I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
An’ fellow mortal!
To a Mouse, by Robert Burns
Now, while it might be stretching things to compare the misfortune that befell the ants on my allotment this afternoon to that of the notorious beastie, timorous or otherwise, surely there are some parallels to be drawn here. In this case it wasn’t the plough but my bare hands that did the damage; two weeks away and the weeds had run riot – I attacked them with uncharacteristic vigour and, in doing so, opened up an ants nest. They were far from timorous in their response and I watched, fascinated, at the frenzied activity as they set about rescuing the hundreds of eggs that had been exposed to the hot sun. The twinge of guilt I felt was soon assuaged – within minutes all the eggs had been carried safely back underground, although the repair work carried on throughout the afternoon. But I must confess to there being an element of pleasure in accidentally turning over a colony of ants. Not because I wish them ill; instead because I love watching them at work. Both as a child and with my own children, I have tried to get ant farms up and running, usually with limited success. So it is a happy chance when a nest is opened up, allowing me to peer in to their secret world.
It astonishes me how many varieties of ant live on this tiny plot, ten poles long and one pole wide. Every time I spot them, I make a mental note to get hold of a field guide and find out who they all are. And some day, maybe I will. It wasn’t just the ants that I managed to upset today. My labours disturbed, variously, earwigs, spiders, a disgruntled ladybird and several species of shieldbug (mental note #2: get hold of a field guide to find out who all these beautiful critters are). The most vocal complainants were the family of wrens on my neighbour’s allotment, noisily agitated by my presence – the high pitched whistles of the hungry fledglings in shrill contrast to the angry chunterings of the parents. I wonder if these are any relation to the generations of wren reared in my shed, and I experience another pang of guilt as I think of the broken panels lying collapsed among the weeds – it isn’t just me that lost a hiding place in February’s storms. I need to get that repaired before the winter.
As if in revenge at my efforts to dominate nature, my bare legs were assailed first by nettles and then a small flying biting thing with the most extraordinary green eyes (probably a horse fly), who took a huge chunk out of my calf, and I returned home chastened, the best laid schemes of ants and men having gone a’gley.