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PAM FRAMPTON: Just another day’s work

Like the leafcutter ant, we all have our burdens to bear… —
Like the leafcutter ant, we all have our workaday pressures, our burdens to bear… — 123RF Stock Photo

“You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” — Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Inside the Newfoundland Insectarium in Reidville, near Deer Lake, the leafcutter ants are fulfilling their biological imperative.

Visible through a glass tube, copper-coloured worker ants hurry in single file across a tree branch toward a cache of leaves in a terrarium. Once they reach their destination, they set upon their task, using strong mandibles to cut out sections of leaf with the precision of an auto-glass technician. Hoisting their cargo on their backs, they head back to the nest in a larger terrarium, where the leaf pieces become compost for their fungi farm. The fungus breaks down the compost, rendering it into a food source the ant larvae can digest.

These creatures, a species of the ant family Formicidae, are highly organized, with groups in the colony assigned to specific tasks: leaf cutting and gathering, keeping the transportation routes clear, guarding the cargo carriers, bearing and caring for the young, weeding the fungi farm, taking out the “trash” from the garden.

We move forward as a group, yet each has his or her own Sisyphean struggle, our own unique imperatives.

The workers rush relentlessly to and from the leaf supply — sometimes, in meeting a worker coming from the opposite direction, having to do that awkward “excuse me,” “no, after you” dance humans used to do in grocery store aisles before COVID-19 — each ant driven to harvest the biggest piece of leaf that it can reasonably carry back to the farm.

In St. John’s, a similar daily ritual unfolds.

Outside Costco at Galway, the human line snakes around the side of the building.

Clusters of shoppers burst triumphantly through the exit doors, pushing their towers of purchased merchandise, while others — waiting with enormous empty carts, rendered anonymous by their COVID-19 masks — lurch forward, staying dutifully between the pylons and inching ever closer to the entrance and the interior.

Inside, the food source awaits, a treasure trove of bulk-sized consumables and other goods: pork shoulders and puncheon tubs of peanut butter, legs of lamb and loins of beef. Massive muffins, each one big enough for a family of four; pies the size of pizzas. And pizza — great slabs of it, heavy with pepperoni and cheese; premade salads slathered with artery-clogging dressings, mesh bags of lemons and limes, quintals of cheese puffs and layer cakes mortared with faux whipped cream. Bags of buns and braces of baguette. Cartons of eggs by the dozen and a half, jugs of juice strapped together in pairs, flats of button mushrooms and passels of peppers. Great wheels of cheese and whole flocks of chickens bronzed on rotisseries, smoked meats and pickled eggs, hot peppers and sides of salmon. Vats of coleslaw and spinach dip, multigrain loaves and farmed fishes.

Given the signal to enter, onward we rush, moving from display to display, filling our carts, gladdened with the knowledge that we can fill our larders and keep our families fed.

We are driven by the desire to insulate our nests and shelter our young, to sustain and fortify ourselves for our interactions in the outside world.

Much like the ants, really.

We move forward as a group, yet each has his or her own Sisyphean struggle, our own unique imperatives.

We work hard to live, struggling day to day, often carrying heavy burdens. And sometimes that work can seem meaningless. It gives us what we need to fulfil our basic needs for survival, but are we happy?

What is happy? What is the meaning of life? Is it merely producing and nurturing the next generation? Do we work to live or live to work?

Would the world collapse if I didn’t cut leaves and bring them back to the farm for one dammed day?

Oops — sorry. My apologies.

This is getting way too heavy.

Maybe next week I’ll shop downtown.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s managing editor. Email [email protected] Twitter: pam_frampton


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