"Trailhead" by E.O. Wilson Originally published in the January 25, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.
E.O. Wilson, at 80, is just about to publish his first novel, Anthill, and this short story is either an excerpt or a summation of it. However, Wilson is not new to the publishing world — or to the ant world. His book The Ants, written with Bert Hölldobler, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991.
When I started this story I had already read Colette and Kevin’s comments below (unimpressed by the story), and I also read it knowing that Wilson is a famous biologist. I think, therefore, that I was pleasantly surprised. It was much better than I expected — indeed, it is my favorite piece of “fiction” so far this year, though it’s not really “fiction” like we think. It’s much more a dramatization of an ant colony.
The story begins with the death of the queen ant:
While humans and other vertebrates have an internal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone. Hence the workers were at first unaware of their mother’s death. Her quietude said nothing, and the odors of her life, still rising from her, signaled, I remain among you. She smelled alive.
The story then goes back a bit to when the queen was inseminated and began this colony with just a few small ant children, who were small and few by biological necessity. We read about the processes of building and then the destruction of the colony when the queen is dead. Honestly, I was enthralled throughout. I never knew ants could be so fascinating. There is a lot going on under foot.