Tunnels of Discovery
Leafcutter was commissioned by Clive Farrell, who maintains a colony of leafcutter ants at his Butterfly Farm in Stratford-upon-Avon. He had met Nicola by chance while she was selling copies of The Magic Makers at a Book Fair in Sherborne and, unsurprisingly, was immediately attracted to her wonderful art work. Clive read the story, decided that I had a “quirky mind” and asked if the two of us would produce a book for him. He suggested that it might be interesting to include a central character who, like Alice in Wonderland, could shrink down and enter the formicary, or ants’ nest.
Given all the wonders of Nature, I’m confident I should never have written a book about the leafcutter had it not been for Clive’s commission but … as I progressed with my research into them, ably assisted by Richard Lamb, I became increasingly intrigued. I should say that Richard is a Chartered Biologist and Member of the Royal Society of Biology. He is a highly-regarded etymologist and kindly agreed to check the accuracy of all of my references to leafcutter ants. Richard is also the Managing Director of Stratford Butterfly Farm.
Why did I become intrigued? Perhaps the best answer is to quote a few lines from near the end of the book. Leafcutter ants:
have been on the earth for over 150 million years. Apart from human society, theirs is the most complex on the planet. They were the planet’s first farmers. They show us a world which sustains itself by the remarkable phenomenon of a collective brain. Individuals will sacrifice themselves for the safety of the colony. Many scientists now see the ant colonies as giant computers which can solve difficult problems … The ants’ navigational skills are even helping us to launch space ships in new ways.” (p.36.)
At Clive’s Butterfly Farm, there is an exhibition about the Maya, linked to his Butterfly Ranch in Belize, and it occurred to me that this narrative would be ideal for children following the Key Stage 2 curriculum. Crossing over Science, Humanities, English and Art, the story offers starting points for the discussion of habitat, conservation, third world economics, other cultures and traditions, the development of mathematics, questions of gender – with the Queen dominant in the formicary, etc.
Finally, looking at the soldier ants (these are female too), I was somehow reminded of the heads of the soldiers on the famous Bayeux Tapestry. Nicola and I worked closely to produce a six-panel pull-out tapestry insert for the back of the book. It is visually striking, gives a brief account of the Bayeux Tapestry, shows the different activities of the ants, is packed with facts and, if that were not enough, has a simple ballad relating to the life of the ants at the top of the panels.