Tuesday, May 04, 2010

How a spider balloons itself, and Anthill

The [ballooning] method is widespread and ancient among spiders. When an immature spider possessing this ability wishes to travel a long distance, it crawls to an unrestricted site on a blade of grass or twig of a bush, lifts the rear part of its body to point the spinnerets at the tip upward, and lets out a line of silk. The delicate little thread is the spiderling’s kite. The air current lifts and pulls at it until the young spider feeling the tension, gradually lengthens the thread. When the strength of the pull exceeds its own body weight, it lets go with all eight feet and sets sail. A flying spiderling can reach thousands of feet of altitude and travel miles downwind. When it wishes to descend, it pulls in the silk thread and eats it millimeter by millimeter, heading for a soft if precarious landing. The risk it takes offers good odds. Sailing aloft under its silk balloon, the spiderling can reach land still uncrowded by competing spiders.

That’s from The Anthill Chronicles, a short, self-contained novella within the famous biologist E.O. Wilson’s first novel. The novella, one of the most beautiful and mysterious stories I’ve read in a while, is about the rise and fall of four ecologically intertwined ant colonies on a small tract of land, a longleaf pine savanna in rural Alabama. One of the ant societies is a "supercolony" that runs rampant. Wilson, wisely, does not make the ants speak as humans do; instead, he uses his immense scientific knowledge to tell us what goes on in their subterranean nests. The execution is superb; there is probably no better narrative description of how the world appears to ants. The ants' quest for territory and foraging grounds, brutal wars, cycles of dominance and decline -- epics condensed in time and space --are strikingly similar to ours; and yet there are some contrasts. Ant colonies, for example, are fanatically communist and are heavily dominated by females; males play a peripheral, utilitarian role.

Deftly interlinked with the story of the ants is the story of the protagonist, Raff Semmens Cody, a child of the American south (like Wilson himself). Raff is fascinated by the same tract of land that contains the anthills and is interested in protecting it. This dual structure of novel – one at the level of the ants, the other the level of humans, but both examining in understated fashion the perils of overburdening the ecosystem – allows for an unusual perspective.


Chandrahas said...

This is a really interesting recommendation, and your choice of a a paragraph to quote was very fine. I hope to have Anthill on my bedside bookhill very soon.

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