Rants from the Hill: Them! and Us

 

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.

Some of you may be fortunate—or perhaps unfortunate—enough to recall the 1954 science fiction film Them!, which, much like Earth First!, had the audacity to include the exclamation point in its title. A classic “Big Bug” B movie, Them! concerns a colony of ants that is accidentally irradiated (as were plenty of Utahans and Nevadans during the same period), producing mutated, monster-sized insects that rampage through New Mexico, crushing skulls and filling friendly westerners with deadly formic acid. The adventure ends in a subterranean labyrinth of L. A. storm sewers where, after pinching off a few human heads, the last of the creatures is destroyed, ensuring that we’ll have nothing left to fear but Iran, North Korea, and Yucca Mountain. As a cinematic romp through Cold War anxieties, Them! gives us a monster to focus on other than ourselves, whose monstrous intelligence inadvertently produced the horrors which now terrorize us. Them! somehow affirms that it is easier to have your noggin compacted in the mandibles of a giant ant than to come to terms directly with having let the nuclear genie out of the bottle.

(not a real movie poster. Although the real ones are awesome, we couldn't get Warner Bros. permission to duplicate one here. We exhort you, however, to by all means check them Them! posters out!)

Here in the high desert of western Nevada we have our own Them!, known to entomologists as Pogonomyrmex occidentalis. The western harvester ant is, at least for now, about a quarter of an inch long instead of 50 feet long, which is convenient because its venom has a lethal dose measurement of .12 mg/kg—a bug nerd’s way of saying that it is comparable in toxicity to that of a cobra. Much is made of the harvester’s painful sting, but in my experience these guys don’t attack unless you stand on them, which seems pretty reasonable. The sting itself is certainly unpleasant, though I’ve never found it so severe as to be unresponsive to the “Three Cold Beer” remedy: apply one to wound, drink two, repeat as necessary.

If you’re a westerner you’ve seen harvesters before. Many species are common in our region, and their colonies exist within mounds that are unmistakably denuded of all vegetation in an eight- or ten-foot diameter circle. This removal of all growth prevents shading and facilitates thermoregulation within the colony’s many tunnels, which extend down to the caliche—the desert hardpan that even my tractor’s auger won’t penetrate. We have lots of harvester mounds on the property, but I’ve never found it necessary to disturb our Peaceable Kingdom by exterminating them. The ants, which eat the seeds of desert grasses, are eaten by fence lizards, which are eaten by gopher snakes, which are eaten by red-tailed hawks—and if the economy gets any worse I can eat the hawks. Why antagonize cousin Pogonomyrmex? Even if there are 15,000 of them in each mound, they are still just wee ants.

In early August, odd weather delivered an unusual, heavy rain on the heels of several days of hot weather. On the day following the big rain I noticed in our living room a few winged ants—an insect I had never seen here before. Within moments there were many more ants than I could keep up with, even as I chased them around with the shop vac. Then I noticed that something appeared to be moving behind the glass door of the woodstove—a reflection off the glass, I thought at first. On approaching, however, I realized to my horror that the woodstove was seething with winged ants, which writhed against the glass by the thousand and wriggled out by the dozen. I ran out the front door and craned my neck back to look at the roof, and that was when I had my Them! moment. Our tall chimney, which is stuccoed the color of sand, was now absolutely black with winged ants, whose countless millions and whose motivation for attacking my home were equally inconceivable.

I sprinted back inside to see that hundreds of ants had escaped the stove in the time it had taken me to make my reconnaissance, and I now realized that I had a decision to make. I could continue fighting the ants a hundred at a time until they filled our home, or I could take drastic action. In that instant I repositioned the shop vac, took a deep breath, and opened the woodstove door. What followed was among the most ghastly things I’ve ever witnessed, as countless thousands of winged ants poured onto the hearth in a black wave, far exceeding my ability to control them, despite the vacuum inhaling at least 100 ants per second. Within five minutes there were ants flying all over the house, but in that time I had also cleaned out the stove enough to ignite the cardboard from a six-pack, to which I added and a few juniper sticks to make a smudge fire that stemmed the invasion from the chimney.

Because I’m the kind of guy who keeps the state entomologist on speed dial, I soon had an answer to the question of why this vermin horde had chosen me as its hapless victim. As it turned out, the winged ants were our western harvesters, which had found the unusual conditions perfect for swarming, an event that occurs on a single summer day when both female and male ants from all surrounding colonies check the weather, sprout wings, and engage in “hilltopping”: they fly directly to the highest nearby point, which in this case was the top of the chimney, on top of the house, on top of the hill from which I rant. There they formed “mating balls,” an unfortunate term that accurately describes the orgiastic clusters of thousands of insects whose dangerous liaison had filled my house with horny ants. The conclusion of this process is that any newly mated female who doesn’t end up in the belly of a fence lizard or shop vac will fly to a new site, tear off her own wings, burrow into the ground, lay eggs, and perhaps found a new colony, of which she will be queen.

I have resisted the temptation to nuke the harvester mounds around our house, though in the wake of the invasion I confess that I was sorely tempted. But I do need to feed the lizards around here, and I also have a perverse desire to see this bizarre ritual enacted again some summer day. According to native Pima mythology, our planet was created from a sphere of ants. Maybe I fear that to open the Diazinon is to uncork the genie’s bottle right here at home, to rupture some bond that still abides silently between Them! and Us.

Michael P Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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