from CBC Sunday Edition, November 18, 2012
I heard the thumping from far off—I was upstairs in my office, unpacking a box. The sound became banging; staggered, stopped, started. Slowly the ruckus asserted itself into the word hammer, and I remembered my kid was on the first floor, a five-year-old boy who loves the physics of destruction. I rushed down the stairs to find him with the hammer in his hand—and a hundred holes in the brand-new living room drywall.
He shrunk with his back to that wall as I yelled, “Timo! What did you do that for?”
As his eyes swept over the damage, he regained his confidence and coined a new word, “I am deconstructioning it.”
“Why? Why are you deconstructioning it?”
He looked at me with a touch of pity. How could his own mother not know? “Because I am interested,” he said simply. Infuriatingly. But the bottom fell out of my anger. His answer is the explorer’s answer. And the scientist’s. And the curious child’s.
Curiosity was the boon of my childhood. In the chaotic household where I grew up, there was never any question about the animals I collected. They were not large, so perhaps my mother, judging that they would escape or be stepped on soon enough, never put up an argument. She welcomed the stream of frogs, lizards, salamanders, ant colonies, mice, rabbits, injured birds. So, when I want to lock my son in his room to keep him from exploding another baking soda and vinegar bomb in the (new) kitchen or dropping various objects off the third floor balcony, I remind myself that my early sense of freedom has allowed me to have the adventurous and ever-interested life I have had, and continue to have.
One sunny day, he disappears. But I am not worried. I spy him in the empty lot beside the house, playing in the mud puddles, and killing ants. He has been killing a lot of ants lately, the large dark slow-moving ones that I especially like. The more I discourage him from this activity, the more ants he steps on, or bounces balls on, or runs over with his toy trains. Physics again: speed, energy, deconstruction.
Presently he runs into the kitchen, face flushed, covered in dirt, his fist tightly closed around some new treasure. “Ama! I found a million ants! Together in the dirt. Come and see, Ama, there are so many ants and they are doing something with these white things!” he opens his fistful of dirt to reveal small white pellets. “Will stones grow out of these?”
“What do you mean?”
“Aren’t these stone seeds?”
“Timo, stones don’t come from seeds.”
“Then what are these things?”
“They’re ant eggs. They will hatch open, and baby ants will come out.”
In response, his face opens too, alters as he grasps another extraordinary fact. “These are eggs?”
“Yes. They are eggs.” The dirt falls between his dirty fingers onto the floor I just washed.
His silence is that of apprehension and awe; it is also the pulse of the practical, which for him belongs to the same world, the same wonder. “Can we eat these eggs?” He asks as though he is famished.
“No. They’re too little. Though in many countries, people do eat ant eggs, and other insects. Some people eat ants.” To discourage him, I add, “But I don’t think they taste very good if they’re not fried up.”
“Amaaaa . . . ” I know that tone; I remember using it. “Amaaa. Can I bring some of the ants home to live with us? And some of the eggs?”
If you want to keep ants alive and working without their queen, you need to have some eggs for them to tend to. You need the promise of life to sustain life. I learned that as a nine year old in love with insects. Even as I silently list the reasons to deny him his request, and imagine the mess that will come, even as part of my mind says No, you cannot bring the ants home, I open a cupboard door and tell him to get a shovel. It’s wonderful: he’s becoming interested in biology as well as physics. Somewhere in here, I have an empty two gallon jar, the perfect container for his first ant colony.