I displaced a rock in Tennessee. Underneath, huddled at one edge of the exposed dirt, was a colony of ants. The slender ants moved slowly in the cool spring morning, and I had a long look at them before they vanished down their hole. The queen was fat and glamorous. Around her were tiny, silver eggs, chubby larvae, and pupae folded like mummies inside translucent cases. At the edge of the colony, surrounded by a small pile of ant garbage–heads, legs, and other shiny but unidentifiable parts–were two seeds. How had the seeds found their way into the ants’ tunnels?
With patience and the fortitude to sit still when an ant clambers over you, you might easily learn the answer for yourself. The first thing to do is to turn over the next rock, or poke into a nearby log. Rocks and logs are windows into the secret life of the soil; the views are fleeting but, at least to children and biologists, mesmerizing. Over many seasons of rock-turning and log-poking, I have found thousands of ant colonies, many containing seeds. Among the seeds have been dozens of plant species, including bedstraw, buttercup, fairy bells, green and gold, ornamental onion, silverleaf, violet, woodrush, and Wright’s nut-rush. You, too, will find them, in small piles, inside ant colonies or on the small hummocks of garbage deposited neatly nearby. If you live in eastern North America, you might discover the seeds of half the species of forest and meadow flowers, perhaps even more.