It’s a perfect day for a “bummel.” I’ve been enmeshed in housework and bill paying for the past few days, and I haven’t been able to visit the farm. One embarks on a “bummel” for exploration, and although you won’t find “bummel” in the dictionary, the term comes from a classic German tale depicting three friends who decide they need a change. So they sling their legs over the pommel and take a bicycle ride through the Black Forest seeing the sights and meeting unforgettable characters along the way. I’ve always liked the word bummel; it’s a word I enjoy rolling around in my thoughts when I dream of searching for birds’ nests, wading up a creek, or watching flyers through the binoculars.
This day’s bummel is for slowly walking and observing, so I gather the daypack, binoculars, walking staff, journal, and my new camera and drive the short distance from the old farmhouse, where we live now, to the farm we bought last month. The Jeep slides easily into four-wheel drive. It rambles along the edge of the fallow alfalfa field and stops just before the lichen covered oak branches begin to touch the Jeep’s roof. Skookum, my male griffon, is circling frenetically in the back of the Jeep as Ouzel, our female griffon, waits patiently with her head out the window. She scents the air for quail and listens for the ground squirrel’s warning cry, and she prepares to fall upon the rodent as soon as the Jeep’s door opens.
As always I release each dog from the rig by saying its name. “Skookum,” I whisper and he bounds into the undergrowth and heads toward the creek. “Ouzel,” I say, and she’s quick on his heels. Their rush snaps twigs and scatters songbirds. I follow behind at a slower pace along the well-worn mule trail as it winds through the leafy oaks.
I gingerly pick my way down the steep embankment to the creek. It’s July and the run off irrigation from the cherry farm next door keeps Mule Creek running year round. My tall rubber boots are great for crossings and work well to protect my ankle and calf in case I catch a western rattlesnake unaware as I move through our fields.
Up the dusty bank across the creek, it feels good to be moving confidently again after taking a disastrous fall just six months earlier while hiking a winter trail in Alaska. It was Christmas Eve- two hours before serving Bruce’s favorite holiday dinner, seared prime rib beef with mashed potatoes, and I walked through a large puddle hiding a solid sheet of ice. Since I thought I was walking through a water puddle, I was walking fast and talking excitedly about our move to Oregon; I catapulted head-first and hit hard like a terrified cat slamming into a brick wall. The crash landed me, for the first time in my life, in the hospital and required surgery and implanted hardware to reconstruct the shattered wrist. Unfortunately something went wrong in the surgery, and the tendon controlling my thumb was severed. So, I was back in the hospital two weeks later to have the tendon reconnected. The thought of falling again fills me with a chill even on this hot July day, so I step carefully and firmly grasp the black handle of the walking stick.
The mule trail continues and meanders through a meadow sprinkled with wooly lupine, one of many lupine wildflower species found in the Columbia River Basin. The pale blue “wooly” blooms later than its bright blue common cousin, and the tapered star pattern leaves are covered in a soft down giving the plant a ghostly presence.
Soon the trail enters a grove of towering Ponderosa pine, and I notice one of the magnificent trees is dead – a needle-less snag as tall as its neighbors, but quite dead. Or is it? A huge section of bark has fallen away. The swirling patterned sheet lies resting on a mound of cornmeal-like dust, and ants are all over the ground and cover the bark on the tree. Ouzel is standing near me, eager to see if anything I’m doing might bring her food; the ants begin crawling up her legs. Startled and disoriented, she starts biting and licking her fur—all prospects of food forgotten– and races off through the woods.
From behind the bark I can hear a distinct –bang, bang, bang—as though a large woodpecker is somehow wedged between the bark and the cambium. Is it possible a woodpecker could be inside the tree? Perhaps a nest, but the rhythmic banging sounds all over the bark. The woodpecker holes I see are distinctly old and several are delicately stranded with cobwebs.
The tree appears to be an enormous ant colony. Are the ants making the banging noise as they move through hundreds of tunnels made in the bark?
Wait — one of the holes shows a flurry of activity. One ant after another carries a small piece of wood balanced in its mandibles. The worker ant drops the excavated piece over the lip of the hole- much like throwing a rock over a cliff, and the particle falls to the base of the tree adding to the mounds of dust material already piled there. It’s incredible to imagine a million ants working on this tree to carve tunnels in the wood.
Though the ants are crawling up my black boots, I periodically swipe them to the ground and note the pungent smell of formic acid each ant releases when I touch it.
I’m tempted to tear the bark off the tree to see what’s underneath, but I feel guilty. I’m hesitant to destroy their home just to satisfy my curiosity.
I remember I have a Ziplock bag partially filled with dry dog food, so I take out handfuls and place some on the ground near the base of the tree and two more handfuls in the bark crevices. Within seconds the ants begin overwhelming the pieces of dog food. Perhaps at first they are rushing to combat the enemy and quickly discover they have been dropped food from the sky. This moment reminds me of the scene in Edward O Wilson’s novel Anthill when a family comes to picnic beside an ant colony. The ants perceive great shadows, like moving trees, passing around the colony minutes before discovering pieces of food abandoned by the picnickers. It’s remarkable how quickly ants can find food within a few feet of their home.
It’s also impressive how effective the ants are in climbing up my boots, across my pants, over my blouse, and to my ball cap where I spy a few walking upside down across the cap’s visor. Are these worker ants foraging or soldier ants looking to start a fight? There’s nothing for me to do but wipe down my hat and clothes and back away from the tree. The bark continues to beat with a rhythmic bang, and I wonder which of the over 8000 species of ants this might be, and what exactly is creating the banging sound?
Back at home I immediately search the Internet to try and identify my ant, but finding it is difficult. The web pages all seem related to pest control companies. I’m also unable to find any description of banging ant trees. I’d like to ask the world’s expert on ants Edward O Wilson, but that’s not likely to happen. My clothes are still smelly from the ants I brushed aside hours earlier, and a lone soldier falls out of my bra as I discard it to enter the shower.
How the little black and brown ant one quarter of an inch long could collectively make so much noise remains a mystery to me, one that perhaps I cannot solve. Though solving the mysteries is not necessarily the joy in a successful bummel.