I have been a gardener for five years.

In all five years, I’ve never had a successful harvest.

Year one, I lost everything to drought before I had my watering system set up. Year two, it was an aggressive tomato blight. Year three, I have no excuse other than my plants lost their will to live around August 11. Year four, it was me against one fat woodchuck.

The woodchuck won.

So I shouldn’t have had my hopes up so high when I started my garden this spring. And I shouldn’t have been surprised when my garden became overcome by a community of bugs, mildews, blight, and drought.

I pulled up one of my dried, brown-speckled sunflowers by the roots. It gave easily.

For a moment, silence.

Then, I was overtaken by ants.


Written first as a song in 1992 by Phillip Hoose and his then nine-year-old daughter, Hannah, Hey, Little Ant is a rhyming dialogue staged beneath a kid’s upraised shoe. The song became a picture book illustrated by Debbie Tilley and published by Tricycle Press six years later, where it was perfectly timed to make it onto my childhood bookshelf. There, among Tacky the Penguin and There’s a Rumble in the Jungle, the children’s book sat, with a kid’s big nose, glasses, and bowl cut staring down a red ant balancing precariously on a stick.

The first verses of the book (by memory) are:

(Kid:) Hey, little ant, down in that crack
Can you see me? Can you talk back?
See my shoe, can you see that?
Well, now it’s gonna squish you flat!

(Ant:) Please, oh, please, do not hurt me
Change your mind and let me be
I’m on my way home with a crumb of pie
Please don’t hurt me, don’t make me die.

Oh, and the song goes on, too, in a morbidly catchy way. I can still sing the whole thing.


I’m sometimes referred to in terms of the artfully backhanded compliment “She wouldn’t/couldn’t hurt a fly.” Empirical evidence suggests otherwise.

I looked at all those ants in my garden.

I clenched my teeth and stomped.

I stomped, powered by a rage fueled by five years of failure. For every hundred ants I squashed, a hundred more replaced them. They covered the four half-alive sunflowers stalks from top to bottom, pulsing over my shrunken bean plants and wriggling over the fallen cherry tomatoes. They dove in and out of the holes in my gardening Crocs.

See my shoe, can you see that?

Abruptly, I stopped, foot still raised.

Ants continued to flutter out from under me in webs. I flicked a straying ant away as it crawled up my leg. I studied its downward arc, the abdomen, thorax, head, and was eaten up by my guilt—first my heart then my head—as it shuddered before rejoining the masses.


My cousin, Julianne, fought cancer for a whole year before passing away. She was nineteen.

For hours, she would lay on her stomach and watch as colonies moved and ants brought home food. I never remember seeing her do it, but then, my attention to detail was never as good as hers.

At her funeral, Proverbs 6:6 was read.

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise.”

We chuckled through our tears then, but still. Julianne considered the ants like she annotated her books, like she loved her sisters, like she laughed at my bad jokes: deeply, with an unwavering kindness I can’t begin to convey.


It must have been full colonies of ant lives I snuffed out that day before I froze, and that jerk Phillip Hoose and his song started playing in my head.

(Ant:) I can see you’re big and strong
Decide for yourself what’s right and wrong
If you were me and I were you
What would you want me to do?

(You sluggard.)1

I don’t get the creepy-crawlies easy. But it was either the guilt of knowing my murderous heart or feeling Julianne’s disappointment or the ants parading around in my armpits that made me shiver. Five years—for no lack of trying or prolific sluggardness—I lost hours of my time and energy to brown-spotted tomatoes and leggy broccoli I can’t even convince myself to eat. The ants were doing a better job at storing their provisions in summer and gathering their food at harvest than I ever had, while here I was in a rage. Who was I to cheat them out of a meal—I mean, why not the fat woodchuck come back for round two while we’re at it?—but then again, who were they to ruin everything I’ve worked for?

So I stood there, foot still at a right angle ready to stomp.

(Narrator): Should the ant get squished? Should the ant go free?
It’s up to the kid not up to me—
We’ll leave that kid with the raised up shoe
What do you think that kid should do?


1Not in the original text, but was sort of implied.

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