Nearly every tree I walk by here looks as though it had died once or twice at its thick core, and then came back anew. Between the scattered grassy plants, some with tiny purple blossoms, and the half-buried shards of sun-splintered xylem, I find more ants and ant nests than I’ve ever seen. Some patrol the blooming mesquite limbs among noisy bees, but most rush around the gaping mouths to their cavernous strongholds.


The following are ten studies of ant nest openings which withstood the monsoon rains long enough into June to be drawn and remembered. These are records of quiet spaces the ants and I shared.

Each hole was viewed from two feet above ground level. Using a digital compass, the north side of each hole was marked with a numbered pebble, and the top-center of every drawing was aligned with due North. The original ballpoint pen drawings show the ant holes at life-size, with funnels averaging about 6 x 6 inches. The coordinates recorded at each hole mark the site of the temporary architecture.


Created as the first artist-in-residence at the Genius Loci Foundation riparian preserve, between Catalina State Park and the Coronado National Forest. 2015.


32°27’34.73” N, 110°53’11.16” W
6.8.15 @ 6:30pm
Aphaenogaster albisetosa

The dark red ants are large, but very tolerant. They don’t seem to mind me crouched in their space, hovering over them. Even when they eventually climb up my legs, these ants don’t bite. They only attack if I bump a twig or pebble of theirs.


32°27’34.69” N, 110°53’11.02” W
6.18.15 @ 5:37pm
Aphaenogaster albisetosa

These are inside-out mountains; backward sundials. They all belong to Aphaenogaster albisetosa, spine-waisted myrmicine ants. 


32°27’34.38” N, 110°53’11.08” W
6.20.15 @ 7:49pm
Aphaenogaster albisetosa

Yesterday afternoon I walked out to the wash in the unusually thick air under a blinding overcast sky. Couldn’t smell the creosote I’m used to, but caught a different resinous smell adrift. The finer sand near the wash was still damp from the night’s light rains, and the trees there smelled active. Hopped a few feet down into the wash, careful not to collapse the fragile layers of undercut earth. Found an enclosed area where the wash changed directions, and I felt like I was in a room, outside, sunken below ground level.


32°27’33.54” N, 110°53’10.74” W
6.27.15 @ 6:05pm
Aphaenogaster albisetosa

Dug into the southeast side of a small hill, this cavity reminds me of a hangar. A much simpler slit-like hole for quick, amber-colored ants with square heads sits a foot above and to the right. The two groups are not fighting, but appear to be keeping each other in check. I’ve watched some standoffs; two ambers near the mouth of the others’ cave are surrounded by a group of Aphaenogasters with mandibles spread and ready.


32°27’32.39” N, 110°53’11.70” W
6.25.15 @ 7:29am
Aphaenogaster albisetosa

This morning’s damp air is already gone, but these caverns remain dank inside. The ants have given the ground airways. As I sit in copper-rich soil, I hear cicadas begin their metallic calls. 


32°27’32.61” N, 110°53’11.13” W
6.24.15 @ 6:35pm
Aphaenogaster albisetosa

Breezy today. Clouds drifted off about an hour ago. A large creaky mesquite, full of holes, is making noises. Wind plucks at the branches over a patch of coppery grasses. I regret looking toward the sun because I see a blue blur as I squint into this dark dwelling. Ants start pouring out in droves once the sun dips below the dense trees to the West. A cool breeze follows, as if the sun punched open an air-hole in its descent.


32°27’33.75” N, 110°53’10.27” W
6.28.15 @ 7:53am
Aphaenogaster albisetosa

The ants’ caves are shape-shifters with the changing light. Those drawn in the morning appear to change dimensions in the evening, but flatten-out when the sun is overhead. The long cliffs flanking this nest are made visible by the shadows cast by the morning sun coming in from my right, but would be hidden in the evening light coming in from my left.


32°27’34.93” N, 110°53’9.56” W
6.26.15 6:49pm
Aphaenogaster albisetosa

It was beautiful this morning. The soil was still cool and wet. The more frequent rains have been collapsing the cavern mouths.

About two hours ago a billowy, white cloud plumed over the mountains, and it has since been smeared in layers thick and thin, opposite the setting sun. As I sit here facing this ant nest with the glowing mountains over my right shoulder, I am gradually bathed in soft, warm light– a tarnished silver cloak. Far-off thunder echoes over the mountains.


32°27’33.91” N, 110°53’10.25” W
6.29.15 @ 8:22am
Aphaenogaster albisetosa

This late into the morning, the sun is baking any remnants of moisture out of the ground. As the sunlight intensifies and shadows grow shorter, the ants move closer into the funnel of their dwelling, tightening their orbits until they’ve disappeared into their cool tunnels for the day.


32°27’35.63” N, 110°53’10.35” W
6.30.15 @ 11:37am
Aphaenogaster albisetosa

A morning rain cleared out just minutes ago. I found this cave to be one of the few not washed away. This one sits slightly raised so water runs away from the openings. 

The sky is one big, white void. The sun is on the other side, somewhere overhead. The heat is climbing back up and bringing humidity. In this intense midday light, it’s hard to see the funneled mouth surrounding the small dark nostrils. So I sit here with an umbrella in hand, sharing some shade with the ants so I can see more of their home.

The spine of the book can be slid out, allowing it to be unfolded and viewed as an accordion book.