05 February 2023

Of red ants, bridges and possibilities

Photograph: Sandra Mack

No 69, Jambugasmulla Mawatha, Nugegoda is an address I’ve known for more than 40 years. That’s where my friend since 1977, Kanishka Goonewardena, now a professor at the University of Toronto, lived. Classmate and fellow scout in our younger days, we graduated to discussing political and ideological issues once we entered university and ever since. Kanishka studied architecture at Moratuwa University and would later move to city and regional planning, and eventually political philosophy.

There are lots of stories associated with my friend, his father who taught German and was a diligent student on a wide range of subjects, his mother who treated his friends and their friends as though they were her own sons, his siblings and that household. This is about the gate.

It was an ordinary iron gate, with a latch that held the two parts together. I remember having to open that gate very carefully because there was always a line of red ants going back and forth across the bar at the top. The movement, obviously, would be interrupted whenever the gate was opened. I was always fascinated by the behaviour of these ants. I would watch them after placing the latch back. There was agitation at the interruption, but not for too long. The ants would go back and forth, as before.

What was particularly fascinating was the fact that there was a slight gap between the two parts of the gate. Just too wide for the ants to cross. And, as ants do I suppose, a couple of more of them would form a bridge so others could cross this ‘chasm.’  Myrmecologists, i.e. those who study ants, may know more about such phenomenon, but for me, it was pure fascination at the coordination and solidarity expressed in this simple bridge-making act.  

A few years ago, visiting ‘Kaniya’ I noticed the ants. Probably not the very same ants, I told myself. Kaniya and I had a good laugh: ‘they are still here!’

Apparently the life expectancy of an ant varies from a few weeks to 15 years, depending on the species. I don’t know how long red ants live on average, but clearly several generations had lived and died since I first saw them on that gate.

A few days ago, dropping him off at home, I glanced at the gate. There was no ant-bridge, no line of red ants. There was one ant at one end of the gate, though. Maybe, I told myself, ants do other stuff, as colonies or as individual creatures. Maybe, I told myself, it was the weather. Maybe, I told myself, it was just coincidence that there were ants each time I visited that house.

It was coincidental that Sandra Mack, actor, model, art director, copywriter, archer, martial artist, cat-lover, photographer and maker of ‘homemade pro-veg lava-hot sauces, sweet sauces and toppings under her own label, “Burgher Hottie’s” posted a picture of ants upon a gate. Red ants. A bridge. A gate. A memory-rush.

Sandra called it ‘Possibilities.’ Perfect.

It took me back to an essay I wrote in a sociology class in which I mentioned bees in relation to community, social organization etc. The lecturer took issue with the example with a one-word dismissal - instinct. I have since learned that non-human creatures, insects included, engage in livestock development and have good knowledge of appropriate medicines. I have asked myself, across the many decades that followed that dismissal, ‘how can we know, ever, if it’s instinct, did we ever ask the creatures we pass judgement on, did they ever tell?’

Sandra explained: ‘I stood outside, not going in, scared I’d kill them if they fell, but eventually when I had to, they were so well organised that like gymnasts on either side, they held on. Simply amazing.’

‘Words fail me, I kept looking at this scene in awe,’ she said.

Two gates. Two people. Several decades apart. Same species. Both in awe. A bridge is an overused metaphor. Solidarity too. But ‘possible’? No. We are fixated with its antonym, impossible.

There are red-ant stories all around us. We may not notice, we may choose to brush them all aside. We can stop. And be awed, at and in the universe of the possible. 


Other articles in this series:

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road