Friday, 15 January 2016

Ant vs. Antlion

I never took part in a science fair at my school because I went to school in England in the seventies, and like Trick or Treat, the school science fair seems to be an American thing. The school I attended at the age of twelve was tailored mainly towards preparing its pupils for life as a pair of legs occasionally seen protruding from beneath a tractor. The closest we came to the school science fair was Project Technology, a lunchtime club organised by Mr. Kneale, the physics teacher. Everyone loved Mr. Kneale because he blew things up with fertiliser, or perched kids on skateboards and fired them the length of the class room using a length of rubber hose as an improvised catapult, and he undertook such acts for chuckles at least as much as for the sake of illustrating some scientific principle. My friends Tom and Paul built a working hovercraft in Project Technology - a large plastic tray inverted with a circular hole cut in the base in which they mounted the battery driven propeller from a model aircraft. I aspired to follow in their footsteps with a working ground-effect vehicle, but it never got further than drawings and a vaguely stated ambition. Tom mocked my notional ground-effect vehicle on the grounds that I'd simply flipped ahead to the next chapter in the library book about hovercraft, which was true. Mr. Kneale pointed out that whilst my proposed design for the dramatic sweep of a dorsal fin running along the back of my vehicle might have worked just fine on an episode of Thunderbirds, out here in the real world it seemed more to do with cool than actual aerodynamic principles. Unfortunately he was right, as was usually the case.

Anyway, now that I'm living in America with a stepson of some description, the school science fair has become part of my present reality. Junior announced he would be embarking on a science project which entailed catching ants and feeding them to antlions in order to deduce which species puts up the most fight, as revealed by who is left alive. Bess relayed this information to me and I found myself making the noise often produced by Tina from Bob's Burgers.

'At the risk of sounding like some sort of Communist,' I explained, 'it's the whole killing stuff for entertainment aspect that bothers me.' Junior actually isn't so bad on this score, having thankfully grown out of the bugs under the hot sun with a magnifying glass stage, and he now refuses to eat fish or seafood owing to a seemingly spiritual over-identification with aquatic life in general. We haven't bothered pointing out where burgers come from, or that he knows full well where burgers come from, because it's difficult enough getting him to eat anything new as it is; plus we're keeping that one in reserve for the next time he tries to claim the moral high ground just because somebody ordered a fish taco.

Anyway, we all thought about it for a while, and managed to extricate just enough coherent information from the boy to get a handle on his proposal; and we decided yes on the grounds that antlions have to eat too, and it wasn't like anyone was going to be getting their jollies from the Formicidae body count. Furthermore, it would be interesting for me, having always assumed the ant-lion to be the invention of Finnish children's author Tove Jansson. Her ant-lion is a leonine head sticking out of the sand in an illustration in Finn Family Moomintroll. Her ant-lion is caught by Moomintroll, who imprisons him inside a magically transformative top hat, although no-one realises that the top hat has special powers, and everyone is mystified when next day they find that the ant-lion has vanished, seemingly replaced by a quantity of water and a host of creepy crawlies. I don't think I quite realised there really was such a thing as an antlion until I moved to Texas five years ago and began to notice the neat little inverted cones they leave in sandy ground.

Bess sent for some antlions in the mail. We set them up in little plastic bowls with the supplied sand, and Junior retired to his room to continue with the more pressing matter of Minecraft. He'd informed us that ants go into a dormant state at low temperature, and so my wife gathered a few scoops of ant-infested soil from the garden and stored it in the fridge. Every evening she fed sleepy ants to our antlions who had by that point excavated a few half-hearted cones in their sand, but otherwise seemed to be suffering from jetlag.

A weekend came and we went out in search of different species of ant for transportation back to our Guantanamo Fridge of Doom, prior to their introduction to the death zone so that Junior could take notes about who was winning what in evolutionary terms. We drove out to Phil Hardberger Park, trying to ignore the obvious point that ants were likely to be in short supply, it being November. We walked around and failed to find any ants. Bess telephoned a former colleague, a guy from her previous place of employment who, by absurd coincidence, has taken to mapping local parks and wilderness areas in terms of the distribution of flora and fauna. He drove out to meet us and then took us to where he had last seen ants.

'It's a bit cold for them,' he admitted as we continued to draw a series of blanks. 'They're not very active at this time of year.'

We said nothing, and certainly not hey kid, great choice of science project, because it wouldn't have made any difference, and he was already pencilled in for Ant vs. Antlion, and educational scowling would have ensued had he changed his mind. Ultimately it was Byron, his father, who saved the day, bringing plastic tubs of both ants and antlions back from his ranch near Bandera, a little way north-west of the city. We had ants to keep our subjects fed and happy for a while, and the new antlions seemed more vigorous than the finicky pedigree breed we had ordered through the mail. Their little tray of soil was soon studded with inverted cones, and my wife would coo over how cute they seemed as she fed them their evening meal, dropping dozy ants into the traps with a pair of tweezers and watching as tiny jaws snapped away from below. All that was left was for us to find some red harvester ants, to make the card display, and for Junior to think about it and come up with some sort of conclusion. We found red harvester ants out at the Spanish Missions to the south of the city, their nests easily identified by large circles of barren ground around the entrance, usually three or four feet across. Red harvester ants are large by European standards, but fairly docile and oddly amiable. It was hard to keep from feeling a little guilty as we filled our containers, whilst somehow doubting that the distinctly smaller antlions would really be able to subdue these guys.

The day arrives and we duly show up to support our boy at the school basketball court, now turned over to display of science projects made by the children of at least three adjacent grades. Junior hasn't been doing particularly well in science, so we all have fingers crossed hoping this will impress his teacher. Sure enough, the display looks decent, but then it should do given the effort the rest of us have put into that thing.

My wife and I wander around, taking a look at what everyone else has done. The girl next to Junior has been throwing things from a high balcony in order to compare different kinds of parachute material. She has photographs, and my wife's question is answered with a long, long lecture accounting for the complete history of this project and what we are to conclude. The girl's delivery could maybe use a little more enthusiasm, but she nevertheless impresses upon us that she has really engaged with her work. Most of the presentations comprise a kid stood in front of a large sheet of card on which are stuck photographs, diagrams, and short pieces of writing accounting for whatever was under investigation. Sometimes there are also a few relevant props, such as the container of soil with antlions all doing their thing in the case of our boy's submission. Most of the writing seems a little perfunctory. The account given of the toothpaste project is fairly typical of its kind:

I wanted to know whether one type of toothpaste was better than another at whitening your teeth or whether it was just a scam to sell more toothpaste and so I brushed my teeth with different types of toothpaste to see if my teeth were whiter after brushing with one type of toothpaste than with another.

'Yes. I think I understand,' I mutter to myself with uncharitable pleasure, then move on to take a look at the portentously named Optimal Vortex Cannon. The creator of the device is a little younger than our own contestant and is dressed as Magnus Pyke. His invention is a cardboard box with a circular hole cut in one face. You aim this circular hole at a pyramid of styrofoam cups, then slap a hand against the side and air pressure does the rest, scattering the styrofoam cups across the table. For something so simple it's quite impressive, possibly thanks to the theatricality of the project.

Additionally we encounter the boy, the transgender child, who will be returning to school as a girl next term. This development has caught everyone off guard, but thankfully most of us are able to roll with it. I thought he was a girl when I first met him, Bess has told me several times, and I now see her point. Inevitably there are about four or five children who will be starting different schools next term, so as to prevent the homosexual radiation of a small child turning them into faggots - or whatever stupidity it is their mediaevally inclined parents believe. Given that this is a religiously orientated school and that we're in Texas, it seems like the thing to take from this situation is not the existence of parental bigotry, but the fact of the school supporting this child. I watch him - that being his present personal pronoun - telling people about his project, what he's done, and what he has concluded. He is a slight figure. His appearance and mannerisms seem feminine without being necessarily affected. His case may be out of the ordinary, but how anyone could take against such a child for the sake of preserving the sanctity of their own bullshit is beyond my understanding. It might be argued that he's too young to make such decisions, but in this case I'm not convinced.

We meet the science teacher, my wife and myself, and find ourselves reminded of Luschek from Orange is the New Black. He seems enthused about the whole event but will not be drawn on our own proverbial horse or how he's fared in the race. As we leave, we agree that he surely can't have done too bad given that his project at least shows some level of imagination. The research for the toothpaste project has been, by its own testimony, brushing teeth and then looking at the websites of toothpaste manufacturer to see what claims are made of their products.

Next day Bess sets the antlions free in the garden, specifically under the tree in the front yard beyond the reach of the lawn mower. A couple of days later we notice tiny inverted cones scattered around the soil, and it is strangely comforting.

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