Monday, February 17, 2014

Crazy Nature, or Nature is Crazy

This article in the NY Times is about a species of ant in the Southeast US swarming in massive supercolonies of enough ants to be visible as carpets and corrupting electronic devices and causing them to short out.

Here are a few amazing scenes.

He tried leaving different foods on his floor overnight, to figure out how he might bait and kill the ants, as he did with the feral hogs. He tried doughnuts, crushed-up Cheerios, bread crumbs — “anything a normal ant would be attracted to,” he told me. He claims they touched none of it.
He can’t fathom what the ants want — why they’ve come. They are frightening because they make no sense, because of the utter disarray of their existence. “They run around the floors like they’re on crack, and then they die,” he said. “They’re freakin’ crazy, man.”

The ants quickly sprouted in surrounding areas, most likely transported in landscaping and soil, or in building materials, or by hitching rides in cars. Rasberry called state and federal agencies, trying to communicate his alarm. He took it for granted, as a pest-control professional, that the government would rush to stamp out such a threat before it escalated. (“Quite frankly, from a monetary perspective, it was the best thing for me that these ants got totally out of hand,” he told me. “But I tried to take the high road.”) In the end, the government didn’t respond as quickly or determinedly as he expected. The ants did seem legitimately crazy. But the country is a very big place, and there’s ecological craziness everywhere.

Recently, Rasberry cut back. He comes into the office only three days a week now and spends the rest of his time at his house in the woods. He likes to watch the deer there, he said. His daughter, Mandy, told me that in 2008, she worried she’d have to bully her father into flying to Mexico for her wedding, because the wedding was in May, and May is when crazy ants really start humming in Pearland. But this summer, he vanished for two weeks at the height of crazy-ant season, in August, to go fishing in Canada.

“I think we’ve missed all the real opportunities,” Rasberry told me one afternoon. “There’s no way out.” We were having lunch at Central Texas Style BBQ, around the corner from his office in Pearland. On the television behind me, Fox News was reporting that shots had been fired at the Capitol in Washington. The full story, which we did not yet know, was that a 34-year-old dental hygienist from Connecticut had buckled her 1-year-old daughter into a car seat and tried to ram her black Infiniti into a checkpoint at the White House. There was a car chase, and snipers snapping into position everywhere, and people in business attire scuffling to safety every which way — scattering like ants, you might say, except that some of them could be seen grasping jumbles of paperwork or texting as they ran. No one in the restaurant paid much attention to the television. It was on mute. Sade was playing.

All the other news was about the government shutdown, then in its third day. When I arrived at Mike the Hog-a-Nator’s place the previous morning, he was perched on the edge of his easy chair, watching CNN on a huge new flat-screen television — a clearly imperiled replacement for the television the ants had already destroyed — desperate to learn how his disability payments might be affected. “I’m fighting these hogs, I’m fighting these ants, I’m fighting for my life,” Mike the Hog-a-Nator told me. He sounded overwhelmed.
   It is fascinating how the story links together the details of this hopeless war against a force of nature, where this existential situation we find ourselves affixed to is all the same whether political or ecological. There is no way out. There is nothing but catastrophe and despair, not because the world is ending, but because human civilization is collapsing under its own weight while biology just continues on.

When I think about the high rate of extinctions characterizing our present geological transition period, my more youthful thinking on this was the horror of all this life ending. I used to go down to the creek in one of my neighborhoods and dig around for crayfish, crawdaddies, or mud puppies (pick your name). It was my own little science lessons. I'd spend the soon afternoon digging them up and studying their swimming and feeding habits; I'd spend the later afternoon digging them up in useless encyclopedias and cheap science textbooks my parents hoarded for me. Then, one summer, they were gone. All gone. The water became muddier and the bottom more brown. The minnows got smaller and smaller. They eventually died. A slick was more visible where the water stilled behind debris. I stopped playing in the creek.

The more and more I came across creeks and groves and ponds around here in Georgia, the more I started to learn about death from depravity. Pollution was killing off all these wonderful places. I thought at the time it was the glass bottles and cigarette butts and beer cans and soda cans and vegetable cans and gum wrappers and chocolate wrappers and takeout silverware wrappers and plastic and polystyrene and polyvinyl. It was all over. It was everywhere. But I was wrong.
It's the things I cannot see and cannot notice that's in the water, in the soil, in the air, in the ground. These are the things that killed my friends. My friends are dying from invisible mercenaries let loose from their industrial clients.

But I grew up. I learned a lot more about the history of this planet, the diversity of life on this planet, and the reality of its deaths. Nothing on this planet, from the furry cute things found only in some small sliver of real estate to the radiating molten rods forged in the greed of a powerful nation-state, is inherently evil nor inherently good. It is all here to figure out how to live with other pieces of being, other materials, other patterns. Humans have had an amazing role to play in creating environments a non-conscious, chaotic and desultory mess of climates and comet splashdowns and carbon machines will never have been able to create on its own. These new environments provide new opportunities for various forms of life to explore.

I see these entire flashovers of ecosystems as catastrophe in just the right way, which is just every way explored. From the destruction comes new life, and all these 'invasive' species are doing is dismantling DNA and reassembling new patterns and ways of being. Things are dying and dying off, but new things come into being and are.

It always fascinates me, the Kineococcus radiotolerans bug. It is bacteria that live in the radioactive wastewater of the Savannah River Site. It's DNA is fragmented by gamma radiation, but the bacteria are able to reassemble their DNA and continue functioning. It lives in an environment completely inhospitable to life. Rather, life as we prefer to conceive it, as green, and blue, and brown, and red, and pink, and clear. This is not the only extremophile. But it's close to where I grew up. It feels familial. It opened my eyes up to appreciating how life scrambles along. Though I will die, taking a lot of other living things with me, all the things infecting my cells, my gut, my skin, and all the things symbiotically with me in my cells, my gut, my skin, I also know all these living things also live and die, die and live, and some portion will continue on, just as there is a very high likelihood portions are thriving out there, far over there.

The despair people feel about the end of the world is very much anthropocentric, because it is egocentric, because too often we see ourselves as central to how the world looks for us. But this world doesn't look for us. It doesn't look at all, in either sense of looking. It is, and part of its being is for so many pieces of it to no longer arise as patterns. Traces of patterns are not enough, since a mammoth today is not even actually a mammoth: what we think of as an individual mammoth is only meaningful as one in the context of the vast interrelationships and material exchanges it shared with the whole. There are no individuals. There are always knots of relationships and connections, where some threads separate, some become entangled, but the whole process of the web itself is raveling and unraveling, unraveling and raveling. Even if they manage to birth a mammoth in a womb it was never built to gestate within, it will not be a mammoth that was. It's just a fiber frayed loose from series of ropes, webs, and nets, knots, sponges, and gaskets. Even though this is the obvious direction we need to start taking towards biology, it's not the intuitive nor sensible one at this time. Because if this is true of a creature, then it's also true of an ego, a person. We're haunted by our dependency, our fragility, and our comparative irrelevance. So, instead, we name things and hold onto ourselves, create a history of things we'll never see again. Pictures are even better than words.

The fear of being unable to return to the past haunts people. They cannot embrace the saying What is gone is gone. There's no way out. The opportunity has passed. Nature, a more discerning because truly indifferent council of gods, has decided we aren't going to last, not the way the sponges, the algae, the bacteria, the lichens, the viridae, the archaea have and will continue to last.

In the meantime, we get to witness the explosion of survivors. Consumption, unlimited and unstoppable, unyielding and unswayed, and, most importantly, irrational and deaf to the pleading: this is not only a comment about a typical invasive species (kudzu and privet, zebra mollusc, fire ant, crazy ant, asian carp, &c) but also the same comment about capitalism, socialism, populism, fascism, zealous religions and bargain shoppers. The zombie of today's cultural nightmare is the union of all these things, but the way to deny the link to what nature is doing to us is to make the thing something like an abiological machine. The machines in Matrix Revolutions swarmed to create its armies as well as its figurehead; the machines in Terminator Rise of the Machines swarm and reform and move as insects; the robots programmed to revolt in I, Robot swarm over the police department; you can think up your own examples from scifi movies of robots or machines. The point is, when humans lose their identity, their uniqueness, they think of machines, swarms, crowds, and the zombie's rotting and decaying isn't a return to health for its pieces. It's as much dead as a robot. Organic material, minerals and elements, put into a robot or android or cyborg are not thought of as returning to the cycle of living things who eat, live, die, and are eaten, lived again, and die again. Robots aren't eaten by crows, dogs, or bacteria. Even though in reality, some bacteria will likely stumble onto some way of breathing down the metals, this is not ever a scene in a machine-swarm movie: the robot's innards being devoured by rats or beetles or turning to sludge. It's not what people accept right now about machine life.  Zombies, being contaminated, aren't going to return to the flow of living material, either. They might rot; they might be eaten by crows or dogs; but the land stays putrid and not productive, the birds get sick and the dogs go rabid. Even though in reality, those environments will likely produce new forms of life through evolutionary pressures, there is not ever a scene in a zombie-swarm movie: the undying becomes a thanatological species (I Am Legend the novel comes close in its metaphors). Religions, consumerism, crowds, fasces, firms, corporations, all the usual accused, do not return people to the flow of living and dying. They collect people, and they do not ask, listen to objections, judge the merits, or solicit consent. They just consume material and resources for nothing other than the swarm. That is how they survive. Ants, machines, zombies, political parties, name brands, cultures. They survive by not stopping to ask if this is okay, if this is acceptable to you. This is why individuals fear them at some inner level, where the uncanny feelings arise.

The catastrophe is a crisis point. Something new is coming into the world, and the world has the chance of exploring what was not possible to be explored. But it does so by no longer exploring what it had before been exploring. Different lessons, different dreams.

A lot of people are going to die this century. Isn't it odd how the crazy ant seems focused on electronic devices? As if though an immune system has somehow found a way, as if though selection decided a series of fortunate alterations and niche-carving gave some form of life the opportunity to inhabit a place currently unoccupied by other competitors, thus using up available resources while also thwarting a sluggish and reactive species. Speaking speculatively, if this, and the many other invasive species and ecological breakdowns in the fragile but robust world, are any indication, an immune system correction is taking place.

But I'm not worried about that. When you think of heaven and hell as places where you spend the indefinite eternal for something you did in a pinpoint of time, it is no irrational thing to fear profoundly death. But there isn't a heaven and hell for the pieces of me or those things of which I am a piece. A string is pulled, the knot unravels, and the threads are free to entwine with another. But this is always already occurring when I piss, shit, sweat, exhale, cry, shed skin, ejaculate, bleed. I am always dying, daily dying in this mortification of the flesh, and that no longer worries me, since it means some things are nourished, some things have homes, some things have more for them to use to become alive and pass along what once nourished, homed, and rendered me alive. This was always going to happen. This is happening. This will be happening to my pieces, just as I am carrying for the moment a number of pieces of those who were silent, loud, hushing, tumbling, unfolding.

A world disjointed corrects itself, but it only looks passingly like it did. This is okay for the world, since this is how it transforms into new things. It will continue transforming. Fear of dying and fear of returning prevent so much from returning to the flow. Stagnation creates its own opportunities for new species to form swarms and force the issue, but their own eagerness depletes their resources. Their own unlimited consumption destroys them as a fire consumes its reason for being there or here. All that collapse means a new space for new experiments. But as much as life finds a way to survive, it also knows the possibility for total extermination is there.

This world is just one individual, though. There are more, just like for every deer or vulture or house cat you see mangled along the highway, there are many more in the forests and bushes and crevices you don't see.

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