Monday 1 August 2011


Over the weekend I finished E.O. Wilson's Anthill, the octogenarian Pulitzer Prize winning scientists first novel, a roman a clef about growing up in the American South as a bug-obsessed little boy.

The majority of the book reads like a John Grisham with less zap (you can see what I thought here, if you like). But the central section - where Wilson describes the rise and fall of three closely located ant colonies - is some of the best writing I've read this year. The fate of these ants is Homeric, and utterly gripping.

Luckily, the first part of this study was reproduced in the New Yorker last year, and is freely available online.

The Trailhead Queen was dead. At first, there was no overt sign that her long life was ending: no fever, no spasms, no farewells. She simply sat on the floor of the royal chamber and died. As in life, her body was prone and immobile, her legs and antennae relaxed. Her stillness alone failed to give warning to her daughters that a catastrophe had occurred for all of them. She lay there, in fact, as though nothing had happened. She had become a perfect statue of herself. While humans and other vertebrates have an internal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone. Hence the workers were at first unaware of their mother’s death. Her quietude said nothing, and the odors of her life, still rising from her, signalled, I remain among you. She smelled alive.

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