As a behavioral ecologist, I was asking of the natural world the very questions I was too scared to ask of myself and those around me.
Field biologists converge in demeanor with the organisms that we study. I heard this sentiment early on in my time as a student of behavioral ecology and many times thereafter. The statement felt true the moment I heard it—the people I knew who studied hummingbirds and field crickets moved with their energies and sang with their voices; the ones working with plants seemed rooted, somehow, while those studying lizards looked inquisitive and bright-eyed. But when I turned to myself, I found that I tucked away and ignored the little voice in my head that asked, “What does it mean that you can’t seem to settle on a single organism to study?”
I eventually came to understand that, as a behavioral ecologist, I was asking of the natural world the very questions I was too scared to ask of myself and those around me. I had so many questions about how to exist in this world, and it seemed impossible that a single organism could hold all the answers. Rather, I found that different creatures hold the keys to different doors, with each door leading away from a different difficult situation. After all, any living creature on this planet has an evolutionary history exactly as long as the evolutionary history of any other living creature, stretching billions of years between the moment when life began and right now. Those that are here are still here; it is almost tautologically simple to see that every one of them knows how to survive. I believed that by asking the right questions of the right organisms, and piecing together the answers as one would a puzzle, I would see a way to make it through my own life, this life that seemed otherwise impossibly fearful and alone.
Remarkably, this worked. As I have grown to become a scientist studying insects, birds, plants, lizards, birds and plants, lizards again, spiders, and now lizards and insects again, I have also grown to understand how to be human. How, in particular, to be me.
The very first organism I studied, the one that drew me into the world of behavioral ecology, was the antlion. In the larval stage, which lasts most of its life, the antlion builds a small conical pit in the ground and waits in stillness at the bottom for roving insects to fall in. It senses the falling grains of sand, then the scrambling of a surprised insect. Below, the antlion is ready, its head poised and its formidable jaws wide open. Flicking its head back sharply, the antlion throws grains of sand at the already-slipping insect, hoping that it will slip further. When the moment seems right, the antlion snaps its jaws shut and then, maybe suddenly or maybe after a struggle, things within the pit quiet down again. In time, the little larva reaps its reward, sucking up whatever nutrition the prey has to offer.
When I was sixteen, I came to love antlions in a way that I loved nothing else. The seed of this love was planted on a single afternoon long before, when my brother had shown me how to feed antlions with ants. My love sprouted and grew when I began studying these insects for a high school biology project, in a boarding school far from any city in the south of India, a pocket of green surrounded by scrubby hills and farmland. The antlions lived in patches of sand, sheltered by the eaves of our dormitory building, and I would collect them during my afternoon rest hour. I came to recognize the signs of pits that were tended to by an animal and could distinguish them from the pits that had been abandoned. I perfected my extraction technique, digging with a teaspoon and sifting delicately through the sand to pick out even the tiniest of these little insects. And I watched rapt as they scuttled backward in an empty petri dish, naked and seemingly terrified. I felt relief on their behalf when they sank back into the sand, in the confines of a plastic box I had prepared for them. These boxes were lined up on the table beside my dorm room bed. We slept side by side, the antlions and I.
By studying them, I asked questions about their agency: What did they choose to do in a life that offered them so few choices?
Within each box, I gave a single antlion a single choice between two distinct environments. After a day, I recorded the environment that the antlion chose—fine sand over coarse, a shaded area over an unshaded area, an uncluttered surface over one cluttered with dried leaves and twigs. Through my arrangement of materials within these boxes, I asked each antlion a question, and they answered in their own way. I admired the antlions’ capacity to know what they wanted; I could not envision such self-knowledge for myself.
Antlions live at a remove, from the world and from each other. They dwell alone at the bottom of a hole in the ground, a layer or more of sand between them and everything else. They sometimes go weeks without eating any prey, surviving in a world that continues as if they don’t exist. They largely wait for their lives to happen to them. But by studying them, I asked questions about their agency: What did they choose to do in a life that offered them so few choices?
My childhood, and the parents who grew me, didn’t leave me with too much room for choices either. Just glancing at our home, you likely wouldn’t have imagined it to be that way. My parents ran an architecture firm together, in a world and at a time where architecture was largely a man’s domain. My father’s work is beautiful, my mother’s brilliant. They appeared to be two liberated people, and so you’d think they would have raised me to be free. But our lives, like those of the antlions, were shaped by constraints. Certain shackles lived on within my parents because hurt people hurt people, ad infinitum.
To my young self, my parents’ architecture firm seemed like an endless series of crises. All through my early childhood, I spent long hours sitting in a corner of their office, being quiet and keeping myself occupied. As my mother issued instructions, I listened to her treat every minor error as a grave affront to her design sensibilities, every departure from her plan as treason. A mistake was never just a mistake: It was an indictment of a perpetrator’s character and capabilities. And sometimes—not often, but without warning and after long stretches of affability—my father erupted too, in an anger that was never proportionate to the provocation. This melody scored the background to my hours in their office, the high unsettled notes of my mother’s incessant feelings of victimization accompanied by the deep bass tones of my father’s periodic rage.
Back then, my parents’ attitudes were uncomplicated facts that were my responsibility to accommodate. It was many years before I saw her relentless negativity and his alternating silence and anger as just two of many possible responses to difficult situations. At the time, I thought that I was supposed to employ my sharpest faculties of observation and reason to understand the logic underlying their reactions. To me, being my parents’ child meant calculating the personality I could inhabit to escape their varied shades of ire. This calculus was manageable when the targets of their anger were distant from me—staff in the office or strangers on the street. It was harder when their targets were within our home or family—the lady employed to care for me, my older brother, each other. And anger released doesn’t dissipate so much as reverberate through any soul in its way. I don’t remember how old I was when I sat on the floor, holding my mother’s wrist as my father yelled. Her pulse was more a hum than a rhythm, and in that moment, I couldn’t fathom a future in which she wouldn’t explode. I don’t remember how old I was when I sat at the dinner table, watching my mother screaming back at my father, threatening to saw at her own belly with a bread knife. And all through this, I watched and listened silently, learning how to be invisible.
It has taken me decades to find the words to describe this experience of living at a distance, and when I found the words, I immediately understood why I had loved antlions. Growing up, I felt as though I lived at the bottom of a deep hole, the rest of the world bustling along on the surface far above. To talk to me, to get to know me, anyone who cared would have had to talk into the bottom of the hole, their voices raised just enough that our conversation was bound to be an inconvenience. The hole was too deep even for light; when people told me I was beautiful, I couldn’t believe them. Without any light and from so far away, how on earth could they see me well enough to know?
I proved that I could know these animals despite their remove, and that someone might know me despite mine.
And so, at sixteen, antlions were a revelation. I reached out to antlions from the bottom of my hole to the bottoms of theirs; each time I collected data on them, performed a statistical analysis, and calculated a significant result, I proved that I could know these animals despite their remove, and that someone might know me despite mine.
Adult antlions are as elusive as the larvae are commonplace. Relative to the many months or years that antlions spend as larvae, they live mere days as adults, and in this time, they seek nothing but connection. Winged creatures that look like dragonflies of the night, antlions have whole new dimensions opened up to them after their metamorphosis. They first search for a mate and then search for a place to lay their eggs, and then they die. Brief as it is, for the larvae that make it, adulthood appears to offer a chance at a different life.
The adult antlion flew into our boarding school dorm quite late one night and positioned itself along a sharp corner of a pillar, in a hallway that was open to a courtyard and the starry sky. I’d never seen an adult antlion before, and yet I knew exactly what it was. That recognition touched something deep within me—I knew these animals well enough to still know them after transformation. They were the same, and yet they were entirely different. I ran for my camera to snap pictures of the antlion as it fluttered from column to column in the dim hallway light.
Two of my closest friends shared in my excitement, even as they were unable to comprehend the disproportion of my response. But for once, I did not care that I was incomprehensible. I now recognize the feeling of connection to the antlion that I felt so forcefully. I feel the same warm exploding glow when I look into my love’s eyes, the same quiet rescue when my therapist gently asks me to look up at her instead of down into my hands, the same delight when a stranger and I both notice a shared gorgeous sunset. I now construe these moments of connection as the moments when god touches my life directly. I now smile when I realize that god first came to me as an antlion.
My mother knew that she would die before she was sixty-five. An astrologer told her, and everything else this astrologer said came true, so she had no reason to doubt. Except one thing—he said that she would die before her husband. In truth, her husband, my father, died ten and a half months before she did.
There is a film about my mother, released in 1999, about her work and vision as an architect, a builder of spaces and of worlds. In this film, her voice is softer, gentler than I recall. She talks of connections—between people, their tools, and their livelihoods. She describes the power of mapping these connections in space, the power of manifesting these connections physically in a sketch or drawing. Captured on video, my mother’s eyes brighten and her shoulders move in emphasis as she describes coming to know every member of an artisans’ community for whom she had been tasked with designing new and permanent homes. “I knew every child, I knew every family, I knew every quarrel,” she says, cheekily almost.
This design, Anandgram or the Village of Joy, is from the 1980s, at the very start of my mother’s career. She tells the filmmaker how this design process was participatory, community based, grounded in listening and dialogue. Anandgram remains unbuilt. Instead, in 2009, a plan to house this community in multistory apartments was announced, after the sale of part of their land to a private builder.
I am reminded of Anandgram when I watch a nest of hundreds of tent caterpillars, a mix of siblings and strangers that live their larval lives in complex community with one another, with the trees they live in and feed on, with parasites and predators and all kinds of other beings. I see individual caterpillars in sync, communicating simply and yet mysteriously as they spin a shared shelter. As they perambulate in slow circles on the surface of the silken tent that houses them and on which they leave scent trails. As they set off together down branches to find the next patch of cherry leaves to feed on. As they return to huddle together through chilly spring nights. Their lives depend on consuming the very leaves that sometimes shelter them from cold and sometimes block them from sunlight, leaves on saplings and trees whose lives are, in turn, unquestionably altered by the caterpillars they find themselves home to. One day, even these caterpillars will become moths.
Half my life ago, watching an insect larva, I saw nothing but loneliness; now, watching another, I see connection. Along the way, I’ve learned from all manner of animals that connection looks like many different things. From here, I can turn back to antlions and see that, in their own way, they too find the connections that sustain them. We each are who we need to be, in this moment and in all moments, and yet, we change.
Last week I watched two crows and a hawk, soaring with one another in sharp blue skies. Dipping and rising, one after the next, they form an inexplicable harmony. In their shadow, anything feels possible.