When we were children, we found nature appropriately overwhelming, and entertaining. There was no end to the often bizarre methods that life forms on earth utilize for survival, and we were more than happy to be included in the variety and suspense.
The ferocity of some animals gave us a great thrill, which, in our naivety, made us imagine we were fearless. We knew all we had to do was shoot one if we were attacked, if only we had a gun. We didn’t know fear from flowers.
Vulnerable and fragile creatures also piqued our imagination.
We loved to hear about sharks, black widow spiders, caterpillars and butterflies, sea horses, worms, lizards and lady bugs, but experiencing them first hand made us think we were as smart as presidents contemplating military action.
It took us years to appreciate the fact that, in nature, life and death always hang in the balance, and that we, too, walk a fine line between them. Those of us who were lucky learned from bee stings and dog bites. Others learned from rattlesnakes and horse hooves.
Whatever our experience, we slowly developed a respect for life. Nature’s way seemed cruel at times, but, in spite of how it appeared to us, we could see that there was always a benefit in it for the creature that came out on top, or the one who happened to be more powerful, more clever, or just plain lucky.
As we got older it became clear that suffering and death were part of life, and survival of the fittest, and the food chain, were as essential to life as protein and oxygen. Some of us even came to believe that, in spite of death, life has no beginning, and life has no end.
One creature in particular really captured our imagination. It’s method of taking prey was so diabolical to us it was admirable. The opportunity to lure one from it’s hiding place was always met with congressional approval. We called it the ant lion.
The ant lion uses a funnel-shaped little hole to catch ants. He waits under the dirt at the bottom. With the tip of a pine needle we would create a disturbance in his hole, simulating the panic of a trapped ant, and lure the ant lion from his lair. Working as a team when he surfaced, we would flick him out to get a good look at him, and see how he’d like to be tormented. It was a limited, military-style action, just a “shot across the bow,” to make a statement. We always met our objective, but ant lion atrocities continued.
In a panic, the ant lion would scramble back to his hole, only to find it destroyed by us. The coup de grace came when we would drop a live ant into an ant lion’s hole and, with great wonder, watch the wonderful struggle of nature unfold before our very eyes.
Reflecting on the laws of nature recently, and the mangy little ant lion, I decided to revert back to my childhood.
I was concerned about how the little kings of the forest were getting along. The chances of enough ants falling into your trap to keep dinner on the table can’t be that good. Talk about patience, but what a difficult life. Some poor little ant lions must go hungry and die, alone in the dirt, without ever tasting a tender, juicy black ant. We know they come out for a little romance once in awhile, because they are plentiful. Still, I felt sorry for them.
So I took pity on one. I picked up a fat black ant and dropped him down the funnel. I thought he was big enough to make a quick getaway, but the ant lion began hurling heaps of tiny grains of dirt into the air, making the hole deeper, and steeper, depriving the ant of all hope of escape.
As I watched the ant disappear down the hole, in the jaws of the beast, I couldn’t help but wonder. Had I just been cruel to the ant, or kind to the ant lion?
— Bob Sweigert is a Sierra Sun columnist, published poet, former college instructor and ski instructor. He has a B.A. and an M.A.T. from Gonzaga University. He has lived at Lake Tahoe for 30 years.