in my front yard. I have watched battles and rescues and hunts and births and deaths in the span of a few square feet. When you learn to see the small things you realize the world isn’t just a big place. It’s huge. It is worlds within worlds and at the same time it is just a pale blue speck in the vastness of a whole lot of empty. In other words, it’s amazing and beautiful and terrifying all at the same time. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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