COLUMN: From way up here the ants look like people

This is my Sunday column for the March 25, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

From way up here the ants look like people
By Aaron J. Brown

I ran up the driveway from our lime green and white trailer house across County Highway 7 to the mailbox. Mom used to let me do this when we lived in Zim. I was fairly young for the job but kept safe by how sound carried out in the Sax-Zim peat bog, especially in the cold. A passing truck out front or taconite train back behind the junkyard came and went with a sustained rumbling that could last several minutes. I remember this particular day because there was an envelope in the box addressed to my mother that read “Live Creatures Open Immediately.”

It was December, just after Christmas but before my birthday. This was the first clue I’d be receiving an ant farm as my gift that year. The experience stuck with me, apparently, because when my grandma asked me what I wanted for Christmas this year I told her an ant farm and she actually got it for me despite my wife’s skepticism. And one day on my way driving garbage to the dump I rolled down my window to retrieve the mail, which included an envelope with identical wording: “Live Creatures Open Immediately.”

Christina’s objections seemed merited at first. After meticulously preparing the ant farm with the proper amount of water, food and synthetic sand, refrigerating the ants as instructed, I managed to dump a large clump of these live creatures out on the kitchen counter while populating the farm. As they woke from their slumber they scurried around the counter in serpentine formations. Several dramatic minutes passed but, to my knowledge, we gathered all the ants and placed in the receptacle unharmed.

Within 24 hours the ants had filled in the holes I was advised to create for them and dug their own tunnels. In 48 hours they had crisscrossed the entire ant farm. In 72 hours they had piled up new sand on top of the artificial farm scenery and dug tunnels within that as well. By the fourth day it seemed like the ants were even writing messages with their tunnels.

Christina posited that they might be writing the word “Why?” I thought it looked more like the hipster interjection “woot.” But I suppose it would be presumptive that the ants would be writing in English. Most likely it is an inspirational species-specific slogan from the annals of their empire, carved in their native tongue.

Our son Doug attempted to name all the ants, but it proved as fruitless as trying to follow a single blade of a ceiling fan in motion. Nevertheless, he often asks me to join him to watch the ants and I am happy to oblige. These ants work in many impressive ways, no doubt because they are all females, never fight and never stop building.

It makes me wonder what someone watching from above would see in our world. Would they see us by name, rank and status? Certainly not. The watchers would see only what all of us were doing together. They would see our architecture, our art and our technology, especially that which opened the boundaries of our world. These ants only live 90 days, but they appear to be building a mountain path to the only known openings on the ant farm, the food holes near the top.

Perhaps this is why I also felt some sadness this week to read of NASA’s continued budget cuts, the loss of American desire to explore space, the inability of our species to run headlong into the future. We cut our schools, scientific development and quality of life. We maintain a vast military complex that can’t stop the wars of today, the most expensive health care system that doesn’t cover everybody.

I read that Ashton Kutcher is going into space next year. You might know him as the actor from “That ‘70s Show,” MTV, some movies that I forgot and now the post-Charlie Sheen “Two and a Half Men.” He’s big on Twitter. But when he orbits earth, the watchers will only remark that these people aren’t going to the moon anymore. Why not?

I look at the ants. I try to tell them apart. I try to determine which among them might be the most charismatic or attractive by colonial standards. Perhaps that one over there? Wait, no, not her. Perhaps her? Wait, no. That was not an ant. That was a shadow. A glance at the entire colony shows intermittent bursts of greatness by individual ants, but never enough time to determine what it means. So many tunnels. So many ants.

All we see is the possibility of ants. We are live creatures, too. Open immediately. Let’s build.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show, next airing at 5 p.m. Saturday, April 7 live from the Chief Theater in Bemidji and broadcast on 91.7 FM and


  1. Fun to read. And posting from my phone is a PITA.

  2. Really enjoy your writing

  3. Drove home up Hwy 7 this evening. I remember taking cans to a recycle place there about in 1979, roughly. Hmmmm

    We saw two sand hill cranes today there.

  4. I know we didn’t move out to the junkyard until ’83 or ’84. Don’t recall when grandpa bought the place, though. I was very young; lived there until I was 12 or so, then moved up the road a few miles to a less official junkyard.

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