Ant Cows

todd and pup

Todd and Pup photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2015)

“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, and exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.” Lewis Thomas

You got that right, Lewis. This year, with five yearling apples trees and five apple trees we revived from near death when we bought this place three years ago, the biggest challenge to our trees is ants and the aphids those ants raise on the clover, so to speak, of the tender apple leaves just now emerging along with the onset of blossoms.

Large apple trees can tolerate mild infestations of aphids and the ants that milk them, but small trees, and especially babies with only a few limbs, can be killed by voracious aphid hordes. There are solutions, organic and non-organic, some less temporary than others, but ants are supremely creative about circumventing efforts to stop them from getting the aphid milk they so highly prize. Thus eternal vigilance is necessary in the fight against their insatiable addiction to sustenance.

Yes, I am anthropomorphizing ants, but that’s because I take their assault on my trees personally, which I should not, but I can’t help it.

“Ants have the most complicated social organization on earth next to humans.” E.O. Wilson

Our neighbors just had a baby, a human baby, and for the next several years they will have to guard their child a thousand times more vigilantly against the exigencies of life than I must guard our apple trees against ants and aphids. A few generations ago this young couple would have had a multi-generational network of family members and neighbors and friends to help them raise their child, what used to be known as human society, but today they will be largely on their own. I intend to make myself available for baby care duty, and I will be happily surprised if they take me up on my offer.

“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.” Abbie Hoffman

Speaking of cows and aphids and ants and society, I want to be excited about Bernie Sanders running for President of the United States, but excitement eludes me. Would it make a difference if I thought Bernie had even the slightest chance of winning? Maybe. Or should it be exciting enough that he will possibly force the debate with Madame Hillary a few notches to the left of right of center? Not really. I’m too old. I’ve seen too many smart people expose the sordid underbelly of the ruling elite only to find that almost no one watching the contest knew they were looking at an underbelly and the thing was sordid.

Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist. That’s kind of exciting, someone running for President of the United States and daring to use the word socialist as a self-descriptor in 2015. On the other hand, by declaring he is a socialist, and given the IQ and emotional development of the average American voter, Bernie might as well have said, “I am a communist and if elected President everyone will live in dire poverty.” Words are tricky, especially in a society of semi-literate people with severely impaired vocabularies.

“Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” Winston Churchill

Ants are socialists. Their incredible success as a species springs from their super socialism. I, too, ideologically speaking, am a socialist, but I am not running for office. However, I have some advice for anyone who is a socialist and thinking about running for elected office: use a different word. Use the word sharer. I am a sharer and believe that sharing our wealth, social responsibilities, and economic opportunities will always provide the most benefits for most of the people all of the time. Or something quotable and broadly unspecific like that.

I was thinking about why socialism, and for that matter sharing and equality, get such a bad rap in America? And while I was pondering this large issue, I read an article about Alexander Guerrero, a young man who defected from Cuba in 2013 and shortly thereafter signed a contract to play baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the enemies of our San Francisco Giants.

The Dodgers signed Guerrero, who arrived from Cuba without a job, to a four-year contract worth twenty-eight million dollars, including a signing bonus of ten million dollars. He has never played Major League Baseball. He is apparently quite the hitter and has already hit two home runs against the Giants, but is seriously iffy in the outfield. And that is when I understood why socialism and sharing and equality get such bad raps in America.

Sharing and equality are not the American Way. All or Nothing is the American way. Rags to riches is the American way. Socialism is complicated and requires work and commitment and diligence and integrity and believing every person in our society is as worthy as anyone else, that we really are equal and should have equal opportunities and be treated equally under the laws of the land.

Most Americans, hearing of a penniless guy showing up from Cuba and being given ten million dollars, do not frown and say, “Wow, that seems crazy. Think how many people could be raised from poverty into a minimally decent life for twenty-eight million dollars.” Most Americans will say, “Damn, why not me?” or “Good for him!”

“One for all, and all for one!” Alexandre Dumas

Back here in the land of non-millionaires, the socialist ants are threatening my apple trees and I am trying not to take it personally. The ants are not doing this out of malice, but from a wise assessment of how to get the most out of a ready source of nourishment. And the better I understand them, the easier it will be to kill them.


Words, Words, Words

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2010)

We are awash in words. Our thoughts are words. We talk with words, we read words, we listen to words. We depend on words to define our reality. And when we hear the same pronouncement often enough, most of us come to believe the pronouncement is fact even if the only proof is repetition.

Shortly after the World Trade Center came tumbling down, a comprehensive national poll revealed that less than one per cent of the American population believed Sadaam Hussein had anything to do with that event. Then the administration of George Bush, speaking through their corporate media, embarked on an all-day-every-day-all-channel campaign of repetition stating briefly and with no corroborating evidence that Sadaam was joined at the hip with Osama Bin Laden and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Six months and ten million repetitions later, a new poll revealed that seventy-nine per cent of the American people believed Sadaam was directly involved in bringing down the twin towers. Repetition of an unfounded lie became general belief.

For a month now this same corporate media has been calling the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico a leak. I think they have intentionally chosen the word leak so we will associate this unprecedented disaster with a dripping faucet. What do you think of when you hear the word leak? Certainly not millions and millions of gallons of oil gushing into the ocean for days and weeks and months on end. Yet even after movies began to appear on television and on the Internet showing the oil gushing from a massive broken pipe, commentators continued to use the word leak. As of this writing, that catastrophic gusher is still being called a leak, with only a few of the more daring journalists using the word spill, which is also inaccurate and inadequate.

Do our overlords think we’re stupid? You bet they do. You may recall some years ago when there used to be occasional news of the war that has never ended in Iraq, commentators and journalists referred to Iraqis killed by American forces as insurgents; a brilliant choice of words for the purposes of propaganda, the word evoking visions of faceless murderers surging out of shadowy alleyways, no? The dictionary defines an insurgent as one who participates in a revolt, otherwise known as a rebel. The soldiers of the Confederacy during the American Civil War were called rebels. But Iraqis battling the invaders of their homeland, as well as noncombatant Iraqis who died in the onslaught, were not honored as rebels or even called Iraqis, but were dehumanized by the term insurgents. Call me naïve, but I believe had the word Iraqis been used in place of the word insurgents, the American public, as stupefied as we are, would have been compelled through those millions of repetitions of the truth (as opposed to the lie) to take action to end the illegal war.

Please note that the word insurgents is now being used to describe citizens of Afghanistan killed by American and NATO invaders; and in a further twist of truth, insurgent is being used interchangeably with the word Taliban, which I predict will soon become a common noun spelled with a lower case t. Talk about reframing reality.

I think it is extremely important to be aware of the intentional misuse of single words in the context of the larger tracts of misinformation that constitute most of our news today. My current favorite misused word is socialism. The dictionary definition of socialism is: a political and economic theory of social organization based on collective ownership and democratic management of the essential means for the production and distribution of goods. A public utility, a worker-owned business, a well-regulated oil industry, a free healthcare system, public education, a system of freeways as opposed to toll roads, these are all facets of socialism. But to hear the pundits bandy the word, they might as well be talking about insurgence.

A lawyer friend regaled me with what she learned at a seminar on how to lead witnesses. A video of a moving car striking a parked car was shown to thirty people. Out of earshot of each other, ten of these witnesses were asked to estimate how fast the car was going when it bumped the parked car. Ten were asked how fast the car was going when it collided with the parked car. Ten were asked how fast the car was going when it smashed into the parked car. The word Bump generally elicited a guess of ten miles per hour, Collide produced guesses of twenty miles per hour, and Smash inspired guesses upward of thirty miles per hour. Same video, different verbs.

Leak. Spill. Gusher.

Insurgent. Iraqi. Patriot.

Contractor. Mercenary. Hired killer.

For decades, my grandmother Goody fought valiantly against the misuse of the word hopefully. Someone would say, “Hopefully it will rain tomorrow,” and Goody would respond, “Hopefully is an adverb. Which verb in your sentence were you hoping to modify?”


“Can it be said that rain falls hopefully? Perhaps you meant to say I am hopeful that it will rain tomorrow.”

Or another person might say, “Hopefully I’ll get the job.”

“Hopefully?” Goody would echo with undisguised irony in her voice. “I fail to see which verb you are attempting to modify?”


“Did you mean to say I hope to get the job, or did you mean to say Should good fortune shine on me I will get the job?”

A year before she died, Goody said to me, “I fear I have lost the battle, but comfort myself that I have at least saved you.”

“I will do my best to carry on the good fight,” I said, smiling hopefully, yet knowing I didn’t stand a chance against the gushers of semi-literate insurgents arising from the ruptured pipes of our once pretty good socialist system of education.

Todd’s novel Under the Table Books won the 2010 Indie Award for Excellence in Literary Fiction, the 2009 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Bronze Award for General Fiction, and the 2010 Bay Area Independent Publishers Association Award for Fiction.