The ant battle (Walden 154)

Earlier in the “Brute Neighbors” chapter Thoreau described the protectiveness of partridges with their young. Now he describes, with mock seriousness, an ant battle that shows a darker side of nature. “I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men,” he writes. “The more you think of it, the less the difference.” In the narrative, quoted in full below, it isn’t hard to see a good deal of contemptuous mockery of human militarism.

But it isn’t entirely funny. The battle is chilling in its mindless cruelty. And lest you think that Henry the Poet is getting pretty imaginative in his description, any number of photos and videos online will set you straight, such as these photos.

For all his eloquence about the beauty of the woods, this, too, is nature. And though in earlier posts I’ve taken issue with Henry’s tendency to demean our ‘beastly’ physical nature, here we see ‘natural’ behavior that is clearly rooted deeply in our ancestry, and which humans must learn to transcend if we’re to have a future.

Here is part of his narrative of the battle between the much larger black ants and the smaller but more numerous red ones:

“In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had despatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs …watching his opportunity, he sprang upon the black warrior, and commenced his operations near the root of his right fore leg, leaving the foe to select among his own members; and so there were three united for life, as if a new kind of attraction had been invented which put all other locks and cements to shame. I should not have wondered by this time to find that they had their respective musical bands stationed on some eminent chip, and playing their national airs the while, to excite the slow and cheer the dying combatants. I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference…

“I took up the chip on which the three I have particularly described were struggling, carried it into my house, and placed it under a tumbler on my window-sill, in order to see the issue. Holding a microscope to the first-mentioned red ant, I saw that, though he was assiduously gnawing at the near fore leg of his enemy, having severed his remaining feeler, his own breast was all torn away, exposing what vitals he had there to the jaws of the black warrior, whose breastplate was apparently too thick for him to pierce; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer’s eyes shone with ferocity such as war only could excite. They struggled half an hour longer under the tumbler, and when I looked again the black soldier had severed the heads of his foes from their bodies, and the still living heads were hanging on either side of him like ghastly trophies at his saddle-bow, still apparently as firmly fastened as ever, and he was endeavoring with feeble struggles, being without feelers and with only the remnant of a leg, and I know not how many other wounds, to divest himself of them; which at length, after half an hour more, he accomplished. I raised the glass, and he went off over the window-sill in that crippled state. Whether he finally survived that combat, and spent the remainder of his days in some Hotel des Invalides, I do not know; but I thought that his industry would not be worth much thereafter. I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door.”

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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