The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 anthology featured Nautilus’s story, “Ants Go Marching,” originally published in the “In Transit” issue. For that story, Nautilus had asked writer Justin Nobel to embark on the journey through the American South tracing the footsteps of the ultimate insect traveler—the fire ant. In his quest to watch the pests build their unsinkable rafts and float down the Cumberland River, Nobel got on a riverboat, where, fueled by the vivid ambiance of the South, his imagination ran wild, leading to the story’s narrative.
An article about fire ants can be written easily enough from the comfort of an office, and many have. But to hit the road brings elements unknown into the piece. You never know what you are going to find out there, and it is in that unknown that the best material often arises. I really don’t like to know too much about the topic I am reporting on before I hit the road; I dig in a little, but then I lay off. If I know all the spots to go to before leaving home there wouldn’t be much reason to go. When Nautilus commissioned my “Ants Go Marching” article, I decided to make it into a travel story. The geographic points of interest became the beginning point, namely Mobile, Alabama, where the ants first were unloaded, and the end point somewhere in northern Tennessee, a place that represented the farthermost march of the ants.
The beginning point was easy, Mobile is Mobile, go to Mobile and go to the docks. But how to get to the end point? That is where the wandering came in. Once I learned that the ants could build rafts and float down rivers, and that countless fire ant colonies had indeed been picked up by the swollen Cumberland River during the Nashville floods of May 2010, I became obsessed with getting on the river, no matter what shape that would take, the weirder the better. Build my own raft? Hire some hobo to row me downriver in a craft of logs a la Huck Finn? Float myself down pretending to be a fire ant colony?
Vigorous Google searches led me to the website of the General Jackson Showboat, which plied the Cumberland twice daily with an assortment of gaudy entertainers, including the locally famous “Steve Hall and the Shotgun Red Show.” Steve was an iconic obese jovial musical comedian who had been playing riverboats for much of his life, and Shotgun Red was his creepy old wisecrack puppet. Their act had absolutely nothing to do with ants, but the General Jackson presented a wonderful opportunity to get on the river and look for some ants, or at least talk to the passengers, and ideally the entertainers too, about ants.
I didn’t need to search the river for a fire ant raft, I realized, I was already on one!
I drove to Opryland, where from a pier located behind a massive mall the General Jackson Showboat departs, and bought a ticket. Almost immediately I noticed that a significant proportion of the other passengers were in wheelchairs or had walkers, and I think it was then that it struck me just how ridiculous it was to be looking for fire ants on this geriatric showboat. But sure enough when I started asking around about fire ants, people were well aware of the hellish creatures. “I tried to drown them,” a genteel woman named Peggy told me. She lived with her husband on a 52-acre plot of land in Cleveland, Georgia. “Seems to me like they wouldn’t hardly drown!” In the end this actually was a pretty useful bit of information, because it further crystallized the idea forming in my head that fire ants turned even the most kind-hearted people, such as these peachy retirees, into cold-hearted murderers.
Once on board the General Jackson I hung out by the railing and watched kite-tailed swallows swoop down to nab insects off the surface of the swiftly flowing brownish-gray river, the color of weak gas station coffee. Many of the other passengers were inside at the buffet and getting ready for the “Steve Hall and the Shotgun Red Show,” but my main aim was to find some floating ant colonies. I scanned the riverboat’s foaming wake for signs of ant rafts to no avail, and then I distinctly remember a point, and this happens often when I’ve been out in the field for a while on a big story, where my imagination took over. I didn’t need to search the river for a fire ant raft, I realized, I was already on one! And so I quickly set about sifting my way through the myrmecological masses to find the Queen.
Inside a large theater in the center of the raft, I did. As hundreds of worker ants gorged themselves on cheddar cheese mashed potatoes and beef tips, a cadre of performer ants blared away on stage under magenta lights. There was a fiddler ant, a banjo-playing ant, and a wonderful voluptuous singer ant in a red, sequined blouse and bejeweled sandals. One of the ant musicians was blind, and apparently would be getting married later that day. In the middle of this group was the queen, dressed like a magician. He had an engorged abdomen (presumably filled with eggs), a mustache, a mullet, and a giant red face rife with chins. Later his puppet ant, Shotgun Red, appeared on stage and started telling jokes about Dolly Parton.
After the show I caught up to the Queen on the aft deck; he was trying to hawk merch to children ants. Here the hallucination abruptly ended and the Queen ant simply became the riverboat entertainer Steve Hall again. I asked him what it was like to perform on water. “This boat is about a football field long, four stories high, and holds 1,200 people,” he said. “When I first got on here I noticed the river all the time, but now unless I look out the window I don’t notice anything.” Steve had done over 6,000 shows on the boat. I asked him if he had ever spotted fire ant rafts on the Cumberland. Nope, raccoons and bald eagles and ducks yes, but no ants.
However, Steve’s voluptuous singer Jennifer Bruce knew all about the ants. “I have them in my backyard!” she exclaimed. “I think there’s a whole colony around there.” I cheerfully jotted notes. The absurd trip perhaps had some redeeming value after all. Of course, while I was dawdling away my time on the General Jackson speaking to riverboat musicians, a fearsome colony of fire ants was hastily constructing a mega-mound right in my backyard back in New Orleans. Just when I was starting to be put off by my own species and feel some sympathy for the ants, I too would be forced to become a cold-hearted insect murderer. How sad, that we and the ants are doomed to fight each other with our respective weapons.
Justin Nobel’s stories about science and culture have appeared in Time, Orion, and Tin House. Among other projects, he is currently working on a book of tales about the weather. He lives in New Orleans. @JustinNobel