David Martin

Leaf-cutter ants in South and Central America are the major herbivores in the environment. Their trails range for several hundred meters from their colony. Long lines of ants with shreds of leaves, sometimes up to four times the weight of their tiny bodies, march from the forest back to their subterranean nests. When these lines cross asphalt roads the stark green of the leaves is clearly visible against the black of the tarmac. But for a long time, myrmecologists could only guess what the leaf-cutters were doing with all that roughage. It was apparent that the ants did not eat the leaves because, when zoologists ran tests, the ants did not have the enzymes to break down many of the plants. The scientists then guessed that the ants were building their nests with the vegetation. But when they broke open nests, they could never find the postulated leafy bulwarks. And so the thousands of tons of leaves, which leaf-cutter ants carry into their nests annually, seemed to have just vanished. But this simply did not make sense. So a few researchers, curious at this magic trick, kept looking.

They observed ants in the field and they found something astounding. Inside every leaf-cutter ant nest, myrmecologists discovered chambers of fungi. The fungi are tended by pygmy ants. These pygmies––like coal men working in the depths of a 19th century steamer––take the leaves foraged by the larger terrestrial worker ants and pile them at the base of each fungus. The fungi in turn extract nutrients from the decomposing leafy material. They then use the nutrients from the process to make spores. The ants then, after feeding the fungi, collect the fungi’s spores, which they in turn eat. The ants are farmers. Thus by incorporating an alien species into their everyday feeding methods, leaf-cutter ants cull vital nutrients from previously unusable plants, thereby allowing them to harvest a smorgasbord of plants.

Such a discovery could only be made by close observation and long-term desire to answer the question, Where does all the roughage go? I have been watching ants for a long time now, asking similar questions. When I was seven, living in Kenya, I stood next to a Safari ant trail for two hours, just watching them. Safari ants do not have nests. Instead, they march in long lines, foraging for food as they go. When I was seven, I wanted to know for how long they would march past. I did not get to answer the question then, because I was forced to stop watching. Hooking their quarter-inch mandibles into my young flesh, the trail of ants shifted its course, swarmed up my legs and attacked me. At that point, I decided that it was time for me to leave. And so I ran back to my mom, crying for help. It took her nearly an hour to remove their pincers from my skin. The raw power of the ants fascinated me, and though they hurt, I still wanted to watch. And I kept watching over the years.

This last summer I traveled to Sudan, to a region called the Nuba Mountains. I was there to talk to local NGO heads about the prospects for development and aiding the one thousand Darfurian people who have fled to the impoverished Nuba Mountains as refugees since the conflict began. While there, I stayed in a housing compound made of grass-thatched roofs and hand-stacked stone walls. And in my complex, surrounded by the majestic Nuba Mountains, home to one of the oldest iron smelting forges in the world (nearly three thousand years old) was a tiny majestic civilization of its own. There in my compound was a foot-high mound of earth. And every morning as the sun rose, thousands of ants climbed out. They made a daily cycle of going out and gathering, removing soil from the nest and attacking smaller competitors. I spent three weeks in the Nuba Mountains. And during my three weeks I watched my anthill every day, noting the times they came out to forage, the amount of earth they piled up, and the response they had to different problems such as rain or a child kicking their mound. Watching them fascinated me. The ants were working together to extract the dirt from the earth and make a living in it. They were moving mountains of earth by each one carrying a granule of sand. Millions of miniscule individuals worked together. Each performed simple, repetitive actions and cumulatively, those actions created something inspiring––a complete, healthy civilization.

The power of the ants’ recursive actions to maintain health and stability made me wonder at the spiraling chaos of Sudan’s civil wars. What was it about ants and their behaviours that make them the most successful species on the planet? Scientists have found an ant encased in amber over 90 million years ago that matches exactly ants that are alive today. 90 million years ago, this species because of their superior ability to shape their environs to their needs no longer experienced the pressure to evolve. The success of ants’ survival tactics have led them to be not only a long-lasting but a worldwide species. Given their notable success, what can we learn from their story? What is their story? What led them to develop these complex and minute processes? I want to watch them and try to formulate answers. Like the myrmecologists who asked, Where do all the leaves go? I want to ask, How do ants create an order in the chaos of nature to meet their needs? At the heart of this work is Illuminating the solution to the structural violence of intractable conflicts, such as the wars in Sudan, while living in and negotiating a number of human social environments in order to observe social structures in the alien environment of ants.

In short, I am fascinated by ants because I am fascinated by systems. No one ever encouraged me to pursue this area of interest academically. Instead, my mentors gave me books on history, which has become my main field of study. Despite the hesitation for biological questioning in my religious upbringing, I have always watched ants. For my parents, who were my teachers, the earth was made in seven days and the belief in macro-evolution is only a phase. In other words, all the species that are alive today were alive at the beginning of creation 10,000 years ago. Despite this, I remember when I was five standing by a fire ant hill in Dallas, Texas; while all the other kids were poking the anthills with sticks, I followed the ants along the ground. I needed to see what they were doing. The ants were simply carrying the dirt away, but what was their system? How did they become what they are? I can see in my memory of watching their order and systemization a more general desire. I have always wished to understand how the system breathes, inhales and exhales: all the parts moving together to create a dynamic whole. This interest predates and drives my academic interest in history. History is the study of what people have done, all the diverse places and spaces in which they have lived. How did people behave in a situation? What was that situation? It is a study based on three questions: Where did x people live? How did they react? And what changed? History, like myrmecology, is the study of dynamic systems. A dynamic system is composed of coordinated parts which retain their inherent characteristics even when the coordination is rearranged. It is like one of those toy hoberman balls that looks like a star when it contracts and a hollow ball when it expands. It grows when one pulls at the corners of the star. The whole star expands in relation to the other components to form a hollow ball. The hundreds of joints and hinges work together to distribute the load of the pressure from the two points where one’s hands are pulling. The construction keeps the hinges’ relationships to each other intact, while the distance between each hinge expands, thus changing the form, but not the relationships. That is a dynamic system, one that can expand and contract to deal with a certain amount of pressure on its constituent components. Ant colonies, like human colonies, are dynamic systems perpetuated by the interconnected support of all the members.

Additionally, this perspective has been grown out of the fact of my life: I have already traveled widely. I was raised in Kenya, the fifth child of eight in a missionary family. I grew up observing disparate organizations of humans. My parents were linguists working to build an alphabet for a Nilotic language, Dinka, in Southern Sudan. Furthermore, and perhaps consequently, I have studied Arabic and French at Bard. In order to immerse myself in those languages, I have studied in Morocco and in France. I have done development work in Uganda. Also, I have been to several European countries to visit friends. I am well traveled. I have bathed in myriad places: in houses, on roofs, in shacks, in streams, with Sahara sand in a war-torn capital city––Khartoum, and in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Oceans. I have held guns and I have spoken to vice presidents, though never simultaneously.

All this travel, however, has left me with a gnawing question: how do all these disparate places work in relation to each other? Every place I have ever read about or visited is so vastly different from the next. Each presents its own challenges to the traveler in his search for the knowledge necessary to comprehend where he is. The fact that I have been to so many places and seen a multitude of small differences between each of them makes me boggle at the amount that is yet to be discovered. For instance, while I was in the Nuba Mountains last summer I went for a walk along a country road. Along the way, I decided to walk up a hill. As I climbed the hill I noticed a few stalks of corn and some stone terracing, but that terracing was on every hill so I did not pay it much heed. When I got to the top of the hill two dogs growled at me, and three children and their mother stared at me. Around me was some shortly trimmed grass and some old stone walls. To my eyes it was wilderness. But I realized all at once that I was standing in someone’s living room. I beat a hasty retreat back down their driveway and back to the country road. I had mistaken a home for an empty hill, and a city for wilderness. And as I discerned that I had been walking in an ancient city tucked into the hills of the Nuba Mountains I realized that the big picture is about not missing the little boundary stones which mark someone’s front yard. I want to travel because I do not want to miss the miniscule wonders that every place conceals. It is guessed that only half the species of ants, and only four percent of the species of insects on the planet are known. This desire, like wishing to find missing pieces in a big puzzle, is both frustrating and motivating. It is frustrating because the boundaries between domains of knowledge are so stark. For instance, if I did not receive the Watson, I would go to law school next year, for a career in international human rights law and then wait half a lifetime to record the ants’ worlds. I have studied history for so long and traveled so much, yet know so little. The desire to know about ants and humans is motivating as well because the desire to understand the whole picture and the desire to understand the tiny, unknown world of ants are interrelated. In order to study ants, I will move among many different peoples’ places. The lessons I learn from ants will shed light on the dynamic systems of these places, and experiencing them both will lead me to more questions about the processes of these dynamic systems.

David Martin