The World as We Know It...in which Uncle Duke makes a mess


I have been moving a fair number of potted plants around of late. It is that time of year. Plants need washing and repotting in preparation for moving indoors. It is a dreary process in that it is a precursor to Winter, and each year I dread the act more and more. Primarily because I cannot see the end of Winter from where I stand. It looms Large in front of me. But also, I have too many plants. I like them all and refuse to sacrifice any of them. But there are not enough windows for all of them. So, many of them are warehoused in the basement and asked to survive the long winter on fluorescent lighting and intermittent watering. “No-o-o,” they wail, as I take them down the stairs. “Not THE BASEMENT!!”

In truth, that is the only reason I would ever consider moving to Florida or Arizona or one of those boring states without change of Seasons. You can leave your potted plants out all year long. The sun will still be directly over their little heads and will keep their leaves and roots warm enough even in January.

But then I would not feel the absolute joy of taking them out again in April. Of liberating them, of feeling the warm winds blow, the days getting longer and the hummers and butterflies returning. I would not see them reaching up and going full-throttle green in that first week, allowing the rain to wash the dust off their leaves. No, they would not breath so deeply and smile so sublimely if they didn’t spend those long winters in my bleak basement.

But more to the point, my supply of empty pots is outside on the ground. When I go to pick one up, I find it invariably houses a colony of ants. And not just a couple of dozen or so ants either. This is not a casual cluster, a remote outpost, a scouting party. This is an Ant Metropolis. This is a swirling army of thousands of them. Tiny, but hardly insignificant little arthropods. This is a Hong Kong of miniscule ants. An Inca Empire of ants.

They have come to live here because these red clay pots are, in ant parlance, solid and indestructible. They are storm shelters, mighty fortresses, tall temples that will provide for a lifetime of shade and cool temperatures, protection from enemies and the freedom to move their progeny and their provisions, to stack and organize and rearrange their stores. It is the perfect ant world. This is Ant Nirvana, and they had planned to live here for generation upon generation. ’Til the sun died out and the stars went dark. ’Til the moon fell out of the sky. This was Home

So they are taken by surprise as I lift ‘Home’ from the ground, expose them to the bright sunlight. I rip the roof from their world, and they are immediately in full panic mode. The homes and the nurseries they have been building and maintaining for months, perhaps years, the nests they considered a permanent heritage, are torn asunder. They go into full-emergency mode, rushing and scrambling about to save themselves. In their shocked state, they race from side to side, up and around the pot, over my fingers and up my wrists. They bite me as they move, but I do not object. They are small and weak, and I understand how irritable you can be when your world is collapsing.

Many of them, the ones who have been obviously chemically programmed and genetically assigned these tasks, are climbing and clambering to collect their eggs sacs, to take those future generations to a safe space. But programming aside, it is a world in pandemonium as they rush and swirl about. It is a society in chaos. A civilization in disarray.

And I look down on them, and I am the face of some benevolent or malevolent god. They do not know which. And I do not either at this point. And in fact it does not matter. My big, human mug is perched above their World, and I am the face of God. I am at this moment the instrument of their demise. I am the mechanism of their downfall.

And it is curious moment. I am a semi-sorta-Buddhist. A practitioner of Zen, a sentient being in-training, attempting to pay attention, on a day-to-day basis, to a world much bigger but also much smaller than I have any understanding. And I feel terrible that I have caused this devastation. I had no intention of disrupting their World. I realize I am in effect a human Godzilla. I am Smaug the Destroyer, ‘The Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities’, unaware of my own strength, appearing out of nowhere and tearing apart the lives of all these ants—uprooting an entire civilization. I am an erupting volcano, engulfing an Empire of Ants. I am an immense and unbridled storm, taking off the tops of mountains. I am a meteor come out of nowhere, flung indiscriminately and crushing a thriving nation of ants who steadfastly believed that their world would last forever. I am the earthquake prophesized from ancient times. I am The End of Times.

And from nowhere, I think of the Arawak and the Aztec peoples staring out at those massive sailing ships which one day appeared out on the waters. They were unaware that their World had changed permanently. It was a World that had consisted of the Land, Themselves and their Gods. They were now staring at a fourth entity--The Other. And everything was about to change. The Wise Ones knew that, I think. Nothing would ever be the same again. Their days in the sun, as Masters of their Own Destiny, were over.

To the ants, I am The Other. The God of Destruction.

And I think of the City of St. Louis and Lafayette Square on May 27, 1896, watching the barometers drop and the swirling storm clouds gather. I see them perhaps closing windows and taking wash off the lines, not knowing that entire homes, churches, blocks, bridges and neighborhoods would soon be devastated, disassembled and redistributed, mile after mile, across rivers and state lines.

Moments later, the storm passed, the sun would be shining brightly. And piled around them would be lifetimes of money and possessions and countless years of hard work. Brick, wood, plaster and concrete were now mounded unevenly, jaggedly on the ground. All that Victorian Order and precise Horticulture had been bushwhacked by a meteorological anomaly. They would rush around to save lives as they could, to retrieve what they could. But for the most part, the deed was done. Nature had super-imposed Her Will, and the Lives that they had known were behind them.

To this Colony, I am Nature, my will imposed.

And I think of the burning of the Reichstag building in Berlin on February 27,1933. Although the cause of the fire was unknown, Hitler blamed the Communists. And the day after the fire, he issued two decrees that suspended personal freedoms and also legalized the arrest of Communists and other ‘political opponents’ of the Nazis. Three days after that, the Reichstag Party passed the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler and his cabinet the power to imprison anyone they deemed an ‘enemy of the state’.

The futures of millions of innocents ended that day. Without their knowledge or understanding, there began a process that would lead to the systematic elimination of masses of people. The brilliant and the average, the talented and the ordinary, the wealthy and the destitute. It began with a vote. It began with a few signatures. But only shortly prior to that, it had begun with a series of intentional lies.

And I stand over this ant world that I’ve interrupted, and I apologize for the disruption. I am not Hitler, I know, but I feel bad nonetheless. “It was not my intention,” I say regretfully. “I have big hands. Big feet. I am clumsy and awkward and take up more space than I need.” I try to make amends. “I have other pots,” I offer. “You keep this one.” But I realize that replacing the pot would not fix anything. The damage is done.

But I suddenly realize that these ants have been around since the Jurassic after all. And they cooperate far better than we Humans have ever been able to. So, they know how to rebuild, I decide. I leave the ants with the havoc and mayhem I have inadvertently caused. I absolve myself of these unintended consequences and go back to my plants.

There are indeed calamities every day, some of which we cause and some of which are visited randomly upon us. We are all of us on the brink of a disaster of one sort or another. We just don’t know what kind. Or where it will come from. Or the scale. Or how long it will last.

And in truth, none of us really have a permanent ‘Home’ here. I convince myself, as the Buddha would likely have done if I had listened well enough, that all our ’Homes’ are temporary. It is all part of a revolving and changing and temporary world. In the end, we are all just renters here.