The Curious (and Marvelous) Case of the Ants and Elaisomes

Excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, Born in the Graveyard of the World, about growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during the Cold War.  In the 1950s, Oak Ridge was the primary site for enriching the uranium used in atomic bombs.  


The road was full of red ants carrying mysterious white spheres which, by ant standards were huge, roughly a third as large as the ants themselves.  Some of the ants seemed to lurch and struggle mightily as they bore their burdens from the woods next to the Summerfield house, down the length of the long driveway, across both lanes of Wendover Circle and down a grassy embankment at the edge of Walton Lane.  

My husband and I stopped to observe them in their immense journey. "What are those white spheres they're carrying?" my husband asked. "Eggs, maybe?" I ventured.  My husband shrugged.  We watched for a few more minutes and then, mystery still unsolved, continued walking. 

Photo from Botany Blog,

The next day, I was at the McClung Museum looking at an exhibit of photographs by Alan S. Heilman.  Before the age of digital cameras, Mr. Heilman was taking exquisitely detailed and revealing photographs of flowers, cones, fungi and lichen, tree bark, mosses and sundry other natural objects with old fashioned box cameras and film. 

It was while reading the explanatory note accompanying his photo of white trillium (my favorite wild flower) that I unexpectedly learned what the ants I'd seen the day before were carrying.  They were carrying 'elaisomes'  

Elaisomes are little spheres of lipids and proteins manufactured by plants as a sort of seed case.  They make dandy insect food and the ants and trillium have evolved a mutually beneficial relationship. 

When the trillium elaisomes are mature and fall, the adult ants harvest and take them home  to their developing larvae, which devour the fat and protein rich seed cases but leave the stripped seeds intact.  Later, when feeding is over, the tidy ants clean up the mess, sweeping the debris outside and laboriously carrying the discarded seeds far away from the nest.  Sometimes these tiny inadvertent trillium farmers even bury the seeds.

"What a subtle and marvelous scheme!" I thought. 

I was the only person in the exhibit hall and as I stood alone in the cool silence of the dim light reading about elaisomes, I couldn't help but marvel at the synchronous improbability of my having pondered the riddle of ants and mysterious white spheres one day and receiving an unsought, explanatory missive from the universe the next.

How curious the universe is, I thought.  And how evident that it communicates with intention.  And I wondered what the real message of the ants would ultimately be and when it would finally be revealed to me. 

For the next few days, the ants and elaisomes niggled at my brain, not on the front burner, but in the background, as I made my customary rounds, doing laundry, cooking, and grocery shopping.  

It was when I was idly lollygagging in a grocery aisle at Kroger's, checking out items in the marked down for quick sale bin, when the full message was suddenly and unexpectedly revealed, as if in a flash, without warning.  

"That's it!," I thought. 

And immediately, without warning, elastic time snapped like a taut rubber band and I was pitching backwards through nearly sixty years passed.  A memory long buried surfaced and I was no longer an old woman in a grocery aisle but a wee little girl, sitting with elbows propped on a gray formica table, chin in hands, eyes wide and fixed, hypnotized by the feverish activity between two clear glass panels in a green plastic frame. 

Daddy had brought home an ant farm!  

When I first started composing (about ten years ago) I had an ancient Lindeman Grand Piano in my living room. Lindemans were the second piano company in the U.S. The first U.S. piano manufacturer was Chickering. Back then, I composed a little set of pieces call "Animal Dances for Vintage Piano." Ants at the Picnic is one of the pieces from that little suite. And you can tell, this is, indeed, a vintage piano. This recording also predates my studio and I recorded this in my living room while my children were at school and my husband was at work. Will I ever re-record the Animal Dances on my Steinway? I doubt it. They wouldn't be for Vintage Piano any more. I still love the voice of that old Lindeman piano, which the Steinway dealer took straight to Nashville when I traded pianos. I wonder who is playing it now.



As always, I ask you to do me the favor of sharing Dogwood Daughter with someone else.  I have no advertising budget, just word of mouth from kind folks like you!

Be Well and Good Luck,

Martha Maria 

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