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A BATTLE OF THE ANTS

A BATTLE OF THE ANTS

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Written by Hunter   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 12:41



One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I
observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half
an inch long and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having
once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled
on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that
the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a
"duellum," but a "bellum," [Footnote: Duellum ... bellum: war.] a war
between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and
frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons
[Footnote: Myrmidons: a fierce tribe that accompanied Achilles, their
king, to the Trojan War.] covered all the hills and vales in my
wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying,
both red and black. It was the only battle which I had ever witnessed,
the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging;
internecine [Footnote: Internecine: mutually destructive.] war; the red
republicans on the one hand and the black imperialists on the other
hand. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any
noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely.
I watched a couple that were fast locked in each other's embraces, in a
little sunny valley amid the chips; now at noon-day prepared to fight
till the sun went down, or life went out. The smaller red champion had
fastened himself like a vice to his adversary's front, and through all
the tumblings on that field never for an instant ceased to gnaw at one
of his feelers near the root, having already caused the other to go by
the board; while the stronger black one dashed him from side to side,
and, as I saw on looking nearer, had already divested him of several of
his members. They fought with more pertinacity [Footnote: Pertinacity:
persistency, obstinacy.] than bull-dogs. Neither manifested the least
disposition to retreat. It was evident that their battle-cry was Conquer
or die. In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the
hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had
dispatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably
the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; whose mother had charged
him to return with his shield or upon it. [Footnote: Return with his
shield or upon it. What is the allusion? See Brewer's _Reader's
Handbook_ under "Spartan Mother."] He drew near with rapid pace till
he stood on his guard within half an inch of the combatants; then,
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
[Footnote: Assiduously: diligently, laboriously.] gnawing at the near
foreleg 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 breast-plate 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, [Footnote:
Hotel des Invalides: an establishment founded in 1670 at Paris for
disabled and infirm soldiers. It contains military trophies and
paintings, and a remarkable collection of armor.] 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.

--HENRY THOREAU.

[Footnote: What things in the account of the battle show that the writer
is a trained observer? Does it add to the interest of the battle to
attribute human qualities to the combatants? Why? What touches of humor
do you find in the description? Does the author show a sympathetic
attitude toward war? Illustrate. What do you know of Thoreau's life at
Walden Pond?]
 
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