Electrocuting the Ants
I did terrible things to insects as a child.
Like many other boys growing up with nothing better to do, I tore the legs off Daddy Longlegs, incinerated pill bugs with magnifying glasses, and set fire to more than one ant hill. But I didn’t stop there.
I was a kid scientist. Spurred on by the early space program and largely ignored by the adults around me, I dreamed of one day voyaging to the stars. Meanwhile, to prepare myself, I read Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, and other SF masters of the day. At the same time, I plowed through one field of scientific inquiry after another, beginning with magnets and batteries – I built my first lead-acid battery when I was seven – and moving quickly through fossils, geology, chemistry and electronics. But entomology was my most enduring interest and bugs were my favorite experimental subjects.
The insect kingdom was convenient for testing ideas that came up in both my scientific and science fictional pursuits. My interest was, I believed, purely clinical. I was training myself to become the perfect scientist: dispassionate, precise, even ruthless in the pursuit of Knowledge.
So, in the name of Science and in imitation of the Martians in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, I removed the parabolic mirror from my telescope and used it to build a crude ray gun, on sunny days incinerating dozens of hapless bugs. Inspired by the pioneering efforts of the space program – I had a National Geographic poster of the solar system on one wall of my bedroom and on another a chart comparing the Russian and American unmanned satellites – I loaded grasshoppers and crickets into model rockets and blasted them into the sky. Unfortunately, like the dogs and monkeys who were carried aloft by grown-up rockets, few of my astronauts survived. Sea Hunt and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea led me to investigate building self-sustaining underwater environments, and in the course of my researches, I discovered that electricity breaks down salt water into hydrogen and chlorine gas. I caught flies and bleached them in hyper-chlorinated water, a byproduct of this process, until their bodies became translucent and their eyes glowed a piercing bright red.
I found all bugs interesting, but I think it was Superman who first got me to home in on ants. Though I soon graduated to more sophisticated characters like X-Men and The Fantastic Four and finally to genuine science fiction, Superman was my earliest superhero, and the Man of Steel always had a special place in my pantheon.
In one issue, the Caped Crusader was exposed to red Kryptonite, which transformed him into a creature with the body and mind of a man and the head and special abilities of an ant. This metamorphosis, though horrifying to Lois Lane, turned out to be a lucky break for humanity. Nearby, an army of mutant ants which had grown to gargantuan size was threatening Metropolis. The transfigured Man of Steel was able to communicate with the ant Queen antenna-to-antenna and persuade her to follow him, with her flock, into outer space. Happily, the effects of the Kryptonite wore off soon after Superman’s return to Earth, restoring his familiar blue-haired, manly visage.
Though I could never match the Man of Steel’s skill in ant argot, on a summer’s day I would spend hours in the back yard watching these ingenious creatures conduct their subtle and mysterious business. To test the abilities of their tiny minds, I’d block their path with twigs and fingers, forming impromptu obstacle courses for them to find their way around. It was ants who first fell to the death ray of my telescope’s mirror, and ants who were my first aquanauts, held under water on a leaf or twig, small bubbles of air clinging to their skinny bodies until they ceased to move. Later, it was ants I threw into jars filled with sulfur dioxide gas, and then, briefly remorseful, attempted to revive with pure oxygen.
Ants abruptly and permanently ceased to be my subjects, however, shortly after I turned twelve.
As a school science project, I had built a Tesla coil. This was an air-core transformer capable of producing tremendously high voltages at very small currents. It was first created by Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-born inventor who discovered alternating current and the principles behind radio. My coil, constructed from a cardboard tube that linoleum came in and parts scavenged from broken TVs, generated about 100,000 volts of radio-frequency energy, enough to light fluorescent bulbs from across a room and to interfere with the neighbors’ television reception. It made a monstrous noise, reminiscent of the Jacob’s Ladders I’d seen in old Frankenstein movies. With it I had won the 7th grade science fair.
After the fair, I continued to read up on Tesla and his inventions and to experiment with his device. One thing I learned was that six- or seven-inch sparks could jump from the coil to my hand without hurting me because high-frequency electricity flowed only along the outer surfaces of objects. When I grew tired of making my fingers twitch, shocking my kid brothers, and remotely lighting fluorescent bulbs, I began to wonder what would happen to smaller life forms if they were subjected to this surface-seeking current.
My studies of ants often ran in parallel with other investigations. While I was experimenting with the Tesla coil, I had also been cultivating an ant farm. I’d dug up the ants from an ant hill at the base of the swing set in our back yard and filled a large peanut butter jar with a mixture of ants and dirt. Then I’d punched tiny holes in the lid and covered the sides of the jar with black construction paper to keep out the light. Every few days I placed bread crumbs and chopped-up raisins on top of the soil and added water to a Coke bottle cap I’d set up as a trough.
After a week, I took the paper off and found, as I’d hoped, that the ants had made this jar their home. They’d built a maze of tunnels, visible through the sides of the jar, and had deposited stores of food in miniature cul-de-sacs. The ant farm appeared to be a successful community – at any rate, far more so than the crop of “sea monkeys” I’d tried to raise from a kit ordered through DC Comics, or the pollywogs we caught at Boy Scout camp that never quite made it to frogs. From time to time I’d remove the paper to see what new works the ants had created, and I’d periodically refill the Coke bottle top and toss in scraps of food. I began to wonder what to do with it next.
One Saturday morning, directly after Mr. Wizard – an early hero, until I learned he’d run off with his secretary – I turned on the Tesla coil. I tested its spark by drawing it to my fingertips, then picked up the ant farm jar and let the spark discharge through it into my hand. To be sure I was well grounded, I’d grabbed one of the metal poles that supported the I-beam in the center of our house. I felt the shock ripple through one hand and across to the other, saw it snake along the black paper covering the jar, which I’d left in place like an executioner’s mask. A few seconds later I put the jar down and switched off the power.
I don’t think I would have been affected much if, when I examined the ant farm the next day, all of them had been killed; I had already sacrificed many ants in the name of Science. Conversely, had they been unscathed, this would merely have confirmed what I’d learned about high-frequency electricity. I was prepared for either of these outcomes. But instead, when I stripped off the paper and unscrewed the top of the jar, I found a few ants still scurrying through their tunnels and, neatly stacked at the entrance to one of them, a mound of dead ants.
It had never occurred to me that only some of the ants would die, or that ants were sentient creatures who valued their lives as much as I did mine and would respond meaningfully to death. Survivors of their own miniature holocaust, the ants had dealt with the unthinkable as best they could and moved on.
My whole view of ants, and of all living creatures, changed forever in that moment. Solemn and remorseful, I brought the ravaged ant farm outside, back to the ant hill from which it had come. I dumped out the contents of the jar and left it to the survivors and their kin to sift the living from the dead. I tossed the jar itself into the garbage and, a few weeks later, moved the Tesla coil out to the garage.
On that day my experiments with insects ceased and my apprehension of what it is to live, and die, and grieve began.
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