Rarely, does one read short fiction with an eye towards the natural world and science. Not only do short stories (and fiction in general) shy away from the world beyond people, but they also tend to avoid large tracts of time. How much time can be used in fifteen to twenty-five pages? E.O. Wilson demonstrates that the rise and fall of a civilization can be described well within that page range. His story, “Trailhead,” magnifies the minuscule with the telling of the delicate beginnings and desperate ending of the Trailhead Colony.
What makes this story unique is how Wilson is able to portray the ants in a way which people can identify. We see the start of the colony. The Queen as mother to all as she, “laid a small cluster of eggs on the earthen floor.” The newest colony members are described as pioneers, and “guided entirely by instinct, because no one existed to teach them, set out to forage for food.” Perhaps, a reason this story resonates well is that it plays into American notions of pioneering, work ethic, survival, and exploration. In a hostile environment, full of unknowns, the ants have only themselves on which to depend.
Not only is this a well written, compelling story, but it’s one that teaches. The lives of ants are described, how they interact, communicate, feed, and reproduce. Also, the reader sees the ants in different times of their lives. Imagine a time lapse video that details the start of the colony, the boom years as their civilization expands, the decline as the Queen grows weak, chaos as she dies and soldier ants evolve reproductive organs to try to carry on the colony, and last of all collapse as a rival colony senses weakness and invades.
To learn more about E.O. Wilson and his work, click here.